Veronique Vasseur, former chief doctor of the Health prison in Paris published a book in 2000 to denounce the living conditions of prisoners. - CHAMUSSY / SIPA
- Maltreatment in Ephad, health risks, dysfunctions of the political system… These men and these women made it possible to reveal scandals until now ignored by the general public.
- Head doctor at the Health prison in Paris in the early 1990s, Véronique Vasseur caused an uproar by publishing a book in 2000 in which she described the prison's unsanitary conditions and the living conditions of prisoners.
- Hailed by the press and the political class, his work gave rise to two commissions of inquiry in the National Assembly and the Senate.
Heroes for some, traitors for others, whistleblowers uncover dysfunctions or wrongdoing and often pay a high price. Alone facing a company, lobbies, pharmaceutical laboratories and even sometimes facing the State, they report a threat or harm in the name of the general interest. 20 Minutes gives them the floor. This week, Véronique Vasseur, former chief doctor at the Health prison, returns to the "whirlwind" caused by her shock book published in 2000 on the living conditions of prisoners.
“I arrived at the Health prison at the beginning of 1993. A friend of my ex-husband was a caretaker in Fresnes, we talked about it and it interested me. I always wanted to see what was going on there so I applied. I became a doctor on call and then a doctor in charge of the prison. The team was made up of doctors, who were on call 24 hours a day, and nurses.
At the time, I knew nothing about the prison environment. Like the vast majority of people, I had no idea what was going on there since testimony "from the inside" was extremely rare apart from that of some lawyers or prison visitors. Journalists were not allowed to go there, it was completely closed and there was no transparency.
"It was indefensible"
I was so stunned by everything I saw that, from the first day, I started taking notes so as not to forget. I had no idea that this would result in the publication of a book. What immediately shocked me, beyond everything related to confinement, was above all the state of unhealthiness, the lack of hygiene that reigned in the prison, and the smell.
“The living conditions of the detainees were terrible at the time, it was untenable, overwhelming. When I came home, I needed to wash, I was impregnated with a smell, a filth, it's very strange feeling. "
I treated pathologies linked to confinement, disorders of the senses, eyesight, smell, digestive disorders, mental pathologies too. Sometimes we also reassured anxieties, we just exchanged a few words with the prisoners. They were cut off from everything, so they came to see the doctor as they went to see the priest.
After my arrival at Health, I was contacted by a journalist from a media with whom I sympathized and it was she who put me in touch with an editor because I had told her that I was taking notes of everything I saw in my work. This is how this project was born.
At the time, the absurdity of the prison system deeply revolted me, and I told myself that the amazement that I felt could also affect the general public. My relatives knew that I was preparing this book, but no one, neither them nor I imagined the impact it was going to have. And all the better in a way, if we think too much, we do nothing.
Outside this circle, many people were aware of this book project, the regional director, the Chancellery, a few colleagues. The only one who was not informed was the director of the prison with whom I had rather tense relations. I felt that I was doing my job properly, but I was caring for people that the institution was ruining, it made no sense. I was not an activist but I became one despite myself.
Death threats and supporters
Immediately after the publication of my book in 2000, I received death threats in writing, anonymous death threats, by telephone at work too, the tires of my motorcycle were punctured and leaflets were distributed to the entrance to the prison about me. They tried to destabilize me but I was carried by the brands of support.
“I received packets of letters, in which detainees, families of detainees expressed their gratitude to me. Jacques Mesrine's wife even called me at my home to congratulate me! "
As I have received the support of many journalists, certain colleagues in the prison but also parliamentarians who decided in the Assembly as in the Senate to launch a commission of inquiry on the state of French prisons after the publication of this book.
The support was overwhelming, so I could handle the hyped media that followed and the pressure. I still lost 8 kg during this period, I didn't have time to eat, it was like a typhoon, the phone kept ringing, I didn't have time to ask myself questions at that time.
A “tenacious bitterness”
The prison administration and the prison administration, of course, were furious. But since I did not depend on them but on the public hospital and the Ministry of Health, I did not care a bit about their reaction.
If it had not been the case, I would probably have lost my job. Once the book was published, it was still very complicated to stay on, it went wrong with management and with some supervisors. I stayed at Health for nine months after that, then I went to practice at Saint-Antoine hospital where I stayed seventeen years. But this frenzy related to the book lasted almost two years in total, it was crazy.
Our whistleblower testimonials
I have not kept any contact since with the prison administration and their resentment is very tenacious, very lasting. When the Health prison was abandoned before the rehabilitation works, it was opened to the public during Heritage Days in 2014. A team of journalists wanted to come accompanied, they offered to go there, I accepted.
Arriving in front of the prison, I asked them if they had informed the management of my presence, they said "no". They ended up doing it and I was denied access to the prison, we were interviewed in front of the building. You imagine ?
“Fourteen years later I have no right to go to a prison, even an abandoned one. That's how I can no longer go to jail. "
My testimony served, I believe, as a trigger on the question of the sanitation of certain penal establishments. Many dilapidated prisons have since closed their doors or have been renovated, such as the Baumettes, Fleury and La Santé. Even if many problems remain in prison, I do not regret having published this book. "
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