Field Notes

Poking Around the Prisons

By Molly Moore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 28, 2008; 5:16 PM

Today we're inaugurating a new feature called Field Notes to give you a sense of the story behind the story. These journals -- a glimpse at the way our correspondents work -- will occasionally accompany dispatches from abroad on the web and in print.

PARIS, April 28--Four months ago, I was poking around the filthy, cobweb-encrusted kitchen of an abandoned prison in the southern France tourist town of Avignon.

The government had hopes of a fancy hotel chain buying a former prison -- built in 1865 -- and turning it into a luxury resort. I was there to do a feature on the attempted conversion.

I spotted an old chalk board on the kitchen wall with a list of the numbers of meals served up on the last day the prison was open in 2003. There were cryptic letters next to some of the columns. The letters turned out to represent the number of meals served to Muslim inmates.

Of 326 prisoners, 171 -- or 52 percent -- were Muslim.

It seemed like an unusually high figure for a country where an estimated 12 percent of the general population is Muslim.

I started doing more poking.

But in a nation that doesn't allow its government agencies to collect data on race, religion or ethnicity, prison officials declined to discuss any such numbers.

Our Paris bureau researcher, Corinne Gavard, and I began looking for other sources.

We found a gold mine in an earnest young man named Moussa Khedimellah, who'd spent four years inside French prisons interviewing inmates as a researcher for book about Muslims in French and British prisons. In a field where few people have done serious research because of the difficulty of getting access to the prisons and the lack of official data, Khedimellah and his colleagues had gathered some of the most comprehensive and insightful data available.

We then began contacting imams who worked inside the prisons.

But I wanted to go inside the prisons myself.

Our request to visit the largest prison with one of the most troubled Muslim populations just outside of Paris was rejected by the authorities, who said they didn't have a proper room to welcome us.

Our request at a second prison was turned down because the director was new and hadn't dealt with journalists yet.

After dozens of phone calls and letters, and with the help of an unusual couple -- Hassan and Samia and El Alaoui Talibi , a husband-wife team ministering to Muslims in prisons in the Lille area -- we were given permission to visit Lille-Sequedin Detention Center near the northern city of Lille.

The prison is France's newest and is a virtual penal showcase. It was large, airy and clean. Most prisoners had private cells with their own shower and bathroom. The director was a 33-year-old woman who is featured in the prison system's latest recruiting film for new administrators.

I kept thinking back to my tour of the 143-year-old prison in Avignon where this story idea was hatched in front of a kitchen blackboard.

The taxi driver who took us to the prison told us he used to be a dental assistant at the old Avignon prison before it closed five years ago.

"They had rats in there as long as your arm," he said, taking his arm off the steering wheel to demonstrate the rodent size.

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