As part of the “Infrarouge” program, director Cécile Tartakovsky followed the return to school of four inmates from the Nanterre remand center.
Betting on education to fight against recidivism, such is the challenge of Sylvie Pare, director of a school like no other. His school is located in the heart of the Nanterre remand center (Hauts-de-Seine). It was there that journalist Cécile Tartakovsky slipped her camera among the 260 men, over a thousand prisoners, who had chosen to resume their studies, the director of behind the bars, school*, chose to follow four of them for a year, and gives franceinfo his impressions of this immersion.
Franceinfo: Why did you decide to deal with this subject?
Cecile Tartakovsky: In June 2019, I had heard on the radio Sylvie Paré, the director of the Nanterre prison school center, speak with passion about her rather special schoolchildren. She had mentioned the adult students in her care, who had chosen to take advantage of their detention to pass diplomas. Listening to him, I said to myself that school in prison was a rather unknown subject, even if it has existed for more than 20 years, and that there is a school center in each prison in France.
So I contacted her, and she invited me two days later to Nanterre. She introduced me to the premises, her team of teachers and detailed the profile of her students: those, adults, who come to pass all kinds of diplomas, and minors for whom school is compulsory. After this first contact, I said to myself that I absolutely had to make a documentary. With the green light from Sylvie Paré, the Nanterre prison and finally the prison administration, the adventure began in 2020.
Obviously, the Covid-19 delayed the project, even if we managed to shoot ten days before the first confinement. Two students had agreed to shoot with their faces uncovered, which was particularly valuable. Then, we came back in March 2022, and during this period, two other students joined the project. We were therefore able to follow four detainees in total.
Do teachers have special training to teach in prison?
Yes, they have training that allows them to teach in a prison environment for complicated students. You cannot go, as a teacher, from a classic school environment to prison. They must first complete specific training for adolescents and adults with learning difficulties. This gives them the opportunity to teach either in Segpa classes (which welcomes students with lasting learning difficulties) in college, or in school centers in prisons.
The important thing that teachers must do above all is to see if they are able to bear the detention, because they have to lock themselves up with the detainees every day. They leave their personal belongings, their phone and purse outside. They go into a bubble in which they are cut off from everything except the sounds inherent in the world of detention: the sound of keys, doors slamming, prisoners screaming… They do an internship to see if they are able to handle all of this in the long run, and a number of teachers just can’t do it at all.
Are these teachers afraid of the violence that could emerge?
Among young adult men, violence is very rare and is never directed at teachers. They are adults and realize how lucky they are to be able to get out of their cells and spend time in class. They are rather mature, so the violence is not very present.
On the other hand, in minors, it is more complicated. (…) Adolescence is a rather explosive period. They often come from families in which things are not going well at all, sometimes have mental and psychological problems… Forcing them to go to a classroom, when they have hyper-conflictual relationships with a school environment in which they do not already felt not integrated outside, can create situations of violence.
Sylvie Paré also explains that teachers must always keep in mind that they are dealing with young people who can explode at any time. They need to know how to handle this kind of situation if it happens. In addition, there is always a supervisor nearby who can intervene. If these teachers were afraid on a daily basis, they would not be able to come and teach. But they never forget where they are: they remain alert and hypervigilant.
In Nanterre, have there never been any dramas?
No. Teachers have already been scared because of radiators torn from walls and used as projectiles, computers flying, but there have never been any real attacks. However, for a very long time, the teachers were locked by the supervisors in the classrooms with the students, to prevent the latter from escaping. This created a very special atmosphere and generated stress for the teachers. Now the doors are open, it’s more comfortable for them, but it happens that some students take the opportunity to sneak into another class to settle accounts with other schoolchildren.
Do these teachers have feedback on graduate prisoners, once released from prison?
There are three scenarios. First, there are prisoners who return to prison after being released. They continue their course, but inevitably, the teachers say to themselves that it is a failure, even if they keep hope and say to themselves that (their approach) may one day give something positive.
Then there are those they don’t hear about at all, and finally those who come to thank them. During the filming, precisely, a former student waited for Sylvie Paré in the parking lot to offer her flowers and thank her, because thanks to her, he had found a job.
More than diplomas, success or the fact of continuing to study outside, the important thing is to restore their self-confidence, so that they can tell themselves that they are worth something, that they can try their luck elsewhere than in delinquency. This is the very essence of the work of these teachers.
What impressed you the most?
I was afraid at the start of making too sympathetic on the screen men who had all the same committed misdemeanors and crimes. Eventually, this feeling disappeared, I decided to completely conceal their misdeeds. Teachers do the same thing, and do not want to know the packages of their students, because that would necessarily change the way they look at them. The detainees are sufficiently judged elsewhere. The teachers are listening if the student needs to talk about it, but it stops there.
So I did the same, and I chose to focus the film on their approach and the reasons that led them to cross the threshold of this school centre. And then over time, I discovered men who wanted to learn, who had a sense of humor, perspective, who did not seek to victimize themselves, who took responsibility for their pain. They were aware that they had done something wrong, and wanted to use this downtime in their lives and do something constructive with it for the future. I found it reassuring to see these men come and lock themselves in a classroom every day to learn.
* The documentary “Behind bars, school”, directed by Cécile Tartakovsky, is broadcast as part of the program “Infrared”Wednesday at 10:45 p.m. on France 2 and on france.tv.