How France Turned Two Old Prisons Into A New University Campus

Rehabilitation of Saint-Paul penitentiary
Rehabilitation of Saint-Paul penitentiary
Christian Lecomte

LYON â€" In 2012, you could still catch sight of "yoyos" hanging from the jail cell windows. A yoyo, in French prison jargon, is a cord inmates throw through window bars to reach another cell and retrieve various objects. At the Saint-Paul and adjacent Saint-Joseph penitentiaries, in downtown Lyon, inmates could even get stuff from outside the prison wall.

Four years later, the old detention facilities, just south of the Perrache train station, have been transformed to welcome a different group of people: students. Glass structures have gone up in replacement of the old prison walls. Other elements â€" like an old guard tower â€" have been preserved.

In fact, the whole nearby neighborhood of Confluences, where the Rhône and Saône rivers merge, is experiencing a frenetic building spree and modernization process that, like the Saint-Paul/Saint-Joseph project, looks to blend new elements with the old structures already in place.

The two downtown prisons were built in the mid-19th century and remained in operation until 2009. Six years later they reopened their doors, only this time as a campus for 6,000 students of the Lyon Catholic University (UCLy). "Turning a prison into a university means transforming a detention site into an area of freedom," the school's chief education officer, Thierry Magnin, said of the rehabilitation project.

Authorities initially planned to demolish the old jails. Anything else was deemed too expensive. Plus, the prisons, known popularly as the "Marmite du Diable" (devil's cauldron), were rundown and over-populated, with a higher-than-average suicide rate. "But the proposal prompted a public outcry," says Thierry Roche, one of the architects and town-planners in charge of the project. "The residents were very attached to the buildings."

Many figures from the local underworld spent time behind these walls. It was also here that Klaus Barbie, the former head of the local Gestapo during World War II, spent his final years before succumbing to cancer in 1991.

Preserving the past

In response to the outcry, the departmental government launched a call for rehabilitation projects. They received many different proposals, including one for construction of an aquatic center and another to turn the area into a vast paintball battlefield. The best, as it turned out, was the plan put forth by the UCLy, which was quickly outgrowing its former grounds, at the Place Bellecour.

The first order of business was to free the prisons of their suffocating walls, barbed wire and netting system. The latter had been put into place to prevent helicopters from landing. The designers were careful, however, not to destroy all of the old structures. Preserving the memory of the old prisons was a priority.

"This explains why the outer wall is still surrounding the whole site though it is now only 4-feet high," Roche explains. "Similarly, the star-shaped central building, where the cells were located, was kept as it was. It now hosts the university administrative office. The only cells that were demolished were those deemed too cramped or just unusuable. The whole new site includes 70 classrooms, 20 lecture theatres, one library, some co-working spaces, one restaurant and one fitness room."

In all, the UCLy spent 82 million euros on the project. Most of the costs were covered by loans, private donations, regional government financial aid and the resale of UCLy’s former site. Created in 1875, the UCLy is an affiliate of the University of Lyon and is open to all students.

Tainted by scandal

The glass wall at the Saint-Paul-side entrance of the campus opens onto an interior street that students can follow over to Saint-Joseph, which also went under a process of renovation and now hosts offices and housing. "Technically, it is a traboule, a traditional narrow passageway in Lyon that links two apartment blocks together," Roche says of the interior street.

Here and there are reminders â€" memorial sculptures, graffiti, messages carved in stone walls â€" of the inmates who once lived here. "Bibi here for 10 years," reads one message. "Fanfan here for life," says another.

An underground gallery links both prisons together. It is still not open to the public. Some frescos painted in 1988 by inmates at the behest of Didier Chamizon â€" a former inmate and French Street Art pioneer â€" will be exhibited at a later date.

The students seem delighted to study in a place that embraces its historical background while managing to alleviate the heaviness of it. “Former inmates probably come back here to remember," one student reflects. "We cross paths with them without knowing who they really are. I really would like to meet them and listen to their stories."

At one point the planners thought about leaving one of the old cells as is â€" to give visitors a glimpse of what conditions at the detention facilities were really like. But in the end they opted for "a clean break from the past" and dropped the idea, according to Roche.

Some students say there's an irony in the university's choice of locations given the pedophile scandal currently shaking the Catholic Church in Lyon. The stories of French priests molesting 15-year-old boys and girls have certainly tarnished the school. One of the priests, a member of the diocese who was given an 18-month suspended sentence in 2007 for sexually molesting four students, still taught pastoral theology at the UCLy last year.

Students are also shocked by the news that Philippe Barbarin, Archbishop of Lyon, probably knew about the case but did nothing. "Education here is based on religious morality instilled by members of the church," says Claudie, an economics student at UCLy. "Even university students can be abused and say nothing because of the shame and the sense of guilt they may feel."

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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