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

LYON — 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 — like an old guard tower — 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 — memorial sculptures, graffiti, messages carved in stone walls — 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 — a former inmate and French Street Art pioneer — 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 — 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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