French minister offers plans to ease prison blockades

PARIS (AP) — France's justice minister proposed new plans to improve working conditions in prisons on Thursday, in an effort to end a nationwide blockade launched by guards complaining about poor security.

After two failed rounds of negotiations, Nicole Belloubet proposed boosting security to protect guards from the most dangerous inmates and offered better pay for guards during meetings with union leaders at the Justice Ministry's headquarters.

Two guards unions, FO and CGT, rejected the proposed plan on Thursday evening. The largest union, UFAP-UNSA, did not immediately announce its decision.

As the protest entered its 11th day, the justice ministry said it would create room for 1,500 radicalized convicts to be housed in special units. That's in addition to the high-security cells already housing 150 "extremely dangerous" inmates. The ministry said that 450 places would be available by the end of the year to "deal with these dangerous profiles."

At the moment, some radicalized convicts are placed among the general prison population, which guards say leads to radicalization of other inmates.

Belloubet told RTL radio on Thursday evening she was ready to implement the plan regardless of the unions' reaction because the guards "deserve it". "I hope we can move toward the end of the crisis," she said.

The national protest started after a radicalized inmate attacked three guards with a knife at a high-security prison in northern France. The Jan.11 attack at Vendin-le-Vieil was carried out by Christian Ganczarski, a German who converted to Islam and was sentenced to 18 years in prison for his involvement in a 2002 attack on a synagogue in Tunisia that left 21 people dead.

More attacks have since been reported in about half-dozen prisons, fuelling the guard's anger and demands.

The ministry added that guards' safety will be improved through new measures including better searches in prisons. Guards will also be equipped with new gear including concealed bullet-proof jackets and handheld personal security alarms.

The new plan also offers the addition of 1,100 new jobs over four years, and increasing the annual bonus for guards to 1,400 euros ($1,750) per year.

The protest is the largest of its kind in years, with the majority of France's 188 prisons affected to various degrees. A spokesman for the penitentiary administration told The Associated Press that guards were protesting at 116 prisons Thursday.

The protests have also affected inmates, with reduced time out of their cells because of the lack of guards available.

Some 4,000 acts of aggressions against guards are recorded per year, according to prison officials.

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