FRANCE'S prisons are the worst in Europe and their cells are akin to dungeons in the Middle Ages, according to a watchdog's report yesterday.
Hygiene is "deplorable", with inmates crowded into filthy, rat-infested cells, leading to an explosion in the number of prisoners with infectious diseases, the International Observatory of Prisons (IOP) said.
It described conditions as "catastrophic" and condemned the French government for failing to improve matters. "The situation is totally unworthy of our level of civilisation. Conditions of detention are close to those of the Middle Ages," the Paris-based IOP said.
It blamed the government's tougher sentencing polices for aggravating chronically bad prison conditions without solving the problem of delinquency.
The report said French jails suffered from overcrowding, bad hygiene, rising violence and suicide rates of more than six times the national average - France has Europe's highest suicide rate among prisoners.
The number of suicide attempts rose 10 per cent last year, while incidents of self-wounding and hunger strikes were up 25 per cent.
Violence and revolt against the prison authorities have also increased dramatically - there was a 155 per cent rise in the number of riots last year.
Eight out of ten inmates suffer from psychiatric problems, but access to medical care is limited.
"Fifteen months to treat a toothache - one is less well treated when one is in prison than when one is an animal in the zoo," the main lawyers' union in France said.
Both it and the judges' union described the situation as "detestable".
The IOP also denounced "disproportionate security measures", citing the example of a prisoner who was handcuffed while giving birth at Fleury-Merogis prison, near Paris.
The report placed the blame squarely on policies championed by Nicolas Sarkozy, the interior minister who has stated his intention to run for president in 2007, saying France's conservative government was wrong to fight delinquency with a drive for longer sentences.
Patrick Marest, of the IOP, said: "The deterioration in the condition of the prisons is not due to the inevitable result of incarcerating dangerous people. It is the result of policy choices."
The scandal surrounding the conditions in French jails first broke in 2000 when a doctor at Paris's notorious La Sant prison published a book revealing what life was really like for the country's inmates. Dr Veronique Vasseur said inmates lived in squalor, surrounded by rats and cockroaches, and were subject to brutal rapes and fist fights which were daily occurrences.
"The place remains an inhuman nightmare," she said, "an eternal shame to France."