In our day and age with crime on the up and more and more prisons being constructed, a prison here in Paris has actually closed. It is La Santé – Maison d’arrêt de la Santé – last of Paris’s intra-muros jails. And along with Fresnes and Fleury-Mérogis one of Paris and its region largests. […]

La Sante Prison

La Sante Prison


In our day and age with crime on the up and more and more prisons being constructed, a prison here in Paris has actually closed.

It is La Santé – Maison d’arrêt de la Santé – last of Paris’s intra-muros jails. And along with Fresnes and Fleury-Mérogis one of Paris and its region largests. (Fleury-Mérogis is also Europe’s largest.)

Since last December France’s Ministry of Justice has been transferring La Santé’s inmates to other jails, and at 6 a.m. on Sunday, July 20, the final 60 were driven away in police vans – paniers à salade (salad basket)  – to serve the rest of their incarceration sentences in another prison, that of Saran outside the town of Orléans.

La Santé in Paris’s 14th district – arrondissement – with a capacity of 1400 had these past years been home to around 2300 at a time, and one of the inmates’ complaints was that due to such overcrowding when there was a call from nature they had to oblige in front of their cell mates.

I am inclined to say ‘poor things’, as the prison in its 147 years of existence (was opened in 1867) has been home to a fair share of France’s criminals – thieves, robbers, rapists and murderers, the latter having had their heads chopped off with the guillotine in one of the prison’s courtyards.

One such murderer was Dr Marcel Petiot, subject of my book DIE IN PARIS.

Dr Marcel Petiot

Dr Marcel Petiot

I am going to share with you what I wrote in my book about La Santé and Petiot’s execution, but first I will say that the prison, divided into four blocks had been practising a perfect system of apartheid in that each block was reserved for an ethnic group. Block A was for West Europeans; Block B for Africans; Block C for Arabs, and Block D for the rest.

Paris intra-muros still indeed needing a jail, La Santé will not be gone for ever and ever: it will reopen in 2019, renovated, and to house just 800 criminals of whom 95% will have comfy cells of their own.

France having abolished capital punishment no one will however be guillotined there again.

Guillotine's blade in the Conciergerie in Paris

Guillotine’s blade in the Conciergerie in Paris


If you have never been inside a prison and want to see what one looks like, and especially what this one looks like, you will be able to visit it on the weekend of September 20-21 France’s Heritage Days – Journées du patrimoine. I will be there.

The prison is on Rue de la Santé and the nearest Metro station is Port-Royal which is in the 5th arrondissement and just a stone’s throw from the prison. When you exit the station, walk left along Boulevard Port-Royal, cross at the first traffic light and the first street on the right is Rue de la Santé. The prison is all along the right-hand side of the long, narrow street.


Here now two extracts from my book DIE IN PARIS. If you are going to want to read more after having read these two extracts, you can order my book on any Amazon site.

Extract 1 (To recap: It is October 1944 and since the month of August Paris has been liberated from German occupation. On Tuesday, October 31 at 7 A.M. Petiot was arrested. I call him Marcel throughout my book.)

{ Marcel spent the night in a cell down in the Quay’s basement. He fell asleep the moment his head hit the pillow. He slept soundly all through the night.

In the morning, he was driven to La Santé Prison. It being November 1, All Saints’ Day, a bank holiday, his interrogation would resume the following day.

Before its opening on August 20, 1867, La Santé in Paris’s fourteenth arrondissement had been hailed for its creature comforts. Real beds, a steady temperature of 15 degrees Celcius and a sewage system when Parisians still had to wait until 1889 before they could enjoy one, enthused a journalist to report that it was ‘without argument, the most beautiful prison in Europe’, and a member of parliament to declare in a parliamentary debate that a ‘majority of the inmates will find a standard of well-being there that they did not even have in their own homes’.

The jail was built in an area first urbanised in 1607 when a maison de santé – a hospice – was constructed on the spot to receive the victims of a pest epidemic. The hospice had evolved into a two hectare quadrilateral prison, comprising a lower and upper area. The lower, on Rue de la Santé, consisted of the administrative buildings, a large X-shaped block with a chapel in its centre, and a cour d’honneur – a ceremonial courtyard; it was in the courtyard that the guillotine was always set up. The upper, bordered by Boulevard Arago, Rue Jean Dolent and Rue Messier, consisted of cell blocks which housed almost five thousand inmates on Marcel’s arrival. The previous July, a month before the Liberation of Paris, the inmates had rebelled briefly against their jailers. Like Fresnes, some of the warders were German, but Prison Director Jean Farge, and Maurice Couget, his second in command, were French. The inmates had hung sheets painted blue, white and red – two of the French jailers had smuggled the paint into the prison – from the cell windows and shouted Vive la France and sang the ‘La Marseillaise’. The rebellion had begun at 4 P.M. on July 14, Bastille Day, the French National Day, and ended one hour later. Although Couget – Farge was absent – had called in the police and Prefect Bussière had rushed over personally to take command, the night that followed had been disturbed only by a lone voice singing the International. The next day, fifty of the rebellion leaders had been brought in front of a court martial presided over by the Milice. Twenty-eight of the leaders had been sentenced to death; they were shot in groups of seven in one of the prison’s courtyards. Each group had to watch the execution of the previous one.

Marcel was locked into Block 7, Cell 7 on Rue Dolent. Block 7 was Death Row. He was to be held in solitary confinement; he would be allowed neither visitors nor parcels. The cell was 2.5 metres long and two metres wide and the ceiling was at a height of three metres. The door was made of stout wood. He had a table, a stool, and a metal fold-down platform which served as his bed. The table and stool were chained to the floor and the fold-down platform to a wall. In the floor, in one corner, was a hole; it was the toilet and the washing facility that had been bragged of once. His first night he was handcuffed and chained to the floor by his ankles. That was how he was to spend every night of the time he was to remain in prison, but not for a moment did he think it would be how he would spend every night that was left of his life. }

Extract 2: (It is Saturday, May 25, 1946 and Petiot found guilty of the murder of 26 people is about to be guillotined.)

{ It was always preferable that death should come quickly to the condemned. Therefore, Desfourneaux and his three assistants worked fast. They pulled Marcel towards the guillotine; they did not look left or right. They did not even seem to waste time to breathe.

“Don’t look, gentlemen; this won’t be pretty,” said Marcel, looking over his shoulder at those who had come to see him die. He was smiling.

The ‘gentlemen’ stood well away. They wore their best suits. Those too had been expensive and blood could splatter.

Desfourneaux took Marcel by the arm and pushed him against the bascule, the guillotine’s vertically-positioned tilting board. Rapidly, two of his assistants swung wide leather belts around Marcel’s torso and legs and tied him to the board. They pushed the bascule down into a horizontal position until it was level with the lunette, the device that kept the condemned’s head in position. Desfourneaux was waiting and as the bascule came to a halt, he grabbed Marcel’s head and pushed it through the lunette. Suddenly, Marcel began to thrash about as if he wanted to get up and run away. With ease that came from years of experience, Desfourneaux, with both hands, held him down by the shoulders. Marcel calmed and became still; the reflex had passed, the storm had ended; he had accepted the abyss. He turned his head and looked and smiled at Desfourneaux. The latter’s face betrayed not a trace of emotion, but his left hand was moving towards the déclic that, when pushed down, would release the blade that would rob Marcel of his life. The blade was oblique. Such a blade had been found to be far more effective than a straight-edged one. A straight blade was inclined to crush the neck rather than to severe it. It made guillotining an altogether messier procedure. Desfourneaux’s third assistant was standing directly in front of the lunette, but behind a wooden shield that would protect him from Marcel’s blood. Between the lunette and the shield stood a wicker basket. As Marcel’s head appeared through the lunette, he grabbed it by the hair; it was imperative that a condemned’s head should not move. Had Marcel been bald, he would have grabbed him around the top of his head.

Desfourneaux pressed the déclic. The guillotine’s blade was attached to a metal block known as the mouton. Its purpose was to add speed and force to the blade. The mouton weighed thirty kilograms; the blade seven. Three bolts that kept the blade in place weighed a kilogram each. That was a total of forty kilograms: it hit Petiot’s neck with a dull and very sharp thud.

It was 5:05 A.M.

Marcel’s head fell into the wicker basket. }


Die in Paris

Die in Paris

OK, you want to read on? Go to Amazon and there you will find either the paperback of DIE IN PARIS or the e-book.

The ashes of Petiot's victims.

The ashes of Petiot’s victims.

Marilyn Z. Tomlins

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