“Is there another exit?”
“I don’t think so,” I laughed. “I’m guessing it’s kind of the concept here. You aren’t supposed to sneak out through a back door.”
We were almost done visiting Nantes’ historical prison, a former detention centre turned into an ephemeral art project. Built in 1867, it will be demolished soon. The last 400 prisoners were moved to another location in 2012 during a secret high-risk transfer.
My high school was a few metres from place Aristide Briand, a large square with the majestic courthouse, the national police headquarters and the detention centre. We were used to walking down the street, along the high wall, hearing prisoners inside. Sometime, they would have loud conversations with friends or relatives standing outside. Looking back, I realize how unusual it is to have such a high-security place in the heart of the city centre, metres from a high school and a middle school. But to us, it was normal. “This is where you’re gonna end up!” teachers would threaten an unruly classroom, pointing to the prison.
A few years ago, a new modern courthouse was built and the historical one was turned into a four-star Radisson Hotel. The police headquarters was renovated and converted into fancy apartments. The prison will be demolished next year and there will be nothing left of Nantes’ “law and order” district.
I wanted to see the exhibition but I was also curious to step inside a detention centre.
“Have you ever been there?” my mom asked as we were lining up.
“Seriously? I think you would have known about it!” I joked.
It was stormy and from the small inner courtyard with high walls and barbwires, the place felt sinister. Being locked up and being wrongfully accused rank at the top of my list of worst nightmares. I think I’d go crazy, counting down the days, hours, minutes.
Even with the amazing drawings and paintings, the detention centre felt claustrophobic with its low ceilings and narrow doorways.
I took a deep breath when we stepped back inside the courtyard and again after we walked through the main door. Free. Phew. Does putting people in jail ever make sense? Maybe to protect citizens in case of a dangerous, violent offender. But as a punishment, deterrent or repression tool, I can’t help feeling imprisonment is needlessly cruel and fairly useless.