Pacific Scoop

Jailed union leader calls for probe into ‘terrible’ prison conditions for Kanaks

Jodar ... whistleblowing on prison conditions. Photo:

Gérard Jodar ... whistleblowing on prison conditions. Photo: Links

By Pacific Media Centre

Jailed for a year for his role in leading a strike against New Caledonia’s airline, union leader Gérard Jodar has condemned the “terrible” prison conditions in Noumea’s notorious Camp Est prison.

He says the prison is heavily overcrowded and is almost full of young indigenous Kanak prisoners living in squalid conditions.

Jodar has called for a French parliamentary inquiry into the jail and the prisoners.

“What I’ve witnessed is terrible –  97 percent of the prisoners are young Kanaks, ” he says in the interview with Matthieu Ecoiffier.

“The prison, intended for 190 detainees, has 417. There are five or six of us in filthy 11-square metre cells.”

Jodar, president of the pro-independence trade union federation USTKE (Union of Kanak and Exploited Workers), has made the claims in an interview just published by the research publication Links – The International Journal of Socialist Renewal.

“We’re allowed a half-hour walk in a small yard in the morning and afternoon. There’s no education programme in the prison to facilitate the young prisoners’ reintegration into society. We’re only allowed two visits of half an hour each week,” Jodar says.

“The food falls far short of meeting our needs and normal standards. ”

Jodar contrasts France’s role in  championing human rights with the “colonial”era” prison conditions.

“A parliamentary delegation needs to come and write a report and back up what I’m saying.

“From the side of the prison staff, things aren’t any better – understaffed, poor working conditions, the guards are discouraged. We’re still in a colony and not very far from the convict era.”

A general strike was called off on August 6 after an accord between USTKE and Air Caledonia (Aircal) was finally signed by the airline.

The signing of the accord, which had been negotiated on June 11, put an end to 10 days of bitter demonstrations, roadblocks and violent confrontations with police – stirred by a desire for independence and decolonisation as much as a demand for  industrial justice.

The conflict was reportedly sparked by the “unfair” dismissal of an Air Caledonia employee in March for “betraying commercial confidentiality” by telling her mother that her father had taken a flight with his mistress.

On May 28, tension spilled over with the arrest of 28 unionists at a press conference at Noumea’s Tontouta Airport during a day of action called by USTKE to support the striking airline workers.

Industrial sources say that when mobile police and the National Police Intervention Group intervened, the 28 protesters sheltered in an empty plane to protect themselves against a stream of tear gas.

All the protesters were charged with “hindering the flight of an aircraft” – in spite of no aircraft being in circulation.

On June 29 when the USTKE unionists were handed prison sentences, tension flared again.

Jodar and the general secretary of the construction union, Michel Safoka, were singled out for the harshest punishment by the courts – and both are now serving one year prison sentences.

The jailings sparked off clashes in the working class suburb of Montravel and also in the Saint Louis tribal area where a policeman was wounded by a gunshot.

The conflict has put the spotlight on serious poverty issues among urban Kanaks.

Bitter discontent has emerged over social inequalities between indigenous Kanaks and neighbouring Islanders, and also between French settlers and metropolitan residents.

The full interview by Matthieu Ecoiffier with USTKE president Gérard Jodar was published in Libération, issue #14790, on August 17 2009. It was translated into English for Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal by Annolies Truman.

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