The first thing that strikes you when you see the Baumettes prison in the southern French port city of Marseille is its imposing facade, which has been classified as part of France’s national heritage treasures. Seven sculptured gargoyles representing the seven deadly sins.

I half-expected the outside grandeur of the prison to extend inside, but I was quickly disabused of that idea. What one finds instead are filthy toilets, exposed electrical wiring, rats, cockroaches, leaking roofs. Even former right-wing president Nicolas Sarkozy – never one to coddle criminals – once said the state of the country’s prisons was France’s ‘shame’.

NGOs, the European Union and French government watchdog have all condemned the ‘inhumane’ conditions in French institutions of incarceration, which have among the highest suicide rates of any prison system in Europe.