Life Style

Bernard Petitgas, the day when “I defended my thesis in prison”



When he introduces himself, Bernard Petitgas says to himself “come in”. Between the prison world and the academic world. Between his life before, spent in a six-square-meter cell, and his life after, in the university laboratories.

→ MAINTENANCE. Prison: “The institution invests more in security than in reintegration”

From the office of his apartment, located on the edge of the canal connecting the port of Caen to that of Ouistreham (Calvados), the 55-year-old man expresses himself by making large gestures, connects river speeches and punctuates his sentences with names of researchers. “See this work by Fanny Salane, Being a student in prison. Escape from above, it sums up the situation very well ”, he begins, taking a book out of his library. He goes on to tell the “Most important day” of his detention, the one who changed his life as a prisoner, he who was imprisoned for thirteen years.

For him, it all started when he met Hubert de Broissia, a volunteer who came to offer computer lessons to inmates nine years earlier. He tells : “I was coming out of three years in a remand center, I was still in shock from my incarceration. For the first time, I was living a moment outside of my usual preoccupations. He wasn’t judging me for what I had done (he does not wish to evoke the reasons which pushed him between these walls, Editor’s note) but for what I was doing now. “

From this meeting, Bernard will draw the desire to “Transform your prison life”. On the advice of his fellow prisoners, he went to Parcours +, a group made up of former university professors. There he discovered sociology, a subject that promises to “Understand this (that he) had been and this (that he) became. “

Thesis defense one week before leaving prison

His baccalaureate already in his pocket, he enrolled at the University of Strasbourg. He arranges his time with his daily work to study, receives his paper lessons with great delay. The exam conditions are harsh – the students have a very small non-soundproof room, forcing them to put paper in their ears – but Bernard benefits from an epistolary correspondence with the sociologist Camille Tarot and from the invaluable support of Maurice Van den Bossche, the prison chaplain. He validates his first year with more than 16 average, an excellent result which will be worth to him to be offered the second year by the university.

“Sociology had a real impact on me, he analyzes today. I used his tools to study my surroundings, to take an interest in these people who, every evening, looked behind the eye of my door. ” Arrived in the third year, he chose to focus his research on relational and voluntary engagement in prison, a subject that would later become the subject of his thesis. He connects the interviews, involves his fellow prisoners in writing his research, works every evening on his modest desk, wedged between his bed and his sink.

Prisons: how to put an end to unworthy living conditions?

He finally gets to be able to defend his thesis in detention, a week before his release. That day, about forty people crammed into a small room in the prison. Inmates, volunteers and guards came to support Bernard, wearing a costume exceptionally – prisoners are not allowed to wear one to avoid confusion with the guards. In the public, a member of the Calvados, a myriad of renowned professors, and Camille Tarot, the sociologist with whom he has corresponded for eight years now. “When we saw each other, we had tears in our eyes”, he recalls behind his square glasses. The defense lasts a long time, three and a half hours, maybe more. Bernard is congratulated, the jury admires his work and his tenacity. Back in his cell, he collapses, the rupture is brutal. He will come out the following week, his diploma in his pocket, memories of his meetings in his head.

→ MAINTENANCE. Dominique Simonnot: “An employment contract for detainees would be more protective”

Today, Bernard is an independent researcher attached to Cerrev, a laboratory at the University of Caen. He intervenes in many associations and endeavors to show how “These relationships make it possible to feel social empathy again and to reintegrate better upon leaving”. He does not like his story to be romanticized, hesitates for a long time to publicize it. He says : “I don’t want my experience to obscure the horrible nature of the state of the prisons”, and all the same ends up agreeing to tell it. After all, if that makes you wonder why there aren’t more prisoners who spend their years studying within the walls, you might as well give it a try.

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Less than 2% of inmates study

Since 2017, a framework agreement binding the prison administration, the ministry of higher education and the conference of university presidents seeks to “promote access for people placed under the control of justice to higher education training” . In fact, registrations are still rare. In 2020, only 1.3% of incarcerated people were taking distance education courses. With Covid-19 and the increasing digitization of education, the divide tends to widen: deprived of the Internet, prisoners cannot access it. Likewise, training offers are still far from being harmonized across the country, according to the International Prison Observatory, and are often poorly communicated to prisoners. In France, associations such as Auxilia or the Penitentiary Informatics Club (Clip) help promote higher education in prison.

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