From a fortress to a quiet park: Paris left no trace of the Prison of the Little Roquette.

Sharon Aronowicz
7 min readFeb 15, 2021

Sharon Aronowicz 18.12.20

Tree in the Little Roquette Square, photo by Sharon Aronowicz

Only the regulars of the 11th district of Paris know the park of the Little Roquette. Hidden between two main streets of the neighbourhood, it is rare that one stumbles across it accidentally. Only once you pass the entrance, do you discover that so much is going on there.

All the kids of the neighbourhood seem to hangout there. You have the ones playing basketball, skilfully dribbling. Right by the court, younger teenagers are running after a ball in the football pitch, shouting and laughing after scoring a goal.

Teenagers playing in the park of the Little Roquette by Sharon Aronowicz

Despite the screaming and the agitation, a certain serenity envelopes the park which makes it a perfect location to escape Paris’ lockdown.
Although it is precisely on these grounds Nadja Ringart experienced confinement 50 years ago -as a prisoner.

Way before the sport courts, the trees and the children, was a massive prison where thousands were detained. The 25,000-square-meter building was like a fortress in the middle of the city.

It was first built in 1825 by the architecte Hippolyte Lebas. Five hundred cells were created to detain thousands of minors, children and adolescents in inhuman and degrading conditions. In 1929, it was converted into a prison for women until its closure. During the Second World War, many female résistantes were locked up in the prison, but the last witnesses of these walls were incarcerated in the 1970s, right before the destruction of the building. It’s the case of Nadja Ringart, who was incarcerated on March 17th, 1970, for three months.

Screenshot of her Facebook wall on March 17 2020 where she writes: “Coincidence: 50 years ago, to the day, I was confined for almost 3 months in a 6 m2 cell, with a double-locked door. My situation is much more comfortable today!”

Nadja Ringart didn’t want to explain why she ended up in prison. “My story is not interesting compared to the other women who were there,” she says. She will only mention it was for “left-wing political reasons.”

She was 21 years old when she was sent to the Little Roquette, and stayed there for three months awaiting her trial. At this time, it was a remand prison so most detainees were there for a short-term sentence. Ringart had to be isolated from the other inmates due to her status as a political prisoner.

“I was isolated, in a 6m2 room, even when I had to take a shower or walk outside I had to be alone,” she said.

The only person she got to know was the women in the cell next door. “We used to talk to each other through the walls. One day, she knocked on the wall of my cell and asked me to hide some matches behind the flower pot in front of the laundry room,” Ringart explains. The woman on the other side of the wall was punished and was not allowed to have cigarettes anymore, so she collected a few cigarette butts from the floor and needed a way to light them up. Ringart did not think twice before hiding the matches for her. “I remember being so proud of helping an inmate out,” she says.

She had no idea who this woman was. It’s only later that she understood her name was Evelyne Segard, and she was involved in an armed robbery case: the Jubin case. Christian Jubin was accused of a double murder and Evelyne Singard’s husband was his accomplice. During the trial of the two men, she had brought weapons to help them escape from the courthouse. They had successfully run away, taking the judge as hostage, before getting arrested 48 hours later.

“She was very much in love,” remembers Ringart. “Once, the guard made a mistake and sent the two of us to shower at the same time, she hid a picture from her wedding day in her shower robe to show me her husband.”

During her time in prison, Nadja Ringart wrote an article for the MLF magazine (Mouvement de Libération des Femmes). The MLF is a French autonomous feminist movement fighting the patriarchy, and founded in 1970. To this day, Nadja Ringart identifies as part of the group. In her text, entitled Toutes ces femmes (All these women), she explains how she felt when she first arrived at the Little Roquette.

“I expected a strong oppression, but a physical one, not moral. The moral oppression is more subtle and harder to handle,” she wrote. “There is no dungeon, no one shaves our heads, but the bullying is constant. As soon as you receive your number, the machine kicks off. They deprive you of any possessions, no money, no jewelry, no watches, no papers. The humiliation is painful. From that moment on, each woman’s distress is all the greater as the whole system aims to break any initiative and isolate the individual.”

© Fonds Henri Manuel / ENPJJ — Roubaix

The Prison of the Little Roquette was jointly run by nuns and the atmosphere was quite similar to that of a convent. A Chapel was built in the center of the prison where mass was held every Sunday.

The sisters were the ones in charge of watching and monitoring the prisoners. “Our role was to ensure respect and discipline,” explains Sister Bénédicte. She was a nun living and working in the Prison of the Little Roquette between 1972 and 1973, until it was closed.

“But 1970 was a crucial year where the sisters didn’t have so much power anymore and there were less and less of them,” remembers Ringart. Yet, the ideology was still “very much dominated by the sisters,” the former prisoner wrote in her article for the MLF.

“If they could prohibit masturbation they would do it on the spot. Femininity is imposed by forbidding us to wear pants, masculine clothes, or certain hair styles. It is both imposed and forbidden, as short skirts and make-up are forbidden while detainee’s dresses are long and coarse.”

Sister Bénédicte remembers the living conditions being very harsh. “There were rats and cockroaches and the prison was extremely cold.” This was confirmed by Ringart who said the building was in a state of “total decrepitude”.

According to the documentalist Guillaume Attencourt, who conducted research on the prison of the Little Roquette in 2011, “the inmates were on top of each other in very small rooms, there wasn’t any heating or running water so there were a lot of hygiene problems.”

Guillaume Attencourt managed to interview some of the last detainees, sisters and guards that used to live there, many who have since passed away. He explains that the “atrocious living conditions justified the closure and destruction of the prison.” The prison closed its doors on March 1st 1973 and was destroyed the following year.

“After the destruction of the prison, they were all transferred to Fleury-Mérogis in 1973. It’s another prison located outside of Paris,” explains Attencourt.

Located in the southern suburbs of Paris, the prison is today the largest one in Europe. “That was the tendency of metropoles back then, he continues, to take down the prisons inside of the cities because it was disturbing. No one wanted to have to see a three-storey prison that contained prostitutes, thieves, drug dealers etc. It was considered a wart in the heart of the district which was rather Bourgeois back then.”

Although according to Ringart, most women were here for bricoles, a French word for insignificant actions. “Many of the inmates are in here because of crimes their husband involved them into,” she wrote in her article. “Not to mention the ones who took refuge from the cold or from their husbands for a few winter months, or mothers who stole milk or clothes for their children.”

The building was extremely imposing, but Attencourt regrets the decision taken by the city. “It was a very beautiful building. It’s a pity it was destroyed,” he says. “They could have converted it into a museum for example.”

A collective of architects and intellectuals tried to save the building but they failed. “There was a land reclamation conflict between the City of Paris and the State.” Paris wanted to use the land for something functional such as a gymnasium, a primary school, buildings etc. “They finally managed to reclaim the land from the State, and destroyed the prison,” explains Attencourt.

The only remaining vestige of this era is a gate: the old prison entrance.

Author of first picture, unknown. Second picture by Sharon Aronowicz

And to remember those incarcerated, a single plate at the main entrance that mentions only the résistantes. No pictures, no testimonies, but a beautiful park where more and more locals gather in times of lockdown to enjoy the winter sun. “I went back one last time to see what had become of the place, but there’s really not much left,” concludes Sister Bénédicte.

--

--