A slice of Yuletide love in jail with daddy

PARIS: The convict cradled his seven-month-old baby against his chest and gently kissed his tiny head, keeping a loving eye on his toddler playing nearby with friends on his first Christmas visit to jail.

It was a moment of tenderness in a grim place, as the squat red brick and concrete Nanterre prison complex outside Paris hosted its first ever Christmas party for its hardened inmates. “Normally, we get 45 minutes in the visiting room, but today we’ve got two hours and there’s a bit of atmosphere, other dads with their kids, it’s all good,” said Philippe, sitting with the baby in the prison common room.

Paper tablecloths in Christmas colours, plastic cups and plates, cakes, sweets and a tree bedecked with streamers -- the three dozen inmates and their offspring seemed a little overwhelmed at first by the festive atmosphere.

Nevertheless, the smaller toddlers were soon running about the floor, playing, laughing with Edith the party clown and excitedly tearing open the wrapping paper on their Christmas gifts. “We need music! And disco lights!” squealed nine-year-old Mona.

The older children, the 11 and 12-year-olds, took longer to relax. They wore serious expressions and stuck close by their fathers before gingerly trying out a few shots and passes with their brand new footballs.

“Me, I’m a thug, but him, he’s getting marks of 19 out of 20 at school,” said Marco, watching with fierce pride as his son played with the others. “It’s hard for our families, harder for them than us. But we screwed up, we have to live with that,” added Hicham, a tough-looking hardcase struggling with giant hands to string a row of pearls into a bracelet for his daughter. Nanterre jail was built to hold 600 prisoners, but now holds 900, packed close together under a high-security regime. Last month a 21-year-old on remand awaiting trial for sex offenses hanged himself with his bed sheets. It is not an obvious place to nurture the bonds of family life, but a small organisation of prison visitors has been working for the past 10 years to help the detainees remain in contact with their children. This year, for the first time, they were able to organise a Christmas party. It was only for 30 of the men, but even the warders watching over the inmates were moved by the scene in the decorated common room.

Guards looked on astonished as the thieves and thugs in their charge changed nappies, bottle-fed babies and doted over their little treasures.

“Sometimes they show us their family pictures, but this, this is even better,” said a female warder. “It’s great, but it would have been even better if the mothers had been here,” chipped in a male colleague. The social workers organising the event — the group “Parent Child Relay” — disagreed. For them, it was important for the men to have this time alone with the kids to form an individual bond and build their own identity as fathers.

So the mothers waited outside the prison, some of them in the warmth of a welcome centre set aside for visiting families, others gathered outside to smoke, hunched against the icy winter chill.