Fresnes Prison (Centre pénitentiaire de Fresnes) is the second largest prison in France, located in the town of Fresnes, Val-de-Marne South of Paris. It comprises a large mens' prison (maison d'arrêt) of about 1200 cells, a smaller one for women and a penitentiary hospital.
The prison was constructed between 1895 and 1898 according to a design devised by the architect, Henri Poussin. An example of the so-called "telephone-pole design," the facility was radically different from previous prisons. At Fresnes prison, for the first time, cell houses extended crosswise from a central corridor. The design, a typical example of which is the Riker's Island prison in New York City, was used extensively in North America for much of the next century.
During World War II, Fresnes prison was used by the Germans to house captured British SOE agents and members of the French Resistance. Held in horrific conditions, these prisoners were tortured, and some, such as Berty Albrecht (1893–1943), co-founder of the Combat movement, died there. As soon as the Allied forces broke through at Normandy and fought their way to liberate Paris, the Gestapo peremptorily killed prisoners at Fresnes. An example was Jewish resistance fighter Mariann Cohen, who was murdered by axe wielding militants on 8 July 1944, and Suzanne Spaak, who was executed there on 12 August, less than two weeks before the city was liberated. Christopher Burney (1917–80) was freed in 1945, and published Solitary Confinement, an account of his fifteen months there.
Squadron Leader Phil Lamason of the RNZAF was the ranking officer and one of 168 allied airmen imprisoned here in 1944. They were also transferred to Buchenwald concentration camp just days before Paris was liberated.
Famous inmates and escapes
Like any major prison, Fresnes has had its share of famous and notorious inmates. Agnès Humbert, with other members of the French Resistance 'Groupe du musée de l'Homme' were imprisoned, tried, and sentenced there in 1941-1942. The automobile industrialist, Louis Renault, arrested for collaborating with the Nazis, died there in 1944 under "questionable circumstances". The SOE officer Peter Morland Churchill and French Resistance courier Odette Samson were taken to Fresnes prison after their arrest in April 1943 in Saint-Jorioz near Annecy; Peter Churchill was held prisoner until 13 February 1944 when he was transferred to Berlin for questioning, while Odette was tortured in Fresnes prior to being transported to Ravensbrück concentration camp, where she survived despite being sentenced to death. Paul Touvier died of prostate cancer in 1996 at the Fresnes prison hospital during his incarceration for war crimes.
Throughout Fresnes prison's history, there have also been several memorable escapes, but none has been more dramatic than the breakout of the Italian mobster, Antonio Ferrara, in March 2003. In a commando-style raid, members of his gang attacked the prison with rocket launchers and assault rifles, and they set fire to nearby cars in what is believed to have been intended as a distraction. Arrested again four months later, Ferrara is now imprisoned in Fleury-Mérogis.
One member of Operation Aquatint, Captain Graham Hayes, MC, a founding member of the "Small Scale Raiding Force", was kept in solitary confinement for nine months before being executed (by firing squad) on 13 July 1943.
- Agnès Humbert, (tr. Barbara Mellor) Résistance: Memoirs of Occupied France, London, Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 2008 ISBN 978-0-7475-9597-7 (American title: Resistance: A Frenchwoman's Journal of the War, Bloomsbury, USA, 2008)
- "Jail escape forces French rethink". BBC News. 2003-03-13. Retrieved January 4, 2010.
- Gordon Brown p62 "Wartime Courage" ISBN 978-0-7475-9607-3
4. Pierre d'Harcourt The Real Enemy. Longmans 1967