PARIS (Reuters) - When Marie-Christine Menaspa last saw her husband, Mickael Gerard, in a filthy, overcrowded jail in the French town of Agen, he said he was looking forward to joining her and their two children after his imminent release.
A day later, on May 26, he hanged himself.
Gerard, imprisoned for petty crimes, was one of more than 80 prisoners who committed suicide here this year -- a national scandal in a country that prides itself on being the cradle of human rights but has one of Europe's highest jail suicide rates.
"Not a day went by when I didn't think about hanging myself," Soad Boukourdane, a Parisian public relations manager and former inmate, told Reuters at her home in Paris.
Inmates talk with despair of packed cells where the latest arrivals have to sleep on mattresses on the floor, next to an open toilet and the tables where the cellmates eat.
Overburdened guards describe themselves as mere key-bearers who are unable to prevent knife fights and rape among inmates.
France's suicide rate of 16 cases per 10,000 prisoners compares with 10 in Germany and 9 in England and Wales, European Union penal statistics for 2006 showed. By 2008, according to a French government report, the rate had risen to 17.
President Nicolas Sarkozy called jails "the disgrace of the Republic" in June, and the government has taken emergency steps such as handing out paper pyjamas to prevent hangings.
But experts say a radical overhaul is needed.
"He was in a cell built for six, and there were eight. There was everything in there, a man who killed a baby, one who was sentenced for rape," Menaspa, Gerard's widow, told Reuters.
France locks up some 125 prisoners per 100 places, compared to 97 in Germany and 96 in England and Wales, according to EU data for 2007.
Its prison population has soared as a result of a tougher policy on crime, but depleted state coffers due to the economic crisis mean there is little money for jails and staff.
KNIFINGS AND MILDEW
Boukourdane, the PR manager, spent two months in Europe's biggest jail, the 3,800-strong Fleury-Merogis prison near Paris.
Like some 40 percent of inmates in France, her five cellmates were illiterate. A cellmate's rotten, infected tooth was left to fester for 15 days, despite written requests for help. Guards could not prevent daily knife attacks, some against pregnant women, said Boukourdane, who was jailed in 2005 as part of a financial fraud investigation.
"There was thick mildew on the walls, the ceiling. The women would chew bits of newspaper and use it to plaster glossy Dior and Chanel ads over the mildew," Boukourdane said, showing felt-tip drawings of her cell and letters written in jail.
Sylvain Cormier, a lawyer based in Lyon, told Reuters how he wanted to try out the in-cell alarm system for alerting guards during a prison visit. He was told not to bother: "None of the lights work and you risk getting an electric shock."
The prison administration did not respond to repeated requests from Reuters to visit a prison, interview a prison director and verify the testimonies from inmates and lawyers.
Observers see some signs of progress. New Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie has vowed to improve conditions. Parliament adopted a law on September 22 that is meant to ease pressure on prisons, for example by broadening the scope of alternative punishments such as electronic monitoring bracelets.
The new law also cuts to 30 from 45 days the maximum time spent in the notorious "mitard," a jail within jail.
But experts want more: smaller prisons where inmates are in touch with their families; professional training to prepare them for the outside world and bring down the 40 percent rate of recidivism; alternatives for the mentally ill who make up a large part of France's 63,000 inmates.
"We need a new prison concept, instead of reproducing these prisons modeled along medieval dungeons," said Dr Louis Albrand, a medical expert who produced a report on prisons for France's justice ministry. "We need to humanize prison."
He believes private investment could overcome the financing problem. But others fear the combination of tight public funds and an expected rise in petty offences by crisis-hit citizens means things will get worse.
"Handing out paper pyjamas, that's not enough," said Celine Verzeletti of the CGT prison guards' union in her smoke-filled office in Paris. "The prison shouldn't just neutralize people, it has a role in reintegration and preparation for the release."
"Most people think that punishment has to hurt," she said in an interview. "It is right to punish, but you have to do so while repairing people, not breaking them further."
Any reforms would come too late for Marie-Christine Menaspa's husband, Mickael Gerard, whose case is sadly typical.
After a scuffle with guards over some cigarettes, he was thrown into the "mitard."
There, he made his first suicide attempt, was rescued and told his wife the next day that it had merely been meant as a provocation.
After meeting his wife, he was sent back to the "mitard," where he made a second attempt and fell into a coma. He died on July 26, less than two weeks before his planned release.
(Editing by Giles Elgood)