Realities of Authority in Paris

Literary Representations
Lorettes and society

Lower Class Prostitutes and the Law
Representations in Les Miserables
Realities of Authority in Paris
Brothels and Streetwalkers

The Privileged Class: Courtesans

Defining the courtesan
Visual representations
Courtesans in reality




Prostitutes in Prison

In the last two sections, we learned about why lower class prostitutes were arrested. The reasons for their arrests were varied: some were arrested for venereal disease, some for "contravention", and some for theft. But what happened to the prostitutes once they were taken into custody by the commissaire or Gendarmerie Royale? Alexandre Parent-Duchatelet conducted a now famous study about the lives of prostitutes in Paris. The study was first published in 1836. In this study, Parent-Duchatelet focused on not only the day to day lives of prostitutes, but also what happened when they encountered authority. These are his findings on the arrest and imprisonment of prostitutes.

Arrest Procedure

Everyone arrested in Paris by some agent of the administration is taken to the Prefecture of Police. There they are essentially familiarized with the arrest procedure by a magistrate at the Prefecture. The day of the arrest the arrested prostitutes are questioned by "un commissaire de police", who is affiliated with the Bureau of Morals. This commissaire submits the report of the interrogation to the Prefecture, who decides to either set the girl free, or imprison her, obviously depending on the circumstances.

The magistrate sends them to "un endroit special" which is called "le depot". The depot is a holding cell of sorts, where the arrested prostitutes are not kept for longer than two days, and usually only 24 hours. After staying the depot for a short time, the prefecture decides whether or not to give them their liberty or transport them to a more permanent prison. It is important to note that the permanent prisons the prostitutes are taken to are specifically for them, and not for any other type of criminal.

The Prisons

Once they arrived at the prison, taken by an inconspicuous car, they found conditions that were organized, fairly mild in terms of living space and treatment by prison guards and prison officials). The prisons held about 450-550 inmates. Parent-Duchatlet describes the living quarters in great detail:

"The ground floor of this prison is made up of workstations, the above floors are dormitories. (Cells) The workshops are vast and divided into several sections, followed by the type of work at which the prisoners are working; the stoves heat up conveniently in the winter; each of these has a latrine, a fountain and a washing station. A courtyard, which is quite large, serves for walking around; the prisoners have the permission to go there three times a day, and in the middle of the courtyard is a large washing station; the girls use their recreation time to soap and wash their personal effects...."

The women held at these prisons also received a considerable ration of food. According to Parent-Duchatelet's study, the women received:

  • a piece and a half of bread
  • soup (not a very large portion, but "de tres bon qualite"
  • --------------------------
  • four ounces of meat


  • starchy vegetables ("les legumes farineux")

The women were required to perform tasks while in prison that varied according to the skill of the women there. These tasks mostly consisted of chores related to clothing and food. Some examples were:

"des plumets pour les militaires" {feathers for the soldiers}
"des cuirs a garnir l'interieur des chapeaux" {leather for the inside of hats}
"des fleurs, des sacs et des portefeuilles, en baleine et autre substance" {purses and wallets made out of whale material and other substances)

Certain regulations existed within the prison, and if they were caught breaking the rules, they were punished, but not severely. The average stay of a prostitute was only four or five months at best. Parent-Duchatelet cites only one example where a women had been held for a year, and that woman had been arrested over fifty times! Did the prostitutes learn their lesson by being imprisoned for their "crimes"? Like any criminals in Paris, it is safe to say that the impact their stay in prison had on them was decidedly different for each individual. It is interesting to note that the police did not come down hard on the prostitutes once they were in jail.

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