The Underworld

Agricultural Colonies


The System

Famous Crime





The famous French agricultural colony, Mettray. From

Agricultural colonies were installed into the French penal system to take the urban poor out of the streets of Paris and into the strict, disciplined setting of a life on the farm. Privatly run institutions, the directors believed that through religious, moral and professional education, the youth offenders would be rehabilitated. Most boys between the ages of six to sixteen were sent to agricultural colonies for at least some duration of their sentences.


However, those opposed to the institutions argued that "to place (the street children of Paris) in an agricultural colony would soon turn it into a colony of little bandits" (Debats du congres). And this was true. Life in the colonies was not at all that was intended. Social hierarchies quickly formed amongst the young inmates, ruling with bullying and imtimidation. Homosexual rape, although widly recognized and discussed in adult facilities, was looked over and ignored in the colonies. This led to more abuses and left the victims more suseptable because offenders were not punished or seperated. The environment of the colonies also made discipline more difficult than expected, the guards having difficulty keeping order with so many children in such a setting.

Children working at Mettray. From

Above is an image of children performing their daily work at Mettray. The inmates are shown here manufactoring ploughing tools. Prisoners also performed farm labor. Like most penal iinstitutions, the prisoners were treated less like children who needed help and rehabilitation, and more as producing machines.

All elements combines, agricultural colonies were like all other penal institutions of the time. Colonies were shut down as more and more of the bad conditions leaked out. One colony closed because "children were found sleeping on straw in buildings without windows and they were subjected to beatings by their overseers" (O'Brien). By 1914, most colonies were either shut down or taken over by the public sector.