Inside Monaco’s Jail

Monaco has the largest police force and police presence in the world — on both a per-capita and per-area basis. In Monaco, you can barely cross a street without the authorities knowing about it, as closed-circuit cameras are about as ubiquitous as supercars in Monaco. But if you do happen to do something illegal, you’ll wind up in Monaco’s Maison d’Arrêt—a jail with multimillion-dollar views.

monaco’s prison / Jail is the building on the right

Monaco’s Maison d’Arrêt—which includes four cellblocks, a chapel, and a prison yard—features seaside views on land where $1 million buys roughly 90 square feet.

Maison d’Arrêt sits along the craggy cliffs of Monaco that overlook the Ligurian Sea (a part of the Mediterranean Sea between the Italy and the Corsica). Which is all to say, prisoners facing southeast look out over the calm, deep blue waters of the sea—views that others around them pay tens of millions of dollars to enjoy.

And it’s not as if the prison was cast aside to some forgotten corner of Monaco. Perched on the rock above the harbor, it’s just a hundred meters down the road from the Prince’s palace.

The difference in amenities between the two buildings is about as stark is one can imagine. Within the prison complex, there are four cellblocks: one for women, one for juveniles, and two for men; a chapel, a prison yard, a kitchen, a gym, a weight room, three laundry rooms, and a library with a computer lab.

prison food

Even the convicts in the tiny prison, which comes with an amazing sea view, live in luxury – despite the wire above their heads to prevent escape by helicopter. Inmates are served pasta with entrecôte steak and bruschetta with tomato and Emmental cheese. They’re given access to hairdressers and dentists, a gym and games room where they can play ping pong.

The reasons for inmates arriving to Mason d’Arrêt vary between theft (30%) to financial crimes (20%). It’s even been said that a person found guilty of kicking a cat in public can end up in Maison d’Arrêt for a month.

the view from inside a jail cell in monaco

The History of Monaco’s Prison

Although there is little information available on Monaco’s prisons before 1789, it is likely that they were located directly within the Prince’s Palace, as indicated in a treasury document from 1726 and corroborated by numerous other historical records.

In 1792, the Principality, connected to France, was engaged in disputes on all fronts and had to house the prisoners of war. An official record dated 4 Ventôse Year VIII of the French Republic (23 February 1800) issued by the military commander of Monaco noted the deplorable state of six apartments within the Palace that served as a prison.

The Royal Family returned to Monaco in 1815 and regained possession of the Palace. The various offices that were set up in the Palace illegitimately during the French Revolution were removed. The Principality had to face the broader issue of how to set up a judicial system and ensure public order. In a first attempt at reforming the prison system, Prince Honoré V decided to make use of former warehouses. But these facilities proved to be insufficient and unsuited to the needs of a prison.

Around 1865, the decision was made to house the prison in a large underground chamber underneath the St. Martin Gardens. This area, measuring 46 meters long by 9 meters wide and 6 meters high, was part of the fortifications built in the early 17th century by Prince Antoine I, near the Fort that bears His name. Designed to house the population and the military in case of attack, it also had the advantage of being equipped with a large-capacity water tank.

In March 1990, the administration of the correctional system was placed under the authority of the Secretary of Justice. Following in the example of many other European countries, the enforcement of sentences now falls entirely under the responsibility of Monaco’s judicial branch.

the jail, overlooking a cafe and the sea

Evolution of the Prison Population

When looking at the prison’s records, three very different phases stand out:

1886 to World War I

At the end of the 19th century, the number of inmates was relatively high due to the economic growth of the Principality and, especially, of the founding of Monte Carlo, which attracted a wide variety of profit-seekers seeking easy money. From this period on, foreigners began to comprise a significant percentage of the prison population. For instance, the registry of arrests for the year 1900 documents 14 different nationalities. The number of people in prison dropped significantly as Europe mobilized for World War I. 

1919 to 1960

This period was marked by a net drop in the number of inmates in relation to the previous period, despite a substantial increase from 1926 to 1936 and immediately following World War II. This increase was the result of the socio-economic environment and historical circumstances of these two periods.

1960 to 2004

This was a time of change, during which the Remand Prison was at times required to house more than two hundred inmates during a single year (215 inmates admitted and recorded in the registry of arrests for the year 1983).
Also, it appears that the crimes related to most of these incarcerations were changing in relation to prior periods. For instance, drug-related violations and “white-collar crime” rose significantly during this period. Regarding the nationality of the inmates, there was a clear trend toward greater diversity. In 1984, for example, 40% of the entire prison population represented citizens of countries other than Monaco or France.

2004 to 2012

A change is obvious in the prison population, 50% of which is now made up of foreigners who are neither French nor Monegasque in nationality. In addition, there has been a sharp increase in the number of juvenile inmates as well as in the number of inmates from Eastern Europe (over 20% of inmates). Monaco has the highest rate of female prisoners of total prison population of any country in the world, at 24% female inmates.

Despite an increase in the number of juvenile inmates, a relatively calm atmosphere prevails in the detention center, with inmates tolerating their incarceration in a rather “tranquil” manner. A partnership with the Department of Education, Youth and Sport was formed in 2011 to allow juveniles to continue their education and various related activities.

Unlike previous years, it is difficult to categorize the crimes committed during this period, although 25% of arrests were for driving under the influence of alcohol, 30% for theft and 20% for financial crimes. 

Monaco’s Police Force

The safest city on the French Riviera (and perhaps in the world) is Monaco. With nation-wide video surveillance, three police stations, and one police officer per 73 residents, Monaco has safety standards so strict that it is known as the safest square mile in the world. Compare that to NYC, one of the USA’s most policed and safest cities, which has one officer per 233 residents.

the main police station, in port Hercule(the Condamine), Monaco

The 519 police officers are carefully selected from the French police force and must go through an additional two-year intensive training program to serve in Monaco. It’s a very desirable position as they get a high salary and a free seaside apartment in Fontvieille, Monaco.

The Monaco police don’t mess around: the rules are extremely strict and while the Monaco jail is notoriously comfortable, the court system in Monaco almost always pronounces maximum sentences. So behave yourself!

Monaco has a system of 24-hour video surveillance spanning the entire surface area of the Principality, including the majority of residential building lobbies, a transmitting system worthy of the best armies in the world, the possibility of blocking all access in and out of the Principality in several minutes. And we mustn’t forget the surveillance teams inside of the Casino and in all of the gambling establishments and hotels.

This works well for residents and tourists, as you won’t need to worry about your diamond bracelet or designer bag being stolen, or your child going missing. If your child wanders off, the police will be able to track him/her with facial-recognition video tracking and find your child in a matter of minutes.

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