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PARIS (Reuters) - French prisons were hit by a strike Monday as thousands of guards blocked the transfer of prisoners to protest against overcrowding, poor conditions and tight budgets.
Unions threatened to step up the illegal strike and even prevent prison visits, after living and working conditions in prisons failed to improve despite calls from human rights organizations and a spate of suicides by inmates.
"We're starting softly, but the movement will step up pressure," said Eric Colin, a regional CGT unionist, adding that he expected the guards to take a tougher stance over the next few days.
"We're going to block any intervention from the outside, that is, suppliers for the inmates' workshops and training as well as prison visitors."
Some 4,000 guards went on strike in 120 of France's 194 jails, the prison branch of trade union CGT said, even though they do not have the right to do so.
Police stepped in to free the entrances of several jails, which employ a total of some 33,000 officials, and removed some of the activists who vowed to resume their protest Tuesday, police and unions said.
Justice Minister Rachida Dati, who Monday was traveling to Jordan, has faced mounting criticism over the state of the jails and the rash of suicides -- 115 in 2008, and around 50 so far this year.
Human rights activists have described French prisons as dirty, overcrowded and dilapidated. As of April 1, the jails held 63,351 inmates, while there is officially space for 51,000.
With as many as four or five inmates per cell, it has become difficult to organize prison visits and maintain adequate levels of hygiene, unions have said.
Activists have partly laid the blame on tough sentencing and a law which allows convicts to be held in prison indefinitely if experts believe they pose a danger to society, even if their jail term has expired.
Reporting by Gregory Schwartz; additional reporting by Catherine Lagrange in Lyon, Pierre Savary in Lille and Claude Canellas in Bordeaux