The hard cell: Avignon to offer prison conversions

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The Independent Online

Des. res. for sale in the south of France. More than 200 rooms (mostly small and basic). Bathrooms need attention. Wonderful river views (despite bars on the tiny windows). Would suit very large family or could become luxury hotel.

The French government is inviting bids for a disused prison in the historic city of Avignon. An advertisement on the state property website says: "Benefiting from an exceptional situation beside the Papal Palace, with open views over the river Rhône. Living space of 10,280 square metres, including two sports halls, library, cinema room and women's detention area. Dilapidated and unfurnished."

It stipulates that the preferred buyer would be a hotel group willing to convert Saint-Anne prison into a luxury four-star hotel with at least 110 bedrooms. Eight other disused jails, in towns such as Lyons, Grasse and Nancy, will come on to the market in the next two years.

A clever entrepreneur could even launch a luxury chain, offering guests free striped pyjamas, porridge for breakfast and time off for good behaviour.

The government drive to sell off scores of surplus state-owned buildings has been accelerated by President Nicolas Sarkozy, as he attempts to trim the public debt.

The sale does not mean that crime is falling. France still has one of the highest prison populations in Europe. Modern, new jails are being built outside town centres, allowing 19th-century penitentiaries such as Saint-Anne in Avignon to be closed. The building is rather grim but has bags of potential. It is a three-storey, rectangular edifice with a central courtyard crowded with outhouses. Parts of the site date back to the 1400s.

There is no reserve price but the Economics Ministry is said to be expecting bids of more than 4m (2.8m). Offers must be submitted by 23 January.