Foreign News: The Happy Jail

Up to 1947, the prisoners pent behind the grim stone walls of the old prison in the little Normandy town of Pont-l'Evéque were an unimaginative crew—mostly drunks, chicken thieves, wife-beaters and petty racketeers—and their prison life was as dreary as their crimes. Then, on a certain hot afternoon in July, a new warden took over. Pert as a pouter pigeon, rotund little Fernand Billa was a jailer less interested in penology than in poetry and strong pastis (a variant of absinthe). With plenty of verses and good drink to hand, Billa could find even a prison wilderness paradise enow.

On his very...

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