ONE 10 • Paris Notes: inside the Women’s Prison

In the summer of 1978, a telephone call from Rosalie Gomes, an editor at the English-language Paris newspaper, Paris Metro, was to lead to an out of the blue bizarre correspondence with a young woman. The newspaper had received a letter from an American woman who was an inmate in the Women’s Prison in Rennes, about three hours southwest of Paris. From New York City, Jill Diamond had no family or friends in France and Rosalie, who was a friend of mine, thought that I was a possible candidate to befriend the woman. I readily agreed, took Jill’s address and wrote an immediate letter to her. Little did I suspect when I posted this letter that I had opened the door to a two-year deeply intense and passionate correspondence.

Paris Notes: inside the Women’s Prison
–Jim Haynes

My letter to Jill briefly introduced myself and explained how I came to be writing her. She replied immediately, obviously hungry to have someone to communicate with. Right away our letters began speeding their way between Rennes and Paris. We both looked forward to the other’s post. In those pre-computer days, I used an IBM selectric typewriter with carbon paper to keep a copy of my side. Jill’s letters were hand-written. I learned that she had been living in Morocco, that she had a young son her sister was caring for in New York City, that Jill’s mother was no longer alive, that her father lived in Miami. Jill had been living with a nightclub owner in Morocco and allowed herself to be talked into ferrying hashish from Paris to Amsterdam. The hashish was to be brought into Paris by police guards on an Air Maroc flight. Once in Paris, it was to be handed over to Jill who then would drive it up to Amsterdam.

Up to a point, the plan worked, but the recipient in Holland, upset with the late arrival, telephoned Morocco to find out what was wrong. He was told that all was in order, the hashish was in France and would be headed in a few days to Holland. The police in Holland were tapping the call. They called their colleagues in Paris and reported the story and asked them not to interfere. The French police thanked them and immediately proceeded to seize the hashish and to arrest Jill. Newspapers in France splashed the news that “Madame Big” of European drug-dealing had been captured. A speedy trial ensued and Jill was found guilty and given a five-year sentence and found herself in the Women’s Prison in Rennes. All others escaped. The nightclub owner and instigator of the escapade remained silent. The promise of support if Jill needed it never materialized.

But for a superficial visit of an American consular official from Paris, no one visited Jill in prison. I decided to seek permission from the prison director to visit Jill. I did not want to tell Jill in case my request was denied. I explained that I was not a relative, that I never met Jill, but that I had been corresponding with her for almost a year. Could I have permission to visit Jill on her birthday, the 2nd of December, which fell on a Sunday, the visiting day at the prison? A letter arrived from the prison stating that exceptionally permission was granted.

A small expedition of friends drove me to Rennes and the three plus hours it took us to reach Rennes and to find the prison meant that we arrived late. Visiting time was almost over when I entered the prison. Jill was paged and told to report to the Visiting Room. She arrived in a state of semi-shock, completely surprised. We both were wiping tears from our eyes when we met for the first time. We embraced like two long lost friends. An intense hour followed. And then it was over. And then it was time to head back to Paris.
It had been a step back into the Middle Ages. The prison had the feel of a medieval fortress. Thick dank walls. Large heavy doors. Many women spent their lives inside. Their sadness and repression could be felt. Jill was to be inside almost three years. Allowed time off from her five-year sentence for good behavior, she was given permission to visit Paris and to stay in my atelier with me before being sent back to New York City. And then Madame Big of the global drug business was set free. She was sent back to New York to her son and sister and her life. We continued to stay in contact, but our intense correspondence came to an end. I hope I never have to visit the Women’s Prison in Rennes ever again. Alas Jill can never visit France again. But two positive consequences: she learned to type and she speaks
fluent French.

Join Jim Haynes for his famous Sunday Dinners in Paris