The men were held at the Camp Est prison in Noumea, which they claim was not only over-crowded but infested with rats and cockroaches.
They complained that they were expected use toilets in full view of their cellmates, and that their sheets were only changed every two months.
Sixty more prisoners are now hoping to take up cases against the state.
The International Observatory of Prisons and New Caledonia's Human Rights League have helped lodged the cases.
Speaker:Barbara Liaras, French division, International Observatory of Prisons
LIARAS: It's very important because it acknowledges the situation that everybody has known for years that the situation in Noumea prison is well known by everybody; the judiciary, the prison administration, the French state. Members of French parliament visited the prison earlier this year and qualified that a post-colonial prison colony. So the situation was pretty well known but it needed, that's why we're very pleased by this decision, it needed to be acknowledged by the courts. I think that was the really important point for the prisoners themselves. They didn't do that for money but really because they wanted the situation to be acknowledged by the courts and the French state to be condemned for that.
COUTTS: What kind of compensation could they be in line for?
LIARAS: Again it's not really a matter of financial compensation, it's really a moral thing that the French state be known to mistreat its prisoners at a point which is qualified as inhumane treatment.
COUTTS: Alright then so I just wonder for our audience if you could run us through and describe the kinds of conditions that the prisoners have had to put up with?
LIARAS: Well typically the prison cells are about 12 square metres, you have up to six persons living in there 23 hours a day. it's extremely noisy and that's something that the prisoners have pointed out, it makes it very difficult to sleep, it's very hot, very warm, there is a lot of vermin, lice, cockroaches that you find in the food. There have been several food contanimation instances. It's very difficult to have access to medical care both because there are not enough practitioners in the prison, but also because it's difficult to just go from one point to the other. There are not enough staff because of this over-crowding. So all this piled up, added one to the other, makes it degrading treatment.
COUTTS: Well as we've already described the case has been complained about by prisoners and others for some time. So it's taken this case to get it before the public, and is that the reason that the prisons basically have had their day in court?
LIARAS: Yeah and this case is only the beginning, so these are the 33, but another 60 are going to be taken to court tomorrow and we have helped, we the observers of the prison and the Human Rights League in Noumea, we have helped 150 prisoners prepare cases, which is a very long process. So it's coming out today and it's brought to the public today. But it's been going on for several months and even years.
COUTTS: Barbara it's all very well to get the case to court, to get it into the public arena and get compensation. But what's been done to clean up the conditions in the prison?
LIARAS: That's part of the problem. The prison administration wanted to, well says it wants to build a new prison in Noumea. The municipality of Noumea doesn't want to give the land or to sell the land for this. So it's been a bouncing problem from one institution to the other. I think basically the problem is not really in building another prison but is in using other sentences that are very well documented and very efficient methods of dealing with crime that are non-custodial. And really I think that would be an emergency and a very short term answer that would be possible at a very low cost.