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East: Bad Conditions Persist In Eastern European/Central Asian Prisons

  • Ben Partridge

London, 17 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Penal reformers are concerned about inhumane conditions in prisons across the former communist countries, with reports that some inmates spend several years locked in small rooms with up to 90 other people.

The problems include gross overcrowding, poor sanitation, insufficient food, and a shortage of beds, conditions that lead to disease -- particularly tuberculosis -- violence, and alcoholism.

Some of the worst conditions are said to be in the former Soviet republics, notably the Central Asian countries. Tomris Atabay, a project officer for Penal Reform International, which campaigns for better prison conditions worldwide, says many prisoners are suffering, often having to live 23 hours a day in overcrowded cells.

"The main problem is overcrowding particularly in pre-trial detention centers, where prisoners wait for long periods before their trials. It's a general problem with most of the countries in the region: bad food, accommodation, prison conditions generally."

Penal Reform International and the International Center for Prison Studies at King's College, London, have joined forces in a project aimed at improving conditions across the region.

Andrew Coyle, director of the International Center, says since the collapse of the Soviet Union, most countries in the region have become more open about the massive problems in their prisons.

These problems include a serious shortage of resources. In pre-trial prisons, accused people can "spend several years locked in small rooms along with up to 90 other prisoners" in unhygienic conditions. Tuberculosis is a major problem in all countries of the region. Up to 25 percent of prisoners are affected by the disease.

Coyle says the new prison reform project will help to take forward work that has already begun to introduce a "degree of humanity and decency into these terrible situations."

Aside from overcrowding and health care, the three-year project -- partly funded by the British Government -- aims to tackle what is known as "dehumanization' -- that is, the detrimental effects of human beings of exposure to "appalling prison conditions."

The project will complement work already being done by the Center for Prison Studies across the eastern countries, which includes partnerships with training institutes for senior prison staff in Ukraine and Russia, a prison management project in Kazakhstan.

Training experts from Penal Reform International went to Kazakhstan earlier this week on a mission to help prison staffs fight tuberculosis and to improve conditions. This project is being in run in cooperation with a private agency, Dutch Interchurch Aid.

Tomris Atabay says one problem across the region is that prison staffs are handicapped by low levels of professionalism, low motivation and morale. One goal is to instill the idea that prisoners have human rights, and how these rights should be observed.

Atabay says prison staff will be trained in how to balance security with the needs of the human dignity of prisoners.

She says prisoners should have contact with the outside world; they should have access to visitors and letters; that prisons have a formal complaints procedure; and that staff recognize the needs of special category prisoners, including juveniles and women.

"It is important to train prison staff in human rights instruments, to raise their awareness of the existence of these instruments, and, secondly, to show them ways of ensuring that these human rights principles are put into effect."

Atabay says penal reforms in Poland in the early 1990s provide a good example of how much can be achieved with very scarce resources. She says the Polish example is a model for others.