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The East: Prisons: Good Government Requires Better Prison Conditions

  • Ben Partridge

London, 1 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Prison reformers say the number of inmates in jails across the former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe remains persistently high despite the desire of many governments to introduce more humane penology alternatives. Reformers say also that the resort to mass imprisonment in East and West urgently needs to be reviewed as it leads to profound human rights abuses, and does not meet the needs of modern society.

That's the view represented by Prison Reform International (PRI), a non-governmental organization set up in 1989 by criminal justice experts in many countries, concerned about the human rights implications of a huge rise in imprisonment around the world. PRI figures show that Russia imprisons a higher proportion of its population than any other country in the world (740 prisoners per 100,000) in overcrowded cells leading to rampant tuberculosis, deaths from squalor and lack of oxygen, and mental cruelty.

With one million prisoners in pre-trial detention or labor camps, Russia is ahead of the United States (645 per 100,000), which also is criticized by penal reformers for locking up very high numbers of people. The figures also are high for Kazakhstan (560), Belarus (505), Ukraine (425) and Latvia (406). The figure for Italy is 85 per 100,000, Netherlands 75, and for England and Wales, 120. The picture is by no means all bleak: PRI reports there has been a big improvement in the prison regimes in places like Poland, Slovenia, and Bulgaria. Reformers say these countries should be models for the region. PRI says overcrowding, particularly in remand prisons, became worse in many countries in the region last year. There has been a rapid spread of tuberculosis which flourishes in fetid and insanitary conditions. One report said active cases of tuberculosis in Russia alone are increasing by 10 percent a year. Dr. Andrew Coyle, director of the International Center for Prison Studies at King's College, London University, says up to 25 percent of inmates in prisons in the former Soviet Union, suffer from TB.

"Tuberculosis is becoming an increasing problem in imprisonment throughout the world but specifically in the former Soviet Union, where in some countries, up to 25 percent of prisoners suffer from TB. It's becoming a major concern not only for prison authorities, but for public health authorities."

Penal reformers say prison conditions are particularly bad in the Central Asian republics and Azerbaijan. PRI says Kazakhstan imprisons 90,000 in overcrowded conditions with poor nourishment. Another black spot is Belarus where PRI says prisons suffer from great overcrowding, disease and low staffing levels."

The case against prisons is this: They are expensive. Many inmates die from malnutrition or disease. Prison is often unjust. Imprisonment causes fundamental abuses of the human rights of prisoners. And prison is not an effective deterrent to crime.

One British study found that prison, in the study report's words, "can be an expensive way of making bad people worse." Vivien Stern, the secretary general of PRI, says her organization, funded by West European governments and the EU, wants to improve the treatment of people convicted of crimes:

"The question of penal reform is a major human rights issue because all around the world, in east and west, north and south, prisons are places of gross abuse. Prisons are full of the poorest of society. Many are there before their trial for very long periods. They are places where diseases flourish and where the young are abused and ill-treated by those larger and older than them."

Stern has studied how different societies deal with what she calls their "violent predators, social deviants and misfits." She argues that locking up massive numbers of people is an out-of-date way of handling those who threaten society. She also says Western countries, as she puts it, "do not have the answer as to how to punish people, because, relative to their prosperity, prison conditions are not particularly good." Dr Coyle, a former governor of one of London's largest prisons (Brixton), says there is an increasing recognition among governments of countries in transition that the management of prisons is a key element in the good governance of a country and needs to be addressed in the context of civil government."

"The good governance issue is crucial because deprivation of liberty does go, in a democratic state, to the root of state relations. You can't deal with prisons in isolation. Prisons are at the end of a long spectrum and, in a democratic society, that spectrum is about good governance. How does a state govern its citizens? And, particularly, how does it govern those citizens who break the law of the state? How do you deal with them firmly, but nonetheless humanely and decently?"

One of the driving forces behind prison reform, particularly in Central/East Europe, comprise former dissidents who, in the early 1990s, were invited by the new democratic governments to take over the administration of prison systems. Many of these dissidents had themselves been in prison, and so understood how it could be a dehumanizing, squalid and life-threatening experience.

The Czech Republic's Vaclav Havel, a former political prisoner, later president, once wrote to his wife, Olga, from prison about how sorry he felt for the other prisoners, and, in his words: "altogether, for the fact that prisons must exist, and that they are as they are, and mankind has not so far invented a better way of coming to terms with certain things."

(First in a series of four parts)