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Bulgaria: Harsh Conditions Prevail In Prison System

Sofia, 13 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Zlatka Rouseva, Deputy Minister of Justice and Eurointegration in Sofia, Bulgaria's penitentiary system reflects the current economic crisis in the whole of Bulgaria, only it is worse.

Rouseva told RFE/RL in Sofia that "We live under a currency board and the budget is severely restricted. If the government tries to increase expenditure for prisons and prisoners' welfare, the population that is in dire need of health care, schools and kindergartens will riot."

Currently, there are about 12,000 prisoners in Bulgaria living in what Rouseva called substandard conditions. Basic things such as food are in short supply and many prisons have trouble ensuring heating during the bitter winter months. Some prisons are overcrowded and their administration cannot separate hard-core criminals from first-time offenders. In most institutions, there is a severe lack of clothing. Prisoners are encouraged to wear their own clothes in order to save money.

Prison personnel, Rouseva added, has largely been unreformed since the fall of Communism and violations of human dignity persist. There are 13 penitentiary institutions in Bulgaria including one for underage criminals ages 14 - 18 and one for women.

RFE/RL visited the Sliven prison for women where around 400 inmates live in what appears to be a relatively clean if Spartan environment. But according to Alexander Keremedchiev, the prison's Deputy Director, the trouble here is that because the prison is so small serial murderers have to live next door to juvenile pickpockets and white-collar thieves that have not even been indicted.

The prisoners have to live on a food ration of 30 U.S. cents a day. Tampons are rare and toilet paper is considered a luxury. The heating system is switched on for half an hour a day and there is hot water for twenty minutes every Sunday. Prisoners complain that there is no drinking water as the administration has to economize on that, too.

Prisoners are ordered to work on a nearby farm. The produce is then sold back to them at what the prison's director called 'preferential prices'.

As some prisoners have small children, there is a small creche at the prison. There babies grow up behind bars and are being looked after by an elderly inmate who was once a nurse.

More than sixty percent of all inmates are Roma. Fights amongst them are not uncommon but prison officials, inmates told RFE/RL, do not use violence.

Keremedchiev has worked at the Sliven prison since 1974. 'Under Communism, officially there was no crime and we had 1,200 inmates. Now everyone's talking about crime but there are only 350 prisoners,' he said. Currently, Keremedchiev tries to attract sponsors for a conference he organizes to explore the dimensions of female crime.

Most prisoners' complaints are directed not at the prison administration but at the Bulgarian legal system which is slow and corrupt. It allows for inmates to be detained without court charges for up to two years and the accused person does not have to appear in court in order to be detained.

In Sofia, Vasil Gotzev, Minister of Justice agrees. 'The judiciary system is a foe to democracy,' he says.