London, 1 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- International activists campaigning for better prison conditions say Poland has been remarkably successful in introducing reforms, and offers valuable lessons to nations East and West about how to make jails more humane.
Vivien Stern, the British secretary general of Penal Reform International (PRI) a non-government organization working on prison reforms in 40 countries worldwide, says Poland offers a better model than do most western countries.
"Poland is an example where prison reform has been outstandingly successful. It's one of the models for the world."
The Polish prison regime used to display many of the worst aspects of the Soviet Gulag. In the 1970s and 1980s, Poland had the largest prison system in Europe, apart from the Soviet Union, with an average 100,000 inmates held in 209 prisons. By the early 1980s, one out of every eight adults had been in jail at some time.
Polish prisons shared many of the problems of prisons across the communist countries -- overcrowding, tuberculosis and other diseases, and squalid and inhumane conditions. However, sweeping reforms from 1990-93, have achieved far-reaching results. Prison numbers have been cut dramatically.
Prison reformers say there is always a small number of people in all societies who present such a danger to others that they need to be detained. But for most offenses, it makes no sense to lock up people, particularly as prison is likely to harden criminal attitudes.
This is the philosophy behind Poland's reforms which, Stern says, coincided with the its adoption of democracy.
"It does seem to happen that when countries move to a democratic form of government, one of the first things that seems to occur to them is to look at their prisons. Because it's felt to be incompatible with real democracy to lock up such a large number of your citizens. Quite rightly. Because democracy is about freedom and liberty and so on."
How did Poland set about its reforms? In a new book, "A Sin against the Future," about prison practices worldwide, Stern notes that Poland concentrated on improving the quality of prison staff.
Danuta Gajdus, then-deputy director general, said the Polish prison service had lost control of prisons in 1989. The service sought to re-establish control without reverting to violent and repressive methods. They adopted a new a different philosophy, with new principles and a new ethical approach.
The authorities took action against staff corruption, theft of prison property and drunkenness. Some 2,500 staff left the prison service immediately, many taking early retirement. In total, authorities replaced 7,000 staff members, about 40 percent, over two years.
They put the rest through a retraining process to emphasize the human rights of prisoners, the treatment of prisoners as individuals, and rehabilitation as the basis for imprisonment.
The practices of staff collusion with powerful prisoners to control the rest and of use of some prisoners as informers in return for privileges was stopped. Prisons were opened up to the outside world. Some prisoners were allowed temporary release. Outsiders with a genuine interest, such as teachers, students, journalists, actors and writers, were encouraged to visit prisons, and many meetings, seminars and concerts took place.
One change took all prison staff except the guards -- that is teachers, educators, social workers -- out of uniform. Another required staff to wear name badges so that they became more personally responsible for their actions and decisions. Prisoners were allowed to wear their own clothes and receive more parcels from home. Families were allowed to prepare meals for prisoners during visits.
Stern says the Polish model is more relevant to Eastern countries than the examples of Western countries with their large resources. She says it is a particularly useful model for the Central Asian and Caucasus countries, led by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan and Armenia, who, say penal activists, are eager for prison reform.
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