As a member of the Council of Europe, the southern Caucasus state of Georgia has committed itself to bring its detention facilities in line with international human rights standards. Yet, independent experts who have visited local jails in recent months have criticized the treatment and living conditions of inmates and urged Georgian authorities to move swiftly to reform their prison system. Another source of concern for rights activists is the upholding of traditions that have influenced prisoners' lives since the Soviet period. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch reports from Tbilisi.
Tbilisi, 24 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Since Georgia became the 41st member of the Council of Europe in April 1999, this former Soviet republic has been regularly reminded to fulfill its international human rights obligations.
Violence against religious minorities, harassment of journalists, widespread torture by police, and a regressive criminal procedure are among the shortcomings generally listed by international human rights watchdogs when reviewing Georgia's nascent democracy record.
Another subject of concern is the detention conditions for the 7,500 officially recorded prisoners and detainees currently sitting in Georgia's 17 detention facilities.
Following a two week fact-finding mission in May 2001, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) gave Georgian authorities a 12-month deadline to improve the treatment of inmates and report back on measures taken to curb abuses in prisons.
Earlier this year (19 April), the United Nations Human Rights Committee -- a body consisting of 18 independent experts -- issued its own recommendations for the improvement of detention conditions and set a similar deadline.
Both the CPT and the UN Human Rights Committee cited Georgia's prisons as having high death rates and unhealthy living conditions. International experts also denounced the mistreatment of inmates by prison wardens and procedural violations by law enforcement officials.
Georgian authorities say they have already taken measures to tackle these problems.
Justice Ministry officials cite the recent opening of a model penitentiary colony for juvenile delinquents in Avchala, near Tbilisi, and the ongoing construction of a new women's colony to replace the Soviet-era one that was badly damaged by an earthquake six months ago.
Authorities say some 150 prison officers have been fired since the beginning of this year for mistreatment of inmates and other offenses. They also claim that new wardens are being trained to progressively replace the old Soviet prison personnel.
The Justice Ministry, which has been supervising the penitentiary system since January 2000 instead of the Interior Ministry, claims food rations have been upgraded, steps taken to improve health conditions in penal establishments, and an emergency phone line installed for prisoners or detainees wishing to complain about mistreatment.
It also says 200 jobs have been created this year for prisoners, who manufacture liturgical artifacts for the Georgian Orthodox Church and railroad ties for Armenia's state railroad company.
Earlier this year (12 March), Georgia renewed an agreement with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to combat tuberculosis in penal establishments. ICRC officials say the program has already brought significant results.
But even government officials reckon that much remains to be done.
Giorgi Janashia heads the Justice Ministry's Penitentiary System Reform and Monitoring Department. He was asked by RFE/RL what prevents Georgia from doing more to upgrade its penal system.
"Money, of course. You know, there is no line in the state's budget to cover construction work or upgrade other sectors of the penitentiary system. Believe me, construction [of new facilities] is the main issue today. When new buildings are being built, when prisons are being upgraded, or when new beds, new chairs are being purchased, it has a positive impact on the prisoners' lives."
Janashia said last year's budget restrictions compelled the ministry to dip into its emergency funds to finance construction of the Avchala children's colony.
The daily food allowance granted to each prisoner is only 80 tetris (40 cents) and the Justice Ministry's Janashia says the government can afford only 50 tetris (25 cents) a day per head to support health care in prisons.
But is money the only problem?
Although they agree that poor funding is an issue, human rights activists familiar with the penitentiary system believe that other, more structural, factors explain why so few changes have been brought to Georgia's penal life so far.
Nana Kakabadze chairs a Tbilisi-based nongovernmental organization called Former Political Prisoners for Human Rights. She says corruption of prison staff ranks high among obstacles to prison reform.
"[Corruption] manifests itself in various forms. For example, prisoners kept in detention isolators have sometimes to sleep in turns because there is not enough room [in the cell]. When representatives of the CPT came here, the Justice Ministry let us visit [a detention isolator] with them. We saw 36 or 37 prisoners in cells in which the official occupancy was only 28. There also were a number of empty cells. In all likelihood, if an inmate is ready to give [wardens] even more money, he can live in slightly better conditions than the average."
Critics argue that the government has done virtually nothing to combat the plague of corruption, despite official claims to the contrary. Asked about allegations of corruption in the penitentiary system, the Justice Ministry's Janashia did not deny them. But, like most government officials, he said poor state funding is to blame for the venality of civil servants.
"Corruption in the penal system exists. But I would like to draw your attention to the fact that salaries are very low. The [average] monthly salary of a [watchtower] guard is 70 laris ($35). Believe me, it is too little a sum to carry out one's duty zealously. Other employees of the penal administration get even less."
Human rights activist Kakabadze, however, believes corruption in the penal administration is more deeply rooted and originates from the Soviet-era penitentiary system, which has left an indelible imprint on relations between wardens and inmates.
In Soviet prisons and labor camps, the lives of inmates were not so much governed by rules imposed by the administration than by a rigid criminal code of honor enforced by the so-called "vory v zakone," a Russian idiom that designates a sort of criminal aristocracy that could be described as "the guardians of the thieves' code."
Ten years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, "vory" and "avtorityety" -- a slightly lower rank in the criminal hierarchy -- continue to dominate prison life in most CIS countries, notably in Georgia.
Although almost impossible to verify, crime experts believe one-third of the "vory v zakone" in the Soviet Union were Russians, while another 30 percent were said to be Georgians.
Kakabadze says decades-long relations between the underworld elite and the penitentiary administration represent a major obstacle to prison reform in Georgia.
"It is the 'vory' who effectively rule in prisons, not the penitentiary administration. These 'vory,' these 'avtorityety,' enjoy better living conditions, have better cells than the rest of the prisoners. It seems to us that the administration is doing nothing to create equal living conditions for all inmates. One of the main problems is that the administration does not want to exert control over prisons or, rather, that it is using the [existing] system to control prisons. Since this system is a source of profit for the administration, it authorizes anarchy in prisons. In our view, one of the main problems to tackle is this institution of 'vory.' "
The main duty of the 'vory' is to administer interprisoner relations and to settle disputes between inmates. Another duty is to manage a sort of insurance fund made up of forced contributions from all prisoners. Part of the money goes directly to the prison's administration and another part remains in the cell to buy medicine or other goods for the prisoners. The jackpot also serves to bribe wardens so that they will allow prostitutes or professional gamblers into the cells.
Kakabadze says prison officials and inmates are equally unwilling to put an end to the system, which, she believes, "profits both sides."
The Justice Ministry's Janashia dismisses the claim. He says power structures among prisoners should be dismantled and believes a draft program to replace all existing penal colonies with prisons should help achieve this goal.
"Unfortunately, the system that existed under communism has remained intact. Underworld bosses are still exerting control over prisoners, but we are engaged in a fierce battle against them. They are often locked into disciplinary cells and their detention regime is being regularly changed. Yet, this remains a very serious issue because these people feel themselves very important in penal establishments. In order to combat this, we should first of all switch from the colony system to a closed prison system similar to the one that exists in Europe. To exert surveillance in a prison is much easier, whereas in a colony, with its 20 or 25 hectares of land, it is very difficult to work and keep the situation under control."
It is questionable whether an all-prisons system could help Georgia's penal administration completely break away from its Soviet past -- all the more so considering that other decades-long traditions have survived until today.
Kakabadze points to another circumstance that, in her opinion, hinders a genuine reform of the penal system. She says that, as in the former Soviet Union, all current cadres of the Justice Ministry come from the General Prosecutor's office, whereas demands made by the Council of Europe specify that the influence of prosecutors on the penal system should be reduced.
"One could say that the prison system has remained unchanged since the Soviet Union," Kakabadze concludes.