Czech Helsinki Committee criticizes conditions in country’s prisons

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A report by the Czech Helsinki Committee, a respected human rights NGO, on Monday again highlighted the sorry state of Czech prisons. Their overcrowding continues to rise, which in turn deteriorates the living conditions for the inmates. The authorities believe – as they did a decade ago – that alternative punishment would help. But the system of alternative punishments has been inefficient and now supplies more convicts to the country’s prison houses.

Among 27 EU nations, the Czech Republic ranks 23rd in the prison population rate, a number that shows how many prisoners there are per 100,000 inhabitants. As a result, prisons are overcrowded by as much as 30 percent and prisoners have limited living space even by official standards.

The Czech Justice Ministry has been saying all along that a system of alternative punishments should alleviate the overburdened prison system But Markéta Kovaříková from the Czech Helsinki Committee says the system is inefficient and in fact makes the situation worse.

“We believe the most urgent problems include overcrowding, which in turn affects the effectiveness of the punishment. It’s very unfortunate that many convicts’ sentences are switched from alternative programmes to prison time of up to one year. The punishment does not serve the purpose it should. On the contrary, it deteriorates the chances of these people for reintegration once they are released, and also the situation of their families.”

Photo: Filip Jandourek
Czech justice began using alternative punishments in 1996, and judges have since been increasingly imposing these sentences for non-violent crimes and those of negligence. In 2002 and 2003, the Czech prison population dropped by as much as 20 percent. But in many cases, these sentences – especially community work – were given to repeat offenders who broke the rules and again ended up in jail.

Tereza Palečková is a spokeswoman for the Czech Justice Ministry. She says if properly administered, the system could really help.

“We believe that it would help if judges used alternative punishments more. However, this is impossible due to the fact the Czech Republic does not have a system of electronic monitoring of convicts. We think that if we had the so-called electronic bracelets, judges would more often impose these kinds of sentences.”

Electronic bracelet,  photo: CT24
Last year, the Czech Justice Ministry opened a two-billion public tender for the system. However, it was cancelled just months later over corruption allegations, a decision currently reviewed by the country’s anti-monopoly authority. Ms Palečková says a ruling is expected in June. In that case, electronic bracelets could first be used in 2013.