The Czech Republic's flawed prison system

In this week's Talking Point, we look into a problem that many countries around the world are facing - overcrowded prisons. In the Czech Republic, prisons hold an average of 5 percent more inmates than they are designed for. Experts say the prison system is in dire need of reform as it is flawed at all stages - before, during, and after the incarceration of offenders.

There are a total of 35 prisons in the Czech Republic - pre-trial detention facilities and minimum, medium, and maximum security prisons. The total number of inmates currently stands at a little over 19,000; some 900 of them are women (at the Svetla nad Sazavou guarded prison or separated part of Prague's Ruzyne prison).

I'm standing in front of a vast complex of depressingly drab and daunting buildings in Prague's Pankrac district. The Pankrac prison and pre-trial detention facility is one of the Czech Republic's most overcrowded prisons; often with 25% more inmates than the 850 that it is designed to hold.

"There are about 200 prisons per every 100,000 inhabitants. This is two or three times the western European average. This means, of course, that our state spends more on the prison system.

"You can survive the conditions in prison but it's really degrading. The conditions are almost unacceptable in our civilisation."

Miroslav Krutina is an attorney at the Legal Analysis Department of the Czech Helsinki Committee. He says the state of Czech prisons is degrading - besides them being overcrowded, beds are in a terrible state, sheets are old and torn, windows are dark, prisoners have almost no walking space, and little time to spend in the fresh air. One of the biggest problems, Mr Krutina says, is that over 55 percent of prisoners have nothing to keep them busy.

Every incarceration costs the state 20,000 crowns a year (around 830 US dollars) or 500-600 crowns, in some cases 1,000 crowns, a day. Employed prisoners pay the Prison Service 45 crowns from their salary a day, up to 40 percent of their monthly salary, but not more than 1,500 crowns. All remaining costs have to be covered from the state budget. An expense, according to Mr Krutina, that the state can only blame on itself, as it fails to motivate inmates to work and approach private companies to employ them.

MK: "Most of our prisoners don't work and just get bored in their cells. Of course, if they don't have anything to do, they try to invent some 'fun' and that causes more problems."

For a brief period in the 1990s and the beginning of the new millennium, the Czech Republic's prison system could almost be used as a model for other countries struggling with overcrowded prisons. The total number of inmates stood at around 16,000 - three thousand less than today. This is because the country, which had a traditionally punitive justice system, introduced the use of alternative sentences, mostly for petty crimes as a means of rehabilitation or to prevent re-offending. Community service, conditional discharges, fines, and suspended prison sentences became popular. In 2001, a new institution - the Probation and Mediation Service, which was to help put alternative sentences into practice and reach effective results, was also founded. Pavel Stern, the head of the Probation and Mediation Service:

For a brief "It was a very positive development but in the last two years we noted that the prison population has been rising slowly but regularly."

So what went wrong? Why is the incarceration rate on the rise? In the first six months of this year, the number of inmates in the country's prison system rose by 1,161 prisoners; 95 prisoners more than during the whole of last year.

Pavel Stern: "We noted that one of the main problems is that judges sentence many people to community service even though the Czech justice system has a problem with re-offenders. According to analyses, we can say that the group that circulates in prisons is the group of re-offenders."

Miroslav Krutina: "I must agree with Pavel Stern. The biggest problem is that many offenders, who are given alternative sentences, are not motivated to serve it and just wait until the authorities come for them and send them to prison. So, that's how many alternative punishments are turned into prison sentences."

And while the probation service is quite professional, it has a chronic lack of staff. With only a little under 250 officials, it has only a quarter of the staff needed, experts say, to effectively work with those serving alternative sentences. While it is common for judges to have assistants, Czech judges find skilled help to be a luxury. Hence, many are overworked and, to be able to master their workload, are often forced to make quick rulings. Since courts are not linked by a nationwide database network, judges base their decisions on the contents of the defendant's file; at times unaware that the person is already being accused of another crime elsewhere; thereby deciding a sentence that may be inappropriate.

MK: "Judges always order conditional punishments first, when it's not a serious crime. But when people serve their conditional sentences, the state doesn't work with them. So, they are not motivated, commit another crime, and don't get another chance. So they end up going to prison for both crimes. The upshot is that more than half of our punishments are really short - under one year of imprisonment. From the point of view of penitentiary science, it's unreasonable to send someone to prison for such a short time. It's better to use some other measure."

The overcrowding of prisons naturally puts pressure on prison managements, for whom observing basic operational standards has become an everyday challenge. Some have problems observing the regulation requiring that every inmate has no less than four square metres of accommodation space.

MK: "This rule is not commonly broken but it already became a problem last year, so some rooms which were used as resting rooms or rooms for common activities were also turned into cells. It's quite difficult for them to provide anything other than the basic needs, such as managing food for the prisoners and isolating them from society. But it's quite hard for them to work with the prisoners on some programmes."

Few prisoners are prepared for a new life outside the prison walls. In most developed countries, halfway houses for prisoners on parole are commonplace. In the Czech Republic, they are rare:

MK: "There are only a few parole's very rare. We tested one at the Czech Helsinki Committee and we were successful. But it involved only about 55 people who were on parole. Our state doesn't have enough personnel to deal with people on parole. This again means that there is no one who can work with them, influence them, and motivate them."

While it is clear that the Czech justice system has yet to reform, experts say it is not surprising that it has been taking so long - over a decade after the fall of communism - for the country to adjust. Five years ago, the government for the first time seriously considered putting the management of some prisons into private hands. A few private contractors have come forward but the idea still has a long way to go before it bears fruit.