Imprisoned MP calls attention to sorry state of Czech prisons

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Deteriorating conditions in Czech prisons have elicited plenty of criticism in recent years and much has been said and written on the subject. However no one has addressed the issue more vocally or found a broader platform for his complaints than the former governor of central Bohemia, MP David Rath –the country’s most famous prisoner who is in custody awaiting trial on corruption charges.

David Rath
David Rath’s fall from grace has been described as a trip from heaven to hell in the space of just a few hours. What he experienced in custody in the Litomerice jailhouse led him to devote a considerable part of his recent address to the lower house to the conditions in Czech prisons.

“We live in a country where imprisonment is a form of torture. Do you consider it normal for prisoners to be allowed to shower just twice a week or spend an hour a day out in the open in a courtyard that is two times three meters? This is done until people are broken in spirit, taken to the very depth of despair. Those are methods similar to that which the communist secret police used. They do not belong in civilized Europe.”

Photo: Filip Jandourek,  Czech Radio
Although many people put the emotional address down to an MPs shock at finding himself slumming it among criminals, those in the know say that the experience of being held in custody can paradoxically be much worse than that of serving time in a jailhouse after being convicted. Lawyer Jaroslav Ortman says that despite the presumption of innocence people in custody are treated as if they were convicts.

“The conditions in our prisons are dismal. Those held in custody can only see visitors once a fortnight for an hour and a half in the presence of an officer. They have access to hot water twice a week. No phone calls whatsoever. Twenty-three hours of their day is spent in a cell with a toilet.”

44-year-old Miroslav, a former inmate who asked to remain in anonymity, says the worst part of the experience was being cut off from his family –his only source of moral support. He says that the hygiene conditions only made it worse.

“You could only shower properly twice a week. And there was hot water for about ten minutes for each of us. So you do what you can and wash yourself in cold water whenever possible.”

Critics of the system say that while all prisoners should have more humane conditions, the fact that people in custody are treated like criminals is outrageous. Senator Jiří Dienstbier of the opposition Social Democrats says the present conditions in custody are unacceptable.

“People who are in custody should not have their freedoms restricted more than is absolutely necessary.”

The Czech Prison Service says it is doing what it can in difficult circumstances and maintains that it is simply abiding by the law. Robert Káčer is a spokesman for the prison service.

“There can be no question that we fully adhere to all rights and norms stipulated by the law. This includes internationally binding norms regarding prisoners’ rights.”

However there is no denying that due to a lack of finances, living conditions in Czech prisons have steadily deteriorated and the situation is now close to critical. According to official sources the capacity of Czech prisons is now exceeded by over 30 percent. While the number of convicts has been rising, the number of guards has decreased as a result of cuts in financing. Last year prisoners rebelled over what they called insufferable living conditions – citing poor hygiene, foul food, overcrowded cells, inadequate medical care and restricted free time activities. In an effort to save on electricity many jailhouses have banned electric kettles which prisoners were allowed to use in their cells to make hot tea and imposed other cost-cutting restrictions.

The Czech Helsinki Committee has been inundated with complaints from prisoners and has repeatedly criticized the prison service for failing to address the problem. One former prisoner even took the matter to court demanding half a million crowns from the state for the inhumane living conditions in which he was forced to serve his sentence.

An attempt to alleviate the problem by passing a law which would enable judges to impose alternative punishments failed to produce results after the justice ministry delayed a tender for electronic bracelets that would have reinforced a curfew order.

Jiří Pospíšil
Justice Minister Jiří Pospíšil has repeatedly requested extra funding saying that finances are at the core of the problem. He explains that whatever money is available is being used for security and basic operations leaving very little for investment into better living conditions.

Last week brought some hope of improvement. The minister warned the cabinet that the prison system was on the verge of collapse and ministers earmarked another 700 million crowns for the country’s 36 jailhouses. The money is to be used both to improve living conditions for prisoners and work conditions for prison administration. The problem is that only 150 million will come from state coffers. Mr. Pospíšil has been advised to find the rest within his own portfolio budget. The minister says that some changes for the better will be forthcoming, but he refuses to link them to the highly publicized case of MP David Rath.

“We had been planning a certain number of improvements before the Rath case emerged. I do not want the public to get the impression that we are changing the rules because of one jailed politician.”

The changes are likely to improve not just the conditions in jailhouses but also slightly liberate the rules which govern the prisoners’ daily routine. With tension rising on both sides of the bars any change for the better comes at the eleventh hour.

At present there are over 23 thousand prisoners doing time in the country’s 36 jailhouses. Over 5,000 convicts are wanted by the police for avoiding their jail sentences and the prison service says if they too were to turn up at the country’s prison gates it would be almost impossible to cope.