Ombudsman issues sobering report on ad-hoc procedures at Czech “drunk tanks”

Anna Šabatová, photo: Šárka Ševčíková

The Czech ombudsman has criticized the country’s system of “drunk tanks” where people under the influence of alcohol or drugs can be taken to sober up. The ombudsman says clients are often treated unnecessarily harshly at these stations which are underfinanced, and have poorly trained staff. The Czech Health Ministry however says new legislation should help fix most of the issues.

Anna Šabatová, photo: Šárka Ševčíková
An estimated 1.5 million people have been treated at Czech “drunk tanks” since their introduction in the 1950s. During their heyday some 30 years later, there were 63 of them across the whole of then Czechoslovakia; today, the Czech Republic has 18 such facilities, locally known as záchytka.

Czech ombudsman Anna Šabatová has visited eight of these stations, and has come up a report which says the system for sobering up is seriously flawed – legally, medically and financially. Ms Šabatová spoke to Czech TV on Tuesday about her findings.

“The facilities are understaffed, and are often insufficiently equipped. Also, there must be clear admission rules, stipulating cases when people cannot be admitted. Moreover, physical restraint should be used prudently and only in accordance with the law.

“Some situations merit restraint and there are precise rules governing its use. But the stations’ staff are sometimes not sufficiently trained in this matter.”

Photo: Tomáš Adamec
Ms Šabatová also says the decision if an intoxicated person can be admitted can only be made by the doctor rather than the police, who usually bring in the potential clients. However, doctors are not always present, according to the ombudsman’s report.

There have been many complaints over the years from people who said they were wrongfully taken to a “drunk tank”, or who claimed they were maltreated by the staff.

In 2007, a young man from Brno was forcibly taken to the local sobering station after overdosing on tranquilisers. He took the case to the European Court of Human Rights which eventually granted him 20,000 euros in compensation from the Czech authorities.

The man was represented by the League of Human Rights, a Brno-based NGO. Zuzana Candigliota is their health care expert.

“I think the ombudsman is absolutely right in pointing out these issues. Admissions are one huge problem – we have often come across cases when the police deliberately take people to the station even though they’re not aggressive, and they are admitted although it’s obvious they should be rather taken home.

“Another issue is the treatment at the station itself when people are routinely restrained, often for the whole night.”

'Záchytka', photo: Pavel Sedláček
The ombudsman also notes that funding of the facilities, relying on contributions from regional administrations as well as on fees from their clients, is unsustainable in the long run.

For its part, the Czech Health Ministry recognizes some of the issues highlighted in the ombudsman report. Ministry spokeswoman Štěpánka Čehcová said the problems would be addressed in new legislation which should reach the lower house of Parliament sometime next year.