Prisons are globalizing - conference on problems faced by prison services

The Czech Republic has one of the highest prison populations in the developed world. One person in every five hundred is currently behind bars. Prison reform is the subject of an international conference currently under way in the town of Kromeriz. David Vaughan looks at some of the problems being discussed.

Like so many aspects of life today, prisons are rapidly globalizing and this has been a main theme of the conference. With greater movement of people across borders prisons are rapidly turning into a Babel of different languages and cultures. Jennifer Oades is executive director of the International Corrections and Prisons Association:

"Some countries report that over forty percent of their prison populations are comprised of foreign nationals, which makes it a huge challenge in terms of language, culture, religion, and with human rights they should be provided with a number of things and it's very difficult for a lot of countries to accommodate this right now."

The Czech Republic is no exception. There currently over 1500 non-Czech nationals in Czech jails, the majority being from Ukraine or Slovakia although countries such as Peru, Mali or Cuba are also represented. The Czech Prison Service spokeswoman, Miloslava Havlickova, says that attempts are being made to adapt to the situation:

"We're trying to take some of their needs into consideration, especially concerning their cultural and religious traditions. We've opened several prison chapels and we've just opened a place for Muslims to pray in Ruzyne Prison in Prague."

A further specific problem is the disproportionately large number of prisoners in the Czech Republic from the Romany minority. Jennifer Oades has experience with dealing with similar problems in Canada and Australia:

"I know that with aboriginal peoples in Canada they have their own sense of justice. Both Canada and Australia are working on a number of projects that provide those people with a much more holistic approach and more a traditional approach that they are comfortable with."

So has a similar system, taking into account Romany attitudes towards crime and punishment been tried in the Czech Republic? A question for Miloslava Havlickova.

"It would be frowned upon if we created specific programmes for the Roma. In fact Czech legislation would consider it discrimination. For that reason we don't even keep statistics about the number of Roma in our prisons. But what we are doing is to try to establish specific programmes for each prisoner - made to measure as it were."

The programmes include psychotherapy and training in social behaviour or overcoming aggression, but at this stage, for financial reasons they do not always work in practice.

Ironically, in one respect prison life in the Czech Republic has got significantly worse since the fall of communism. In those days all prisoners had work. Now the work situation inside prisons reflects the situation outside, with rising unemployment. Currently 60 percent of prisoners have little to keep them busy.

But the key to resolving problems of prison overcrowding does not lie in the prison system itself, says Jennifer Oades.

"We must stop tinkering with reforms at the corrections end - we see ourselves at the end of the criminal justice system - and start look at the social programmes or lack of social programmes that exist in the community. It cannot just be the correctional system that can work on those issues. It has to be the entire criminal justice system."

In the Czech Republic, the impact of changes to the system has been seen very clearly with the recent introduction of a new Criminal Code. In the space of six months the number of people being held in custody prior to trial has fallen from 7000 to half that figure. This has enabled each prisoner to be allocated four square metres instead of three, a significant improvement, but still well below the figure that the Czech Republic will have to attain once it joins the European Union.