Crime & Justice, Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-CZECH REPUBLIC: Life on Perpetual Hold for ‘Lifers’

Zoltán Dujisin

PRAGUE, Sep 26 2008 (IPS) - Eighteen years after the death penalty was abolished in the Czech lands, little has been done to prepare anyone convicted of the gravest crimes for their eventual return to society.

Reintegration programmes for the Czech Republic’s 35 inmates serving a fixed-term life imprisonment, including two women, were “scarce and unattractive”, Ladislav Zamboj, of the Prague-based Counselling Centre for Citizenship, Civil and Human Rights, told IPS.

“As a result, few show any interest in them.”

Prisoners, who had no work in prison, could easily be allowed to enrol in open-learning projects, at least giving them an elementary school education.

“But the biggest problem is financing this. Most prison staff have no sympathy with the idea of paying for educational programmes. They consider it a waste of resources.

“One prisoner is being funded by a Christian organisation and another by his family, but that is all.”

“Alternative justice tools, such as conditional release or parole, are not being used adequately,” said Frantisek Vales, executive director of the Czech Helsinki Committee, adding that this was due to “administrative incompetence”.

Czech law allows prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment to apply for conditional release after 30 years in prison.

But most prisoners were likely to die a natural death behind bars before ever qualifying. “Three of them have committed suicide,” Zamboi said.

Rights activists expressed concern at the psychological strain on their isolated lives in high-security prisons.

“Many do not have families or contact with the outside world,” said Zamboj, who has counselled and corresponded with many “lifers”.

Opportunities for maintaining contact with relatives were rare, and inmates needed convincing reasons to apply for them.

“They spend 90 percent of their time locked in their cells. They are entitled to go for a daily walk and an hour of activities, but overall they are not allowed out of their cells more than three hours a day. You could hardly say they have a social life.”

Up until last year, regardless of their past behaviour, they were handcuffed for such trivial activities as taking a shower or a walk.

“They live in dark, humid underground cells with barely any natural light,” Vales said.

They were treated “repressively”, not as individuals but as a group.

Activists say communication with the outside world is censored, preventing the media from having an accurate picture of prison conditions.

Letters to the press or local organisations were monitored and prison staff were likely to retaliate if inmates denounced their conditions.

There was a complaints procedure, but it was ineffective and self-protecting of the prison authorities, said Zamboj.

“There should be an independent body to address prisoner complaints.”

In 2000, the repression was stepped up when a notorious double-murderer, Jiri Kajinek, escaped from one of the country’s highest security prisons and was 40 days on the run before being recaptured, activists say.

High and low-ranking prison officers lost their jobs.

“Such situations can happen, but the staff should not be punished because it is the prisoners who have to bear the brunt of the repressive measures that follow,” Zamboj said.

Night controls were introduced. Prisoners were moved around the prison system without notice.

“This goes against human dignity because everyone is entitled to a stable place of living,” Vales said.

“One of the prisoners I work with was ordered one morning to move immediately after living 13 years in the same cell,” said Zamboj.

Civil society organisations have complained recently of the prison system becoming even more repressive and closed to public scrutiny.

“Now, it takes at least a year for prison statistics to be published. Before, they were available every month. We presume the situation in Czech prisons is either unchanged or has slightly worsened,” Vales said.

Some of this is traced to the 2006 election win of the right-wing Civil Democrats (ODS) and the appointment of a new director of the prison service, Ludek Kula. Under his leadership, social integration and education programmes have been further downgraded in importance.

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