Crime & Justice, Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

Q&A: 'Conditions in Prisons Should be Close to Those Outside'

Zoltán Dujisin interviews PAVEL KANDRAC, Slovakia's Public Defender of Rights

BRATISLAVA, Dec 5 2008 (IPS) - More experts should become engaged in helping long-term prisoners prepare for their eventual return to society, says Pavel Kandrac. Kandrac, Slovakia's parliamentary-elected ombudsman, says the ultimate goal is their re-socialisation.

Pavel Kandrac Credit:

Pavel Kandrac Credit:

Priority should also be given to prevention.

IPS: When former Czechoslovakia abolished the death penalty in 1990, were the condemned then given life sentences? Pavel Kandrac: The last time capital punishment was carried out was in the 1980s. So when the death penalty was abolished, there was no one in prison whose sentence needed to be commuted to life imprisonment.

IPS: Can life sentences be reviewed? PK: That possibility exists for any sentence in Slovakia.

IPS: Have you received complaints from any lifers? PK: No, I haven't from people sentenced to life but I have from other prisoners. When complaints are substantiated, we ask the relevant bodies to take measures to address them. But sometimes the complaints are not substantiated. For instance, once a prisoner complained about the quality of the food and after an investigation we concluded he was wrong. I personally tried a prison meal, it was very tasty.

IPS: One of the bodies that used to monitor conditions of lifers here, the Helsinki Committee, has ceased operating. Is there enough advocacy for prisoners' rights? PK: I know from my contacts with prisoners that there are NGOs interested in their conditions, and I and my colleagues regularly visit and control prisons to see the regulations on conditions are observed. Also, when we receive complaints we personally check the situation. We also have conferences on how to protect the basic human rights of prisoners, and each and every one of our reports has a chapter on prison conditions which then goes to the parliamentary committees and is discussed in a plenary session in which I participate.

IPS: The Council of Europe's Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) claimed in its 2006 report that lifers suffer from severe isolation which is impairing their social skills and causing loss of self-esteem. How do you respond to this? PK: Bodies such as the European Union and the Council of Europe make regular controls of our prisons. From my knowledge and experience of their material, they are not unsatisfied with the prisoners' conditions. In spite of the isolation, the Slovak law guarantees to protect their human dignity.

IPS: They also claim the prisoners are allowed to see visitors only once every six months and cannot have any physical contact with them … A: The frequency of visits and their realisation are regulated by the law.

IPS: Some say there is no reason to believe lifers are more dangerous than other prisoners, and that there should be an individual risk assessment for each one of the isolated prisoners to decide on the conditions in which they should be held. PK: It is important to realise that these people were sentenced for very serious crimes. You may or may not agree with me, but I believe that anyone who commits a premeditated crime is a danger to the community.

IPS: Would you agree with changing the law to allow them more human contact? PK: Any law can possibly be changed and as a society develops we should change them. I don't want to make prophesies about which laws should or might be changed but there is a very valid principle of humanism in our laws.

IPS: Critics have also complained about the health conditions of lifers. They are not always keen on seeing doctors because they are hand-cuffed during medical examinations. Moreover, these examinations are carried out in the presence of guards, a violation of doctor-patient confidentiality rules. Some of them also suffer from untreated depressive illnesses. PK: The Public Defender of Rights [ombudsman] has received some complaints in this regard but after investigation they were not found to be substantiated. I remember receiving a complaint from a prisoner who asked for a special medicine which would have similar effects as a drug. The doctors' investigation concluded he did not need this medicine and he was given a more appropriate alternative. Not only do prisoners have access to physicians and specialists, but there is also a hospital with very good conditions available to them where they can receive specific treatment.

IPS: But do you approve of the use of handcuffs in medical examinations? PK: In general, handcuffs are not being used, except for some individuals or when prisoners are being transported elsewhere.

IPS: The CPT report also complains of the lack of work and education programmes. Are these available with a view to reintegrating lifers into society? PK: The ultimate goal is not to punish them, but to re-socialise them. This is a priority in Slovak law. There are many different educational courses organised for them. In some cases, people leave prison with more qualifications, literacy and other skills than when they entered. Besides organised educational activities, they can also use the library for self-education. Depending on their sentence, they can watch television or engage in sports. Some bands also play concerts in prisons. They also have the possibility of attending religious services.

IPS: Can you confirm that there are plans to create a special pre-release section where more intensive preparation is given to long-term prisoners before they are freed? PK: We've also had such a department in the past. In our country, we follow the philosophy that conditions in prison should not be too far removed from those in society. However, I have to admit that in some cases this does not have the expected effect on the behaviour of prisoners.

IPS: If you could change something regarding the rules for those sentenced to life what would it be? PK: Each and every placement in prison constitutes an interference with personal freedom. A necessary interference. In such cases, I'd like to find ways to civilise them and make them aware of what they did, so that they themselves wish to change their personality. Our prisons have teachers to help them in this regard. It is my wish that other professionals would join these, helping in the "awakening" of the prisoners' better self. The effect may not be instantaneous. But I'm sure with time there will be an impact.

Priority must be given to prevention. Good and efficient prevention requires patience. But for every society this is the more beneficial and effective solution because it avoids the emergence of the problem.

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