Prison: Full Stop or Comma?

05. December, 2005


Rita Ruduša

Foto: N. Mežiņš

In the UK we have introduced a new system for dealing with young offenders where rather than go to court they are sentenced to appear before a panel of local members of community. Thousands of people applied to become members of these panels. They had never volunteered for anything in their life but this problem they could not ignore.

In reports by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and other international bodies, Latvia features as a country where conditions in some prisons do not comply with European standards; where the number of pre-trial detainees is disproportionately high; time in detention is not used constructively and juvenile offenders are sometimes treated in an oppressive manner. You have visited many prisons all over the world. While in Riga, you visited the Central Prison here. What are the things that make Riga Central Prison stand out?

Three things struck me about the prison. The first thing is that, apart from the one building that has been renovated, the physical conditions of the prison were very poor. The physical condition of the living accommodation, the quality of the air, the natural light, all of this was not very good at all, not up to standard. The second thing is – this is a pre-trial prison. Clearly, rules would be laid out by the law or by prosecutors about having to ensure that evidence is not spoiled or contaminated. Naturally, there would be some restrictions. But it seemed to me that the restrictions on physical activity and contact were very severe compared to other countries. If people who have not yet been convicted have to suffer in particularly harsh conditions then there is something paradoxical about that.

The Central Prison has a very military feel about it. Is this the right approach for a modern pre-trial prison?

That is the third point I was going to make. After joining the European structures, the Council of Europe and others, all post-Soviet countries have moved the responsibility for prisons from the Interior Ministry to the Justice Ministry. In a sense this is a process of civilianisation – to make the prisons system separate from the military. Prisoners are not enemies of the state; they are citizens. If I went into that prison in 1998 and came again now, in 2005, I wonder how different the experience actually is. It seemed quite militaristic in some ways.

The high number of pre-trial detainees is one of the problems that have been pointed out about Latvia by international bodies. What would be the starting point for dealing with it?

What happens in the prison system is a result of decisions that have been taken up the chain, as it were. The pre-trial prisoners represent about 38 percent of all prison population in Latvia. I am told that in fact it is a decrease, because it used to be fifty percent. But it is still high. There has been recognition, because of the reports by the Committee for the Prevention of Torture and other international bodies. They have all said – look, people stay in pre-trial detention for long periods. I think that the Latvian government has taken some action on this. They have introduced the new criminal procedure, they have recruited more judges, have done things to speed up the process of justice to reduce the length of time, which reduces the pressure on prison places.

There are various measures that could be taken in order to reduce the numbers further. Imposing time limits, which means stating in the law that nobody can be held in a pre-trial detention for longer than six months or one year. Pre-trial detention could be reserved for certain crimes. Clearly, there is something paradoxical if people spend longer in prison waiting to be tried than the period they get as a sentence. If that is happening then something has gone wrong with the system. There are other options, such as bail.

Latvia is a European country; it is part of the European Union, part of the Council of Europe, and it should be striving to introduce the kinds of measures to reduce the use of prison that would bring the numbers more into line with other European countries. Apart from Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union, the three Baltic States, including Latvia, have twice as many inmates as there are in Europe on average. And given that more than a third of those are pre-trial detainees there is definitely scope for further improvement.

During the visit to the Central Prison, prison officials repeatedly pointed out that ‘of course’ the strict regime is necessary to prevent contamination of evidence. Could such a regime really be justified? Do people have to be kept in their cells for 23 hours a day?

Not all of them, by all means. There must be ways of assessing the risks posed by the defendants so that they are not all necessarily treated in this very restrictive way. Restrictions must be proportionate to the risk. It seems to me that having more than one hour outside, having some form educational or workshop activities under supervision would not necessarily pose a greater risk to the problems that they are concerned about. It seems that the system is thinking about the worst kind of things that could go wrong and applying defence against that to everybody.

At the moment they go for one hour a day into some kind of caged area and then they are taken back. What is the difference between them going to some other room and maybe having an English class or going on a computer? Yes, there is a cost in terms of equipment, but there is a benefit in teaching prisoners those things. I find it hard to believe that that level of the lack of activity is justified for all the prisoners that we saw. There needs to be more careful assessment of the risk, a selective approach and more activities, more things for prisoners to do. I think that doing something a little more constructive is possible. We met some prisoners that have been in a cell for over a year. It is a very impoverished life to be leading, to be in a small space for 23 hours a day. Very depressing.

The most popular argument to use against the selective approach you mentioned is that it would mean higher costs. As one prison official put it, do not tell me about poor conditions: they are being fed three times a day, and there are pensioners out there who cannot afford three meals . How do you present this argument to a society that demands more money for pensions, healthcare and so on and is reluctant to increase spending on prisons?

There are two main arguments that can be used. One is easier to present than the other. The easier one is that most of those prisoners will return to society at some point. The question is what sort of people do we want to return to society? Do we want people who are better able to behave well, who try to lead a normal, law-abiding life, to try and find work, to look after their families, to pay taxes and to be good citizens? I do not think you can achieve it by treating people very badly. That is more likely to create embittered people who are angry and hostile and feel that they are the victims. So when they come out it is an us and them kind of approach. It is in all our interests to try and ensure that experience of imprisonment is as constructive as possible. Otherwise we are just creating more problems for ourselves in the long term.

The harder argument to do is human rights: the prisoners are citizens; their punishment resides in the restriction of liberty. They go to prison as a punishment; they do not go there for a punishment. When you take away the ability for people to work and earn money to pay for meals or healthcare you take upon yourself a duty to provide those things at least at some minimum level. This is not something I am saying; this is something that the international community has agreed on. In Europe the standards are much higher than almost everywhere else in the world and there are mechanisms to inspect and ensure those standards. The community has agreed that even when people have done bad things we should treat them as human beings and we should treat them with dignity.

There are no reliable statistics about recurring offences in Latvia, but there are reasons to suggest that many of the offenders come back to prison after a while. How do you prevent them from committing crime again?

There are certain reasons behind recurring crime. In prisons everywhere in the world you will find offenders who come from poor neighbourhoods, and there will be people who have not done well at school, who have not had a proper job, who have drug or alcohol problems. I am not excusing them; I am just describing different profiles. For example, if you are addicted to drugs, you will do almost anything to raise the money to buy the drugs that your body is demanding. You will steal from your own mother, as some drug addicts would say. So the answer would be to try and help those people to conquer their addiction. If you do not do that then they come out, go back to drugs and you have the same problem again. If we want to make sure that prison does not make them worse then we have to address some of these problems.

How do you deal with the problems caused by a disadvantaged background and poor neighbourhood?

We should train them to be able to do some work in mainstream society. I am sure there are efforts made in some prisons here, particularly for younger offenders. Experience suggests that the things that prevent offenders from re-offending is somewhere stable to live, ideally with their family (that is why prisons should encourage family visits), and some kind of work that provides income. In some countries prisons get involved with businesses. For example, there is a shortage of people in England who lay gas pipes. So, in one wing of one prison there is a training facility where a company trains motivated prisoners. When they leave they get a job immediately.

But in order to provide these opportunities businesses have to be willing to employ prisoners.

The criminal record is another problem. Many companies are suspicious of people who have been in prison. There needs to be a system that allows people to come clean and be able to start again. Obviously, if you have committed sexual offences you should never be allowed to work with children. But for most jobs a prison term is not necessarily a problem.

And what about juvenile offenders? How to make sure that they do not commit any offences again? Is locking them up in an institution an acceptable approach?

The international instruments are very clear that prison is not the right place for juveniles. If they need to be locked up it should be as a last resort and for the shortest possible time. And it should not be in establishments run by the prison service, but by social welfare department.

Research shows that it is not uncommon for adolescents, teenagers to rebel and do things that they would never dream of doing when they are older. They may try stealing sweets from a shop, or they may scratch a car or may get involved in fights and it is important not to overreact to that. You should have a system for filtering away the minor, petty crime that is not crime; it is a part of growing up.

There are some children who start committing crime at a younger age and where crime is a symptom of a bigger problem. Maybe they have no parents, or they have been neglected or abused and they have not learned rules of behaviour. In those cases you cannot assume that they will grow out of crime. For those youngsters you need a careful assessment of what has gone wrong in their lives and you need interventions, programmes and measures by social workers, educators, and psychologists and so on to try to help them learn about the rules and how to behave. In most serious cases that might involve being locked up in an institution. But all institutions have a downside, so I think it is important to develop a range of intensive community measures.

There will always be somebody saying that we have no money to employ more social workers and to conduct ambitious social projects. What other measures could be adopted?

It is important to involve civil society and churches. For example, in the UK we introduced a new system for dealing with young offenders where rather than go to court they are sentenced to appear before a panel of local members of community; the victim of a crime may come as well. And there is a discussion about what a young person can do to pay back for what he has done wrong and what needs to be done to prevent him from committing crime in the future. We advertised for people to become members of these panels and received 6000 replies. A third of them said they have never volunteered to do anything before, but if you say, Do you want to help solve the problem of juvenile crime?, then people say yes, they want to do something. raksts

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