RIGA - President Vaira Vike-Freiberga made an unprecedented visit to a prison last week, after which she decried the living conditions and went so far as to compare the jail cells to cages in a zoo. The president on Feb. 21 visited Riga Central Prison, which has approximately 1,000 inmates, in order to see first hand the conditions in Latvia's correctional system. The cells, she said, were inhuman and in desperate need of repair.
"No matter how heinous the crimes people have committed are, they should not be living in conditions that are worse than those in which animals in a zoo are kept," the president said.
"Prisoners are human beings, yet their cells are subhuman," said Vike-Freiberga, who was acquainted with the prison's health care facilities, employment opportunities, as well as a museum on the prison's territory.
The president told Justice Minister Gaidis Berzins, with whom she visited the facility, that all of Latvia's prison facilities needed improvement.
She admitted that improving conditions in prisons "has certainly never been a politically popular decision and priority," but that without improvement it was difficult to expect prisons to rehabilitate their inmates.
"Prisons in Latvia are a chronic, never-ending problem," she said.
The president criticized a series of spending cuts on Latvia's prisons, which in some cases went so far as to eliminate money that had already been allocated. Vike-Freiberga said that, over the long run, saving on prisons could end up costing the country as much as 10 times more than fixing the problems would.
"There are some things that can't be economized," she said.
Health care problems were particularly highly scrutinized during the meeting. The treatment of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, hepatitis, alcoholism and drug-addiction among the prisoners were mentioned as areas that need especially close attention in the future.
The Riga Central Prison's hospital will be closed in the spring due to its dilapidated condition. A new prison hospital located in Olaine 's a town in the Riga region of Latvia 's is planned to open this summer to replace the old one.
There are still unclear issues surrounding the new hospital, however, such as how the responsibility for the project should be divided between the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Health.
Vike-Freiberga noted the benefits of improved prison employment and job training. She indicated that this could lead to a higher rate of rehabilitation, and that it would be in the interests of society if "at least one-tenth of the former prisoners could full-fledged return into life rather than get back into prison."
Latvia has in the past received heavy criticism from the European Union, the United States and numerous human rights groups for its treatment of prisoners. The Latvian prison system has recently been in the spotlight due to a report citing inadequate guards. Due to the abysmally low pay, the Interior Ministry can't find anyone to fill the slots.
Last year a Prison Administra-tion official said Latvia's prison's had 183 vacancies, including 158 guards.
The current salary for a prison guard is some 160 lats (228 euros), which is inadequate to attract candidates.
The guard-deficit was brought to national attention last August when four prisoners, aged 21 to 33, escaped from Riga Central Prison. A lack of guards was blamed as one of the reasons why the jailbreak succeeded.
The EU notified Latvia of the Baltic state's endemic prison problem as early as 1997 and has found that, while significantly improved, the Latvian prisons still need some work.
Since that time, the Council of Europe has accused the Latvian court system of holding suspects for exorbitant amounts of time without trial, corruption in the judiciary, and the use of torture by police.
Partially in response to such reports, Saeima (parliament) passed a law setting standards for conditions of detention in police cells to be fully implemented in all police stations by Jan. 1, 2008.
As of 2006, the Latvian prison system had approximately six-and-a-half thousand detainees, about one quarter of whom were being held pre-trial.