Prisoners long for more jobs

  • 2000-12-14
  • Janis Mucenieks
RIGA - Only 26.2 percent of Latvia's 8,734 prisoners are employed in jail workshops in manufacturing, agriculture, jail economy and kitchen works. By comparison, in Soviet times, when it was mandatory for prisoners to work, 86 percent to 88 percent of prisoners worked. Even in the 1920s, employment in Latvia's prisons was so high that during the summer there was a shortage of prisoners in all sectors.

The current situation

Administrative officials at Matiss Prison in Riga admit that work has become a gift and a privilege because many prisoners would like to work; however, but there are no jobs for them. Specialists say the employment problem is less important to the economy. With time on their hands, which is morally degrading, prisoners plan new crimes. Occupied prisoners on the other hand build up their self-confidence, and improve their moral, physical and material state. The director of the State Bureau of Human Rights, Olafs Bruvers believes that full employment is simply a utopian ideal in present day Latvia. However, if just half of Latvia's prisoners were employed, the process of re-integration would be much easier for people who had served their time. "It would be possible to satisfy the claims of the defendants, collect alimony and living costs from the prisoners' wages. The prisoners would partly atone for their faults by doing a physically hard job, at the same time eliminating the poor attitude of the prison administration which treat prisoners as slaves. Human rights would be observed," said Bruvers.

The director of the prison and police reform program of Soros Foundation-Latvia, Anhelita Ka-menska says employment motivates prisoners by giving them work skills, improving and establishing discipline in workplaces, and preparing them for work when they are released. Kamenska does not think that Latvian prisoners who are short of education can master more complicated professions because they will be unskilled workers when they leave prison. That is why there has to be an opportunity for them to work in jails. There they would prepare themselves for temporary work and obtain practical skills. A Life Skills program supported by Soros Foundation-Latvia is already working at Ilguciems jail. Its goal is to educate imprisoned women so they can manage in the workplace. "If prisoners are not employed, they will occupy society after their release by committing a new crime," said Kamenska.

Pros and cons

The Employment Plan, worked out by the ministries of Economy, Welfare, Education and Science which takes into account international expertise, suggests granting 1.2 million lats from the 2001 state budget for jail support, and organization and maintenance of production branches. The state turned away from funding jails when it canceled tax breaks for companies that worked in prisons because of security risks due to a lack of professionalism on the part of prisoners. But Rimako Ltd. has been constantly cooperating with the Ilguciems jail. At present, towels and bags are sewn there. The director of Ilguciems jail production branch, Olga Malahova, has criticized the indifference of the state to the situation of the prisoners as concerns their employment. High-quality suits, overalls, gloves, bedclothes and other products are made at Ilguciems, some for export.

Partners of Ilguciems and Matiss prisons have expressed satisfaction with their cooperation. "Everyone is a winner in this process, employers, prisoners, the prisons and the country," said Nina Solovjova, director of Nisa Limited. The sewing equipment from her company is used for production at Matiss jail. In spite of short-term problems with the prisoners' sewing skills, Solovjova is happy with their work. Moreover, the products are exported to Germany, Austria, Sweden and Finland.

State orders needed

The Employment Plan for 2001 admits that the state order does not support production in prisons. Taking into consideration the production conditions in prisons, Latvian jails search for orders as well as producing items. K. Paupe: "There is no need to prefer prisons for the fulfillment of state procurement. Prisons participate in a general competition as the companies' equals. A competent commission decides on the best offer for the country. Cheap production is not always the criteria.

Edgars Kassalis, associate professor at the department of economy and business administration at the University of Latvia believes prisons cannot compete with other enterprises on an equal judicial basis. Tax favors are not enough to interest employers to cooperate with prisons. Besides, all operations would have to be completely legal in places of imprisonment. Taxevasion would be impossible in prisons. It is no secret that many employers have avoided bankruptcy only by their illegal actions, said Kassalis. The state therefore has to provide reasonable tax favors for potential corporate partners of prisons. Moreover, it is advisable to make long-term contracts with these partners, to predict levels of investment necessary for production. Businessmen need to change their attitudes which may be opposed to using prison labor, said Kassalis.

Foreign cooperation

The chief of the prison administration, Vitolds Zahars, criticizes the state's passivity. Prisoners are only employed at all thanks to cooperation with partners from Norway, Sweden, Finland, Germany and Denmark under the Nord Baltic Prison Project, said Zahars. State financing for employment in prisons is zero, he said. Yet furniture made in Griva jail in Dau-gavpils, is exported to Scandinavian countries, which, he said, is an indicator of its quality.