Vike-Freiberga shocked by youth prison

  • 2001-04-12
  • Nick Coleman
RIGA - On a visit to Brasas prison in Riga on April 4 Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga expressed dismay at the plight of juveniles awaiting trial in inhumane conditions, often for several years.

"This is a very grave, shameful, violation of human rights," she told the Baltic News Service. She was shocked to see the small courtyards where inmates exercise for a short time each day. They measure a few square meters, are surrounded by high walls and are topped with netting.

"This is unforgivable for growing people," she said.

According to prison administration statistics, on March 1 there were 192 teenage boys, some as young as 14, awaiting a court judgment at Brasas. Of these only 32 had been detained for less than six months.

There were 68 who had been waiting for between six months and one year, 57 who had been there for between one and two years, and 31 who had waited for over two years. Last year two of the teenage inmates committed suicide.

The total lack of formal education at Brasas particularly attracted Vike-Freiberga's attention and was one of the subjects she raised with Justice Minister Ingrida Labucka, who accompanied her on the tour.

It was Labucka's first visit to Brasas in her two stints in office, according to Angelita Kamenska of the Center for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies in Riga.

"The ministers of justice and education have shown little or no interest in this problem," said Kamenska. "Vike-Freiberga may not have very much power, but when she's interested she can be very persistent. She spoke like a human rights activist.

"I'm not sure the minister of education understands that these people, who are legally entitled to education, actually need it."

After her tour Vike-Freibega attended a meeting of government ministers, officials, church leaders and representatives from non-governmental organizations to discuss children's rights.

Labucka said amendments to the law, to be passed by the end of May, would limit the length of time juveniles can be detained.

But further change is needed, says Kamenska. "The system won't speed up without judges and prosecutors who specialize in juvenile crime. We need a more flexible regime, which provides purposeful activities for young offenders."

Vike-Freiberga was visiting Brasas during a protest which, at its start on March 2, involved 800 inmates in several prisons. Prisoners were refusing to eat prison food in protest at a ban on receiving food parcels from outside.

As the Baltic Times went to press the head of the prison administration, Vitolds Zahars, said that a compromise had been reached and the campaign had ended. Ending the prisoners' right to receive food parcels was essential to prevent drug use, he said.

"Drug smuggling in food parcels has been increasing. This year we've found drugs ingeniously hidden in meat, fruit and biscuits almost every week."

Prisoners can still receive parcels containing other items, said Zahars, but not food. Prices in prison shops will be reduced and prisoners will still be able to receive money from outside.

Kamenska says that due to current economic conditions it may be too soon to ban food parcels from outside, which are outlawed in Western Europe.

"The question is whether there are enough cases of drugs being concealed in food to justify this," she said. "I'm in favor in principal, but we haven't heard the prisoners' point of view.

"Only a small part of our prisoners, who are linked to organized crime, receive money from relatives. Most come from the poorest part of society which is hardest hit economically. In some ways this discriminates against rural people.

"Drugs will always get into prisons - they are a major problem in Scandinavia. When there are no opportunities for work or purposeful activity drugs are a way to pass the time."