Changing of the guard

  • 2002-03-07
  • J. Michael Lyons
Latvia's prison system has been called the country's Achilles' heel in its negotiations with the European Union. J. Michael Lyons talked to Vitolds Zahars, the head of Latvia's prison system, about the past, present and future of punishment in Latvia.

When Latvia is admitted to the European Union it will have by far the organization's highest imprisonment rate per capita. The country's percentage of inmates in pre-trial detention is one of the highest in the world. But reforms have begun.

Zahars has been praised by international organizations for his progressive attitudes toward prison reform. He has worked for the Interior Ministry in varying capacities for 33 years. Despite spending most of his career in the Soviet system he is trying to turn Latvia's prison system and its troubled past around.

Some would say you are nearly single-handedly responsible for beginning reforms in Latvia's prison system, helping pull it out of the Soviet system.

Vitolds Zahars: Of course I am just one man in this system. But I have learned a lot from other people smarter than me, especially from abroad. I have seen how prison systems work in Western countries.

But I remember also how it was in Soviet times because I am a product of that time. I compared the two and I found that the only way for us to succeed was to accept Western philosophies and implement them here, particularly in such a sensitive sphere as punishment.

Of course I cannot say we are there. The reforms process never ends. It's like a saying we have about Riga: 'If we stop building Riga, it will eventually fall into the sea.' It has been clear to me that we had to change the old system.

In implementing these reforms, have you faced resistance within the prison system?

In the first years, yes quite a lot. But not now. I can say that most of the staff working here now are thinking mostly the same way. It's been difficult though, because we have staff that have very varying degrees of experience and education.

My team who are working here at the central headquarters, including prison governors, are thinking in one way. Those who resisted changes have left.

How would you compare prisons in Latvia now with those 20 years ago?

I remember in Soviet times in the prisons and prison colonies there were a total of about 17,000 inmates. Now, as of today, there are 8,531. Those numbers continue to drop. They are still high, but they're going down.

That doesn't mean there is less crime in Latvia. Crime continues to increase, mostly because of drugs. The difference is we have changed the attitude toward punishment.

In the mid-1990s we used imprisonment in about 26 percent of criminal sentences. But since the criminal code was passed in 1999, we have been able to reduce that number with things like community service. In 2000 about 5 percent were sentenced this way. It's slow but it is changing.

One problem that has been raised by organizations abroad is pretrial detention. Latvia has one of the highest pretrial detention rates in Europe. How is this being addressed?

It's the hardest question to answer. It's a problem of the courts. But it's being reflected too much in the prison situation. As of Jan. 1, 2002, 43 percent of the prison population was in pretrial detention. But among juveniles the number is 63.4 percent.

It's a real tragedy. Nearly half have been waiting for trials longer than the criminal code allows. We are working closely with the court systems. We have shared our thoughts, but results are coming very, very slowly. More judges are needed, more specialization on juveniles is needed. More court rooms are needed.

We have offered that the court system come to the prison and hold court there if the prisoners agree. It hasn't happened yet.

What does it mean for a prisoner to be a registered drug user?

We provide them with some limited counseling and in the future we will house them in "drug-free" wings. This is the same as prisons everywhere. We fully accept Western philosophies and practices in this regard.

One method to control drugs is to ban food parcels to those in pretrial. That has caused concern among prisoners and some human rights activists, correct?

It helps reduce the number of ways drugs can get into prison. But as you know some have appealed to the Constitutional Court and the court canceled the restrictions. The court agreed with the principle but not with the procedure.

It was not in our jurisdiction to implement such a policy, according to the court. It should have gone through Parliament. With this policy canceled I am very sure that quite soon we will again begin to see very bad things.

In Soviet times prisons were not a place to rehabilitate inmates in the Western sense of the word. How has the philosophy inside Latvia's prisons changed in the last 11 years?

Prison is not punishment. The sentence is punishment. The court said you are guilty so you are here. Our task is to rehabilitate and help integrate you in society.

In Soviet times the attitude toward prison was focused, in my point of view, on cheap labor. Prisoners made cheap workers for the state and the state exploited them. I remember when I had to go to the Communist Party committee our production numbers were sometimes ahead of civilian factories. Now that wasn't all bad. Work is part of rehabilitation. But that is where the rehabilitation ended.

What other methods of rehabilitation are employed now?

Well, we can only put about 28 percent of inmates to work. But there are other things. Education is another one.

Are you seeing any effect? Are the same people coming back to prison?

Recidivism is still high. It is approximately 40 percent, which is because many are having a hard time integrating in society. We don't have a civil society in Latvia yet.

You have to understand we are not yet a Western society. We have no responsibility along horizontal lines; for our neighbors, for people we know, especially if they just came out of prison. They are alone and they have problems. In this light the most important thing we need to do is build a probation and parole system to help them after release. This is absolutely the right way, and we are headed that way.