Overcrowded prisons problem rises again

  • 2002-12-12
  • Aleksei Gunter

Estonia will likely be required to revise its legislation on decreasing the number of inmates in order to comply with international rules, according to experts from the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT).

The latest proof against Estonia was the clash between the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Interior over prison management. The country's nine existing prisons hold over 5,000 inmates, some 40 percent more than capacity, according to CPT reports.

Minister of Interior Ain Seppik stated last week that law enforcement was hampered by the inability of the prison system (supervised by the Ministry of Justice) to take in arrested and convicted persons.

"The police is implementing new tactics of law enforcement and arresting more suspects. It is not so hard to decide whether criminals must be behind bars or on the streets," said Seppik.

Last week Justice Minister Mart Rask sent a letter to the Finance Ministry asking for about 1 billion kroons (63.9 million euros) to build two new prisons in Johvi (northeastern Estonia) and in the southern town of Viljandi.

The new prisons would also help the ministry to switch from the existing camp-based prison system to the cell-based system.

The importance of proper prison maintenance and other correctional institutions is huge, according to Priidu Parna, chancellor of the Justice Ministry.

"The Copenhagen criteria, a number of requirements for the aspiring EU candidate countries, also lists protection of human rights," he said.

"The Tartu prison is a standard for the whole country, and we have to bring all of our penitentiary institutions to the same level," said Parna.

Although Estonia enforced the treaty standards on March 1, 1997, reports by CPT experts were published only this autumn, which was too late to get the public's attention, said Parna.

The three Baltic states joined the treaty from 1995 to 1997, and enforced it from 1997 to 1999. Estonia was among the latest CPT member states to publish the reports of CPT inspections in 1997 and 1999. Thanks to the CPT reports Tallinn Central Prison will be closed in 2003.

Andres Lehtmets, vice president of CPT Estonia and president of the Estonian Doctors Association, said the organization focuses on preventive measures and works on the basis of regular and occasional visits to the countries concerned.

"Actually CPT never publishes its reports, and it is up to the state to make them public. It is more a question of open society," said Lehtmets.

CPT experts have the right to conduct private conversations with any prisoners and can visit any penal institutions. Usually a visit takes one or two weeks, and the experts work in small groups to simultaneously examine several organizations.

"We prefer to visit police stations at night because then we can get more information on the real conditions there," said Lehtmets.

CPT will next visit Estonia in 2003. Michael Neurauter, member of CPT Secretariate, said he hopes at that time he will see better conditions for Estonian prisoners and patients of mental hospitals.

According to Neurauter, Estonia is the only CPT member whose prisons are overcrowded. "We think that building new prisons would not help, and instead Estonia should revise its legislation so fewer people would go to jail," he said.

Briefly describing the problems of Estonian prisoners, Neurauter said the all the prisoners must have reasonable access to the outer world via phone and mail.

Other CPT recommendations included providing prisoners with sufficient living space (at least 8 square meters per prisoner in a single cell and 4 square meters in a group cell), light, air, drinkable water and at least one full meal a day.

"We'd also like to recommend giving the suspects a special form where his rights would be explained in a simple manner in his or her native language to sign it before the deprivation of liberty," said Neurauter.

At least one hour of outdoor physical exercises must be available, even for convicts in lock-down. "We've found that this requirement is not being fulfilled in Estonia," Neurauter said.

Varmo Rein, prison expert with the Estonian Police Department, said the system inherited prisons and jails from Soviet times. "Jails and prisons did not care then about human rights. They were meant to keep dangerous elements well removed from society," said Rein.

Since 1997, after Estonia enforced the CPT treaty, two new jails have been built and a number of the old ones partly renovated.