Institutional culture in prisons was the focus of the regional forum hosted by the PRI Office in Tbilisi on 29 April. Representatives of civil society and government from all three South Caucasus republics (Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia) were attended.
The existence of non-statutory, hierarchical relations between inmates was widely discussed. The hierarchy among prisoners often is very prominent and is used as alternative management structure not only by those on the top of the hierarchy, but also by the prison administration.
Informal hierarchies have several layers of management. These structures are often also used by investigative bodies when someone is arrested and under investigation. The accused are often placed in ‘pressing cells’ where several inmates are instructed to put physical and psychological pressure on them to sign a confession or to pay money. If the person complains, he may be moved to another cell and face even worse treatment. This method is used to enforce the ‘code of silence’, which dictates that those who complain are regarded as traitors and fall to the bottom of the hierarchy, with no right to share the food with other inmates or sleep in a separate bed. This is why the majority of torture cases in prisons go unreported. Even in cases where scars and bruises make torture obvious, inmates refuse to complain as it will probably make their situation worse.
The forum also touched on the issue of relations between prisoners and guards. Experts agreed that prison guards are often seen as a part of the circle of corruption, smuggling goods and providing services for prisoners. As the quality of food often is very poor, prisoners survive on the food from the outside world, getting food or money from their relatives with the assistance of prison guards. Prison guards are not well paid and there are no incentives for people to work in criminal justice system – apart from the possibility of making money through corruption.
All experts and participants agreed that this culture is a part of the Soviet legacy, but that there has been no effort by the policy makers to reform and improve the penitentiary system. Even though a number of new prisons have been built in all three countries, the culture inside the prisons hasn’t changed. For many years in a row, the Council of Europe Committee on Prevention of Torture (CPT) has reported the informal structures and ‘alternative’ management of prisons in the region. Policy makers however still have not shown any willingness to tackle the problem and guarantee the rule of law and equal treatment of detainees. Civil society in the region raises these issues through monitoring and reporting on places of detention, but their voices are often ignored.
National Preventive Mechanisms (NPMs) also need to look into the institutional culture issues and emphasise their findings in their reports. Information sharing, monitoring and reporting as well as making the reports public, will help encourage positive policy change in the criminal justice system, which is one of the issues most overlooked in countries where democratic reforms still struggle to make their way through difficult terrain.
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