21.05.2000 | Ian Malets, Warsaw

Everything done in the prison must be legal


For ten years I have been working in the ombudsman’s office, being responsible for the observance of human rights with respect to the incarcerated. When I just started my work, I set for myself several principles, which I found necessary in order to do my job well. The first principle is: Everything done in the prison must be legal.

The second principle is: In every convict I must see a person who, after releasing, will return to the society.

The third principle is: The relations between the state officer and a convict must be normal. A convict has lost his freedom only, but he must not loose his human rights. Earlier a convict, staying in prison, had no voice, now he has it.

It should be noted that many changes in prisons were done in spite of the opposition of the public. Many citizens believe that the more cruel is the law and conditions of upkeep, the safer will be the society. That is why it is very important to inform the public about how the prison system works and how the criminal’s life passes there. This can be done in different ways, in particular, by visiting prisons. In Poland anyone may visit a prison: a journalist, a scientist, a person who is just interested in prison life. Visiting prisons is very important for the incarcerated. The prison punishment kills man’s activity, and the incarcerated often wait for someone, who will come and help them.

The duty of the ombudsman is to monitor and control the situation. Being the ombudsman’s representative and being responsible for the observance of law, I always reminded the prison personnel about the above-formulated principles. During our visits to a prison we need a considerable quantity of information. We may come to the prison, say, select 10% of convicts and ask them whether their rights were impinged. We speak with them without witnesses.

However, we not only prompt the prison personnel where their behavior is incorrect. We work with the prison personnel, we elucidate together why this or that violation occurred and ask them to solve the problems by themselves.

The main source of our information is the complaints received by our office. At present, we consider about 3.5 thousand complaints per year. One part of them we consider ourselves, those which concern health are considered by medical specialists. In this direction we use help of 180 doctors. Having got a complaint, they study the situation just on site to conclude whether the complaint is correct. These doctors do not work at prisons, we invite them from outside and pay for their work.

The information on the conditions in penitentiary establishments comes to us from three sources. The first is what we ourselves learn about the life of convicts, the second is what convicts convey to us, the third is mass media.

What the ombudsman does when he finds out an abuse of human rights? At first, the ombudsman turns to the prison administration with the suggestion to eliminate the abuse. If the situation is more complicated, for example, if the ombudsman finds out a violation of law, then he turns to the competent penitentiary organs and to the prosecutor’s office. If it appears that there exists a law which impinges on the convict’s rights, then the ombudsman has the right to turn to the Constitutional Court with the initiative to change the law. If the law appears to be ambiguous, the ombudsman has the right to turn to the Supreme Court or to the Constitutional Court, asking them to elucidate the statements of this law. At last, if the solution of the problem does not come directly to the ombudsman’s competence, but he sees that some protective measures should be taken, then the ombudsman turns to other bodies of power or initiates some other measures. For example, the Polish ombudsman in 1993 raised a question which was discussed in detail at the conference organized by us. The question was: how to diminish the number of the incarcerated without lowering the public security.

There are other examples of the ombudsman’s successful activity. Although the prison system in Poland has been governed by the Ministry of Justice since 1956, representatives of the Ministry of Interior have the right to inspect penitentiary establishments. In 1988 it was the ombudsman who managed to cancel this procedure. Thanks to the ombudsman the law was adopted according to which any incarcerated must have not less than four square meters of area.

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