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Show me your prisons and I shall say in which society you live

Yuri Ilchenko, main specialist of prison department of Estonia
When revolutionary processes started in Estonia, the first step after getting independence was an attempt to integrate into European structures. Experts from the Council of Europe visited Estonia in order to inspect how human rights are observed in Estonia, what kind of prisons we have. Once Winston Churchill said: ‘Show me your prisons and I shall say in which society you live’. The experts from the Council of Europe stated that our prisons do not obey the European standards and that we must change the situation. This was one of the conditions of the integration, and the integration guaranteed the survival of Estonia as an independent state. One of the political decisions to promote the reforms was the transfer of the penitentiary system to the Ministry of Justice.

I would not like you to think that this transfer was an important element of the reform. It was merely a political decision. The essence of the reform was not to change the signboard but to carry out real actions that could lead to new results.

To make changes was difficult. After the perestroyka in Estonia the situation was such that old laws did not operate and new laws were not adopted yet. However, the criminals did not take it into consideration: the criminals committed crimes and the courts continued to try them. We decided to start the reform with adopting new laws, with developing a new concept of the penal-executive system. We did all to make Estonia find a new, European face.

Our reform has three main directions, which, I think, every post-totalitarian country ought to pass.

The first direction is the reform of prison legislation. We have an Executive Code in Estonia, which has been already changed and is being changed now. Many new concepts has been introduced into practice with difficulty because new social conditions are lacking, because the society has not ripened to the level of many demands which Europe set for our prisons. But we have introduced the changes, which were ahead of reality, and by and by the gap began to narrow, because new opinions on the prison system began to grow in our society.

The second direction is the reform of prisons. Our colonies remained without work — they had no orders. Our country was left by internal troops of Soviet Union, which guarded the colonies. We had to create our professional prison guard service within a month. This forced us to change our concept of the prison system. We passed to the model of the cell-type prison. This also solved the problem of high level of security. The transfer from colonies to cell prisons demands a large amount of money and time. We managed to convince the society to create new expensive cell-type prisons. During recent 5-6 years we have built four new buildings of the European type. There is hot water and electric heating of floors. It is pleasant to see such a cell, it resembles a hotel room. We have to explain to public and to public organizations why we did it. Up to now newspapers attack us for creating better conditions for jail-birds than for an average citizen at large.

The third direction is the reform of the prison personnel. When we started revolutionary transformations in 1990, we abolished shoulder straps, military ranks of the personnel, we left only uniforms. This reform demanded large expenditures, in particular for creating a training center for retraining of the old and training of the new guards.

Beginning the reform of the prison system the state must understand its specific features. Recently we have declared to our members of Parliament that if within a year the personnel does not get the proper wages, they will get the deficit money from the prisoners, which means that they will take bribes.

Passing to the topic of the transfer of the prison system to the Ministry of Justice, I would like to point out that this is a political step which makes the basis for the new attitude of the society to the prison system. For a long time the prison system was a part of law-enforcing agencies, now it is becoming close to a human rights protection structure. The attitude of the society to prisons must stop to be negative. For many years the prison structure lay under the curtain of state secrets. Now we have got rid of the secrecy. The society must regard prisons as a necessary component of the state.

For a long time we have been talking about fight with crime, now we can speak about the work with the criminals. We must not fight, we must not be in the state of civil war with a part of our population. In any civil war victors do not exist, all become defeated. The new situation stops the war, it diminishes the strain between the society and the prison system. After the transfer to the Ministry of Justice the punitive system obtains a human face. Simultaneously, this is a way to the European prison system, to accepting the European prison philosophy. The punitive system becomes more flexible, the law-enforcing structures can operatively react to the political, economic and criminal situation in the country.

The transfer of the prison system under the Ministry of Justice opens new levels for prisons. There is an opportunity to reintroduce such forgotten organizations as municipal or local prisons. The local administrations are interested in building such prisons, since the prison system becomes a part of civil administration.

If to speak about the history of the transfer, the prison system was first passed under administration of the Minister of Interior, avoiding the control of departments. Somewhat later the system was governed simultaneously by the two ministers: of interior and of justice. Then, in the course of creating the legislative basis, the system was finally transferred to the Ministry of Justice.

It is necessary to introduce into our practice a new prison philosophy. We would like the public organizations not to confine themselves, focusing their interests on ‘opening prisons for informing the public and for visiting by representatives of NGOs’. We were convinced by our experience of interrelations with Estonian public organizations that, having got the information on prisons, the public organizations try to use it for the fight with prisons. We have no KGB, we have no Gulag. There exists a new legislation, a new state service, but, nevertheless, some public organizations continue to compare our system with that former period. Respected public organizations, help the new prison system to become open and comprehensible to society, try to see and understand our viewpoint. This is the first.

The second is visiting prisons. I would like to ask a question from the respected ladies and gentlemen representing public organizations: why they want to visit prisons? A prison is not a zoo and not a theatre. If you want to come and work, please, come and work. In Estonia there are many public organizations that do not visit in order to stare. They keep religious services, grant humanitarian aid, etc. That is the right way.

We try to create the conditions of upkeep in prisons similar to those available at large. Three years ago we terminated to feed prisoners, accounting only the norms of nourishment. We introduced menus. Each incarcerated gets on his tray not just food, but the first, second, course and dessert, they get the food which about 40% of population cannot afford. Estonia is a small country. The incarcerated must not be treated as beasts. Sooner or later they will leave the prison, and they must be trained to live with other people. I have a daughter. May be, she will soon marry a former convict. I do not want to have a wolf of a son-in-law. The public must understand why our relations with the incarcerated are so soft.

One of the elements of our reform is creating a social service in prisons. We prohibited our social workers to pronounce such words as ‘breeding’, ‘correction’, ‘reforming’. We say that the process of staying in the prison is education. If during the prison term a convict gets enough knowledge for living and working at large, it will mean that the prison fulfills its task.

It is nor sufficient to open prisons for the public. The public must be open to accept the prisoners too. For example, it concerns liberation before the appointed term. The public must agree that a killer sentenced to 15 years may be released in 8 years.

Recently our MPs cancelled restrictions for the conditional early liberation. Then 472 incarcerated (out of 705 whose requests were backed by prison administration) were released. Quite recently one of these released killed two people. The public protested so loudly that the Prime-Minister of Estonia suspended the pre-term liberation and pointed out that in future such decisions will be issued after a long and serious analysis.

In conclusion I address my colleagues from various countries: let us communicate. Prison systems throughout the world have one goal and the same problems. We understand each other perfectly. We stand on some kind of barricades. The incarcerated sooner or later will leave this barricade and return home, but we shall continue to stand on the barricade.
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