BULGARIA: Inhuman Life Sentences Replace Death Penalty

  • by Claudia Ciobanu (bucharest)
  • Inter Press Service

A moratorium on the death penalty was issued in the country in 1990 - after the fall of communism - and this most severe form of punishment was outlawed completely in 1998.

With a total population of 7.5 million, Bulgaria has had around 150 prisoners serving life sentences in its prisons over the past five years.

About 60 of them do not have the possibility of parole (the courts can automatically switch their sentences to 30 years after having served 20), according to Daniel Stoyanov, chairman of the management board of the Advocacy Campaign for fighting discrimination and overcrowding in Bulgarian prisons.

Lifers are likely to find themselves in limbo for years to come because reforms to the Bulgarian penal code currently debated in the parliament do not point in the direction of expanding the right of parole for lifers. 'Nowadays the parliament discusses only proposals for more severe punishments and more restrictive penal policy,' Stoyanov tells IPS.

But Stoyanov is optimistic about the long-term chances for extending parole in Bulgaria: 'for the first time in our country, we are getting grassroots support for the elaboration of new objective criteria to be used in the parole procedure.'

Over a third of Bulgarian lifers could potentially spend the rest of their lives in prison. The others will have to serve at least 20 years before being considered for parole.

'At the moment, the biggest problem for lifers is the lack of an adequate prison for them, which leads to improper treatment,' says Daniel Stoyanov. 'There are plans to build a new high-security prison where all lifers would be gathered, but this has been postponed because of the financial crisis.'

Lifers are currently spread out among the country's 12 prison complexes for adults. According to a 2006 report of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT), a common practice in Bulgarian jails is to house lifers in the section also used for disciplinary isolation. 'This juxtaposition is unfortunate and suggests that the lifer segregation rule is of a punitive nature,' says the report.

CPT, however, notes that attempts are being made by prison authorities to integrate some of the lifers with the general prison population, as in the case of Pleven prison in northern Bulgaria. The Committee describes the integration as unproblematic and praises the access to work granted to some of the lifers at Pleven prison.

Even though access to work is crucial to rehabilitation, experts say offering jobs to lifers is most difficult given the increased security risks they pose. Lifers spend most of their days inside their cells. 'Life-sentenced prisoners at Sofia prison were locked up in their cells except for periods of outdoors exercise (1.5 hours daily),' the CPT report says.

'In-cell activities included watching TV and reading books from the library and the daily newspaper; nine lifers worked in their cell, making gift bags.' In some cases, the CPT noted that lifers were handcuffed during their daily one- and-a-half hours of physical exercise, even though this was not justified by security risks.

Human rights NGO Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC), which has been conducting prison monitoring visits since 1994, says in its 2006 report that 'opportunities to carry out effective rehabilitation activities in prisons are very restricted because of the fact that one social work inspector has to cover 90- 100 inmates.'

Insufficient staffing is also affecting the healthcare of prisoners, writes the BHC, as not enough programmes to combat drug addiction and to cater for psychiatric problems are in place, even though these conditions are on the rise in Bulgarian jails.

But there are signs of hope. Bobov Dol prison in western Bulgaria, which receives support from international organisations, holds literacy courses for 40 out of its over 450 prisoners, and even welcomes employers on its premises in view of hiring inmates. Even though the prison is still short on staff - with eight social workers, two psychologists and one priest in charge of all prisoners - it provides inmates with access to professional training courses and to work on the prison farm.

Yet most of the approximately 11,000 prisoners in the country do not enjoy all these benefits. 'Bad living conditions in prisons, the use of physical force on prisoners, overcrowded police detention centres, and inhuman and degrading treatment during detention' are some of the main issues facing Bulgarian inmates, according to the annual report of BHC, published at the end of March 2010.

Most of the country's prisons were opened at the beginning of the last century and additional buildings are often old hostels refitted to be prisons, lacking proper spatial organisation to house inmates.

The 2006 BHC report starkly concluded that Bulgaria is in breach of the European Prison Rules, according to which 'every inmate has to be provided with enough fresh air, daylight, heating, access to sanitary facilities and drinking water, bathing, medical care and opportunities for educational, sport, labour and other activities.'

'The available material resources in Bulgarian prisons are insufficient for most of these recommendations to be implemented,' says the BHC. 'During prison monitoring missions in other countries in the region (Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary), conducted in 2004-2005 the BHC found that material conditions in Bulgarian prisons are the worst.'

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service