Q&A: Georgian Lifers Spared Death, Stuck in their Cells

  • Claudia Ciobanu interviews TSIRA CHANTURIA of Penal Reform International (bucharest)
  • Inter Press Service

This month, the number of inmates in Georgia reached 22,890, in a population of 4.4 million. Georgia has one of the highest imprisonment rates in all Europe and Central Asia (514 prisoners/100,000), comparable only to Russia and Belarus. About 4,500 people were imprisoned in the last two years.

The death penalty was abolished in Georgia in 1997, as a precondition for joining the Council of Europe. Life imprisonment, introduced as the maximum sentence in the 1999 Criminal Code, is applied with ease even if still not fully regulated: 94 inmates currently serve life sentences, 20 more than last year.

Four of the lifers are women, Georgia being the only country in the South Caucasus that extends the maximum sentence to women.

Tsira Chanturia, Regional Director at Penal Reform International (PRI) Georgia, spoke to IPS correspondent Claudia Ciobanu about conditions in Georgian prisons and the reform of the criminal justice system, a process in which PRI is assisting the authorities.

Q: Is life imprisonment used more broadly than the death penalty used to be? A: Indeed, the number has increased considerably since life imprisonment was introduced as the maximum punishment in 1999. When the death penalty was abolished in 1997, there were 54 prisoners on death row, whose sentences were commuted to 20 years imprisonment and later to 15. None of them is imprisoned any more.

We now have 94 lifers in Georgia. The number of those serving maximum sentences is increasing because of the punitive criminal justice system, but also because the number of serious crimes has increased. Life imprisonment is applied to crimes committed in aggravated circumstances: aggravated murder, drug trafficking, or terrorism. Parole for lifers is considered after they served 25 years, but this situation has not appeared yet because lifers in Georgia haven't even served half of their sentences.

One of the lifers is convicted for terrorism charges (having attempted an assault on George Bush when he visited Georgia), the rest are divided mainly between aggravated murder and drug-related crimes. The four women were convicted for charges related to drug trafficking.

Q: Public opinion in Georgia is tough on drug crimes. A: Yes, people are very strict with drug offenders because rates of drug consumption have increased significantly, especially among the young. But the life sentence is very controversial, particularly for women. And public opinion has always been opposed to the death penalty, even in 1997, thinking it is an inhuman punishment.

Q: Overcrowding in Georgian jails is striking, even with rising crime. What accounts for this situation? A: The increase in prison population has been especially sharp in the last years. It is explained primarily by the punitive criminal justice system and the implementation of a 'zero-tolerance' policy on crime. In April 2006, changes were made to almost 300 articles in the Criminal Code. The length of sentences was increased and the principle of calculating sentences was changed, from concurrent to consecutive sentencing. The use of parole has been very limited over the past years.

However, from last year, in accordance with the National Strategy for Criminal Justice Reform, changes were introduced to establish the institutional structure needed for parole. Also, the new Criminal Procedure Code, expected to enter into force Oct. 1, provides quite a range of alternatives to imprisonment, including community work, which were not used much before.

Q: What was the political motivation for the toughening of the Criminal Code? A: Since the Rose Revolution (widespread protests in 2003, leading to the coming to power of pro-West Mikhail Saakhashvili), our government has decided to address organised crime, corruption and the reign of criminal syndicates, which were flourishing back then. Unfortunately, small criminals were also caught in the net.

Q: The government is now engaged in an ambitious effort to reform the penal system. A Ministry of Corrections and Legal Assistance -- quite an exceptional office -- was created last year. Does reality match governmental rhetoric? A: The ministry has really taken charge of reform in the penitentiary and probationary system and the budget allocated to these tasks was increased. Many issues were addressed, such as bringing education in the penitentiary system, improving food provision for prisoners, better healthcare provisions, training for prison staff dealing with juveniles, free legal aid. We still need to check work on healthcare and see what progress is made on reforming it in line with the developed concept and action plan. We are working on providing training for staff dealing with lifers.

The Ministry of Justice, coordinating all reforms, is open to civil society contributions, which is a positive development. Unfortunately, we (PRI) do not have the means to check actual prison conditions any more. There used to be prison monitoring boards for individual prisons, consisting of NGO representatives, but since the designation of the Ombudsman office as a National Prevention Mechanism (against torture and ill-treatment) in accordance with international obligations in 2008, the boards were shut down. We, NGOs, just don't understand that.

Q: New prison blocks have been built, and lifers now live in new buildings. Are conditions and opportunities for lifers satisfactory? A: Lifers still face restraints. The authorities try to meet the requirements of the local legislation (2.5-3 square metres per prisoner), but given the high prison population, it is incredible that they would be able to actually meet those requirements, saying nothing of the four-square metre requirement of the Committee for the Prevention of Torture. All lifers in Georgia are locked up in cells, 23 hours per day, not being able to walk around. They live four to six in a cell, isolated from the other prisoners. All four women lifers are in one cell, separated from other inmates.

Material conditions are better for lifers than for other prisoners, but there is no provision yet to move them from a strict towards a more open regime as they approach release. The notion of progressive imprisonment is still new in Georgia and the understanding of the treatment of prisoners falls short of international standards.

There are no education or rehabilitation programmes whatsoever for lifers. Even though the authorities recognise the importance of resocialisation for prisoners, they fail to prioritise it, because it takes so many resources to simply accommodate 23,000 prisoners, feed them and provide security. Unless the Georgian authorities considerably bring down the number of prisoners, there will be no effective use of resources.

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