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22 Jul, 2009 10:15

Pay to be punished

Pay to be punished

The world financial crisis has hit the Latvian prison system hard. Inmates have written an open letter to the press, saying their rations have been cut and that they are forced to pay for their imprisonment.

The Latvian daily newspaper “Chas” (“The Hour”) received a six-page-long letter written by hand. It is entitled “A collective address of the Elgavsk prison inmates to the press”. The introduction notes that the letter had bypassed the censorship of the prison administration.

“We are conducting a preliminary strike,” the prisoners’ address states.

“Its aim is to bring society’s and the European Commission’s attention to the inhumane conditions of Latvian prisons. Prison was never heaven on earth, but in Latvia during the time of crisis it really resembles hell. The state should provide all of life’s necessities for a person during his time in prison. In Latvian prisons, this ceased to be an axiom. We are not only deprived of freedom, but we also have to pay to be in prison.”

The complaints

The inmates’ primary concern is that in the midst of the world financial crisis, their imprisonment has become an industry. The guards collect money for virtually everything, including food and electricity.

The letter revealed that the inmates are receiving less food. What they are not given, they are suggested to buy using their own money.

They are also forced to pay the electricity bills for their cells. If they refuse to comply – their TV and water boilers are confiscated.

The newspaper reports that, according to the inmates, the administration also started confiscating their hair clippers – items of prime necessity in prison, since the prisoners need to keep safe from hair parasites. Using communal hair clippers could lead to an epidemic of illnesses in prison.

They also point out that the prison hospital has been stopped and all planned operations have been cancelled. The dentist’s office has ceased receiving patients and those suffering from severe toothaches are left without care.

In the letter’s closing, the inmates ask European officials to act upon their inhumane conditions. The local administrations have completely ignored them, they say, and in the worst case scenario the situation could result in prison mutinies.

Official reactions

“Chas” asked Visvaldis Pukite, the head of the detention centers’ administration, to give his view of the situation. Not surprisingly, it differed drastically to that of the inmates.

“I have received around 600 similar ‘open letters’ in which prisoners complain about anything and everything,” he said.

Pukite said that the claims that the prison’s hospital had closed were “yet another piece of disinformation”.

“The only thing that has changed with the coming of the crisis is that the prisoners are being fed less,” he explained.

Nevertheless, even this cut, according to him, was not significant. The main item on which prison authorities are saving is bread. Instead of receiving a daily allowance of 450 grams, the prisoners are given 350 grams.

“Will you eat that much bread, considering the fact that you eat a breakfast of cutlets and mashed potatoes, a lunch of soup and a dinner of a big piece of meat with garnish and a fruit drink?” the head of the detention centers’ administration wonders.

The only truthful complaint out of all of them, according to Pukite, is that prisoners have to pay for their electricity. However, he insists that this concerns only those inmates who use large electric appliances, such as televisions.

“We have set tariffs. They are set according to the passport details of the electric appliance which state the amount of electricity they consume. And we collect money accordingly,” Pukite explained.

Nevertheless, earlier this month, the official admitted that the Latvian prison system was indeed in a critical state and soon certain prisons risk being cut off from electricity supplies for debts. The system is on the verge of bankruptcy, since the government is simply unable to cope with the demands in light of the financial crisis.