Council of Europe slams Bulgaria over 20-year failure to improve prison conditions
There has been a persistent failure by Bulgarian authorities to address “fundamental shortcomings” in the treatment and conditions of detention of people in jail and custody, the Council of Europe’s European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) said on March 26 2015 – underlining that it had continued to find such problems during visits for the past 20 years.
The CPT took the step of making a public statement on the issue, saying that its repeated recommendations over the past 20 years about major shortcomings in police and penitentiary establishments had mostly gone unimplemented or had been only partly implemented.
The CPT has made 10 visits to Bulgaria since 1995. During that time, the country has had 10 governments, counting in three caretaker governments.
The visits in the past 20 years were to all but one prison in Bulgaria, several investigation detention facilities and “numerous” police establishments, the committee said.
“In the course of the committee’s visits to Bulgaria in 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2015, the CPT’s delegations witnessed a lack of decisive action by the authorities leading to a steady deterioration in the situation of persons deprived of their liberty.”
The committee said that it had warned in its report on its 2012 visit that its “extreme concern about the lack of progress observed in the Bulgarian prison” could oblige it to make a public statement about the matter, as provided in the European convention.
It said that this procedure was set in motion after the March/April 2014 visit.
The visit report highlighted a number of long-standing concerns, some of them dating back to the very first CPT visit to Bulgaria in 1995: ill-treatment in police custody and prisons, violence among prisoners, prison overcrowding, poor material conditions in investigation detention facilities and prisons, inadequate prison health care services, low custodial staffing levels, “as well as concerns related to discipline, segregation and contact with the outside world”.
The committee said that the Bulgarian authorities’ responses to the report on the 2014 visit “have, to say the least, not alleviated the CPT’s concerns”.
It described the Bulgarian authorities’ responses as “succinct”, containing little new information, failing to address most of the committee’s recommendations, “usually merely quoting the existing legislation and/or explaining the lack of action by budgetary constraints”.
The committee added that most of the information in the report on ill-treatment and violence among prisoners was “simply dismissed”.
A 2015 visit found that little or no progress had been made in carrying out key recommendations made repeatedly by the CPT.
The committee said that during its 2015 visit, the committee received a “significant” number of allegations of deliberate ill-treatment of people in police custody.
The number of such allegations had not decreased but even had increased in Sofia and Bourgas.
The alleged ill-treatment generally consisted of slaps, kicks and in some cases, even truncheon blows.
The CPT found that men, women and juveniles in police custody ran a significant risk of being ill-treated, both at the time of apprehension and during subsequent questioning.
“Very little progress, if any, has been made as regards the legal safeguards against police ill-treatment,” the CPT public statement said.
Access to a lawyer remained “an exception” in the first 24 hours in police custody. State-appointed lawyers failed to perform their function as a safeguard against ill-treatment.
People in police custody rarely were able to notify a person of their choice of their detention and were not systematically informed of their rights from the outset of their custody, the statement said.
“Injuries observed on persons admitted to IDFs were usually not recorded in the medical documentation. Medical screening prior to the admission of detained persons to IDFs was extremely cursory (consisting merely of an interview, without a proper medical examination) and it was performed in the presence of police officers, with detainees usually being handcuffed.”
The statement described as “alarming” the situation regarding physical ill-treatment of prisoners by staff in the three prisons visited in 2015.
Many allegations of deliberate physical ill-treatment (usually consisting of slaps, punches, kicks and truncheon blows) were again heard at Sofia and Burgas Prisons and, at Varna Prison, the Committee’s delegation was flooded with such allegations. In a number of cases, the delegation found medical evidence consistent with the allegations received, the statement said.
Inter-prisoner violence remained “omnipresent” at Sofia and Bourgas prisons, and was frequent at Varna Prison.
Corruption was “endemic” in the Bulgarian prison system, the report said, adding that this had been acknowledged by the Bulgarian authorities.
In 2015, the delegation heard allegations of custodial, administrative, and medical staff for many services provided for by the law (for example, transfers to prison hostels, early release, access to medical care, transfers to hospitals, procurement of goods, access to education/vocational training, work) or for being granted various privileges (such as leave and additional or open-type visits).
“This situation brings in its wake discrimination, violence, insecurity and, ultimately, a loss of respect for authority.”
The report added that overcrowding remained a “very problematic issue” in the Bulgarian prison system. At Bourgas, each prisoner had less than two square metres of living space, and in Sofia, just more than two sq m.
The material conditions at Sofia, Bourgas and Varna prisons remained characterised by “an ever-worsening state of dilapidation”.
Sanitary facilities were “totally decrepit and unhygienic”, heating worked for only a few hours a day, and most prisoners did not have ready access to a toilet during the night.
The kitchens at Bourgas and Varna prisons, and the dining hall at Varna prison, remained “filthy and unhygienic and infested with vermin”, with leaking and overflowing sewage pipes, and walls and ceilings covered in mould.
The material conditions in the three prisons amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment, the CPT said.
Most prisoners, including those on remand, were left idle up to 23 hours a day.
Accessibility and quality of health care in all the prisons visited were “as poor as they had been in the past”.
The CPT said that in its previous reports, it had noted the “repeated assurances” by the Bulgarian authorities that action would be taken.
“However, the findings of the 2015 visit demonstrate again that little or nothing has been done as regards all the above-mentioned long-standing problems.”
This state of affairs highlighted a persistent failure by the Bulgarian authorities to address most of the fundamental shortcomings in the treatment and conditions of detention of persons deprived of their liberty, despite the specific recommendations repeatedly made by the committee.
“The CPT is of the view that action in this respect is long overdue and that the approach to the whole issue of deprivation of liberty in Bulgaria should radically change,” the statement said.
(Photo: Amir Darafsheh)