CoE anti-torture body on Bulgaria: inter-prisoner violence, health issues, poor material conditions

In a new report published on October 18 2022 on its visit to Bulgaria in October 2021, the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) welcomes that instances of ill-treatment by staff are rare, the prison population has been reduced and there have been certain improvements in living conditions.

However, it regrets the absence of progress in applying safeguards against ill-treatment in police custody, inter-prisoner violence, severe understaffing and problems with the supply of medication.

In respect of people in police custody, the great majority of those interviewed said that they had been treated correctly by the police, even though the delegation again received some allegations of physical ill-treatment, mostly in Sofia.

Material conditions could be considered acceptable for the detention of a maximum of 24 hours but were unsatisfactory for any longer period.

The CPT said that it very much regrets the absence of any real progress in the application of fundamental safeguards against ill-treatment – namely the right to notify one’s detention to a third party, the right of access to a lawyer and to a doctor, and the right to be informed of these rights.

These safeguards are hardly ever applicable during the initial 24-hour police custody.

As regards prisons, the committee saw as positive that since 2017 periodic visit the prison population has further reduced in Bulgaria, with the national legal norm of four square metres per prisoner basically respected in the establishments visited, except at Plovdiv prison.

Besides, hardly any credible allegations of physical ill-treatment of prisoners by staff were received, except for Plovdiv, the committee said.

“However, inter-prisoner violence remains a problem, with inadequate penitentiary staffing only increasing its risk.”

CPT has once again called on the Bulgarian authorities to take resolute action to tackle it in Bulgarian prisons and at Sofia Prison in particular.

Further, the CPT deplores extremely poor, and, in some areas, unacceptable material conditions found in big parts of Sofia Prison and in most of the accommodation at Kremikovtsi Prison Hostel which the CPT recommends closing.

“All the penitentiary establishments continue to be infested with cockroaches and bedbugs, despite the efforts to eradicate them.”

The committee called on the Bulgarian authorities to reinforce severely understaffed health-care teams in prisons visited, significantly increase the supply of free-of-charge medication, and to improve the provision of psychiatric care to prisoners.

Besides, the “highly unsatisfactory” situation of inmates with physical and/or learning disability who are not offered adapted conditions or care, should be remedied.

The committee is also concerned about the lack of progress in addressing the widespread substance use problem among inmates and the related health issues such as HIV and hepatitis.

As for psychiatric establishments and social care homes visited during the October 2021 visit, the committee issued a public statement on November 4 2021 strongly criticising a persistent failure by the Bulgarian authorities to address most of the fundamental shortcomings in the treatment, conditions and legal safeguards, and to implement the specific recommendations repeatedly made by the CPT for more than 25 years.

These recommendations concerned physical ill-treatment of patients by staff, appalling level of hygiene, deplorable shortage of staff, the use of seclusion and mechanical restraint in breach of international guidelines, as well as the lack of progress with de-institutionalisation.

“Urgent action is needed in all areas – legislation, infrastructure, human resources and training, and the development of bio-psycho-social treatments in line with modern practices across Europe,” the committee said, emphasising that “the whole systemic approach to mental health care and institutional social care in Bulgaria must radically change”.

In their response, the Bulgarian authorities set out the measures taken or envisaged to implement the recommendations made by the committee in the report.

(Photo of Sofia Central Prison: Bin im Garten)

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