The messenger logo

Infamous prison at the end of its days as government seeks to relieve overcrowding

By Eter Tsotniashvili
Wednesday, February 20
The infamous Ortachala Prison will be destroyed within 50 days. At a February 18 briefing on the state of the country’s prisons, President Mikheil Saakashvili ordered Justice Minister Nika Gvaramia to tear down the grim relic of brutal years.

Saakashvili said the prison, nearly a century old, will be replaced by a new facility meeting modern standards.

“A lot of injustices are connected with this prison,” the president said. “This is a prison where people used to be shot, and even now there aren’t basic living conditions.”

Gvaramia, the justice minister, reported that there are 18 000 prisoners throughout Georgia, and 2650 in Ortachala. Other prisons have enough room for the Ortachala inmates, Gvaramia assured the president, although the justice minister suggested he is waiting on an amnesty which would set some of them free.

Saakashvili has authorized a series of broad amnesties since winning reelection, but spoke of the need to carefully reintegrate convicts into society.

“We need to take care that we don’t damage our society after releasing [the prisoners],” he said, emphasizing that inmates should be pursuing an education while under lock and key.

“Our prisons can not allow people to leave who will come right back, which is why we should help them study something like hairdressing or construction work.”

According to the justice minister, new prisons are being build in Geguti and Gldani, each housing 1000–1 500 inmates.

The country’s current prisons need infrastructural repairs, Gvaramia said, pegging the eventual cost at GEL 150 million.

A Justice Minister spokesperson said there are not yet any set plans for the prison to replace Ortochala, but confirmed that the prisoners there should be moved within a few weeks.

Nana Kakabadze, head of the NGO Former Political Prisoners for Human Rights, says abuses in Georgia’s prison will continue. It is not the poor condition of the facilities that most needs change, she told the newspaper, but the way prison administrations treat inmates. She blamed powerful Prison Department head Bacho Akhalaia for making the situation worse.

There is also rampant overcrowding, she claimed, with four to five people sharing a single-bed room.

“The reason there is such a large number of prisoners is that there is no functioning amnesty,” she said.

Kakabadze also spoke of an often arbitrary criminal justice system, recounting a young man who was arrested for buying a stolen mobile phone.

“This man did not know [the phone was stolen],” she said, “and he bought a used phone as he didn’t have enough money to buy a new one. And the court decided to release him—if he would pay GEL 170 000. This is a violation of his rights, because if he was so rich he would buy a new phone.”

According to Kakabadze, there are grave problems with providing medical treatment to prisoners. She claims that when the Prison Department reports that an inmate died in the prison hospital, the prisoner in fact died in a jail cell.

She welcomes the plan to build a new prison over the rubble of Ortachala Prison, but says modern facilities won’t change the way the authorities treat prisoners.

American-based watchdog Human Rights Watch has criticized the Georgian government for overlooking beatings and abuse in prisons, and in a report on 2007’s justice system conditions warned that “overcrowding persists in almost all of Georgia’s penitentiary facilities, leading to many human rights violations, including inadequate nutrition, medical care, and exercise.”

The report also suggested the government should find alternatives to the widely-deployed pre-trial custody most facing criminal charges receive, rather than building new prisons.