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Public Defender publishes report on monitoring four penitentiary establishments

By Levan Abramishvili
Wednesday, December 25
The Office of the Public Defender of Georgia has published a report on monitoring four penitentiary facilities in Georgia in July and August 2019.

In July and August 2019, the Special Preventive Group of the Georgian Public Defender undertook monitoring in detention facilities N2, N8, N14 and N15. Visits were made to the largest semi-open and closed facilities. Based on the information gathered through monitoring, the structural and characterizing elements of each institution were analyzed in a complex manner, according to the Ombudsman’s Office.

One of the main focuses of the monitoring was to examine the extent and forms of informal governance in the institutions as the above poses a serious threat to prisoners' ill-treatment, which leads to violence and oppression among prisoners.

The issue of informal governance was also a highlight in the Ombudsman’s Human Rights Day 2019 statement. The document reads:

“The criminal subculture and vicious practice of informal governance were identified in the penitentiary institutions. Communication with persons deprived of their liberty and the staff of the institutions during monitoring showed the systemic nature of informal governance, which implies a privileged position of specific prisoners and existence of informal ways of settling disputes.”

According to the information obtained by the Special Preventive Group, the prisons do not have a violence-free environment that is reflected in physical and psychological abuse by prisoners, criminal subculture, and the excessive and improper use of de-escalation, solitary confinement and internal classification cells.

The report identifies the shortage of staff and overcrowded facilities as a driving force behind the administration delegating the functions of conflict resolution and “keeping order” to informal rulers.

“Establishments where the impact of informal governance is high, are characterized by physical and severe psychological violence among prisoners. Psychological violence is mainly manifested in extortion, humiliation, marginalization and other acts. Criminal subculture is particularly prevalent in semi-open establishments, where informal rulers are privileged and force other prisoners to obey informal rules,” reads the report. It was also observed that due to the influence of criminal subculture and fear of repercussions, inmates are not fully aware of their rights and responsibilities and decline to exercise their right to complain.

A significant challenge identified by the report is lengthy, inappropriate and punitive placement of inmates in the de-escalation rooms, “which has long been described by the Public Defender as cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.”

According to the data gathered by the Office, inmates are mostly held in de-escalation rooms for a maximum period of 72 hours and may be put continuously in the de-escalation room at intervals of just a few minutes or hours.

It was also found that the administration places an inmate with mental health problems in the de-escalation room for a long time due to the lack of psychosocial support services or other crisis management tools.

The Public Defender and its Special Preventive Group emphasize that the prolonged placement of prisoners in the de-escalation room and the failure to provide appropriate psychiatric care violate the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

The report also speaks of a lack of accountability and ineffective investigation in case of ill-treatment of the prisoners.

“It is unfortunate that the relevant authorities do not effectively detect or document alleged ill-treatment. In particular, doctors do not identify a possible link between an injury and torture or ill-treatment. Even when they document injuries in an appropriate form and send them to the General Inspection Department of the Ministry of Justice, the investigation is not effective,” reads the Special Preventive Group report.

There were a few other issues identified during the visits, including the lack of satisfactory sanitary-hygienic conditions in the cells, solitary confinement and internal classification rooms, as well as in showers.

In terms of penitentiary health care, the number and qualifications of medical staff, proper medical documentation, medical confidentiality, timely medical referral and preventive health care remain problematic. Besides, the lack of staff makes it difficult to provide quality psychiatric care.

The Special Penitentiary Service expressed its opinion on the assessments made in the report before the publication and agreed with the recommendations of the Public Defender to some extent and aims to transform the larger penitentiary institutions into relatively small ones to improve the situation there.

“The Public Defender welcomes the idea of transforming institutions if their goal is to develop a human rights-based system focused on positive changes in the behavior of convicts, their rehabilitation and thus their reintegration into society,” reads the Ombudsman's statement.

To prevent the ill-treatment of prisoners, it is important that the Special Penitentiary Service and other state agencies properly review and analyze the cases described in the report and take timely steps to effectively implement the recommendations.

The Public Defender’s Office and the Special Preventive Group carry out the functions of a National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) as prescribed under the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

The objective of the Protocol is to establish a system of regular visits undertaken by independent international and national bodies to places where people are deprived of their liberty, to prevent torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

In the function of NPM, The Public Defender of Georgia or a member of a Special Preventive Group shall examine the situation concerning the protection of human rights and freedoms in custody and pre-trial detention facilities, as well as in other places of restriction of liberty.

NPMs are mandated to conduct regular visits to all types of places where persons are deprived of liberty. These visits should lead to recommendations to improve the protection of persons deprived of liberty. NPMs can also make comments on laws and regulations and propose reforms. Every year, NPMs publish an annual report on their activities and torture prevention issues in their country.