Georgia's Crammed Prisons
As activists complain that Georgian prisons are overcrowded, dangerous and riddled with tuberculosis, the authorities are promising to increase the availability of alternative penalties for sentencing.
According to the World Prison Population List compiled by King’s College in London, Georgia has the sixth-highest prison numbers on a list of 217 countries, with 538 prisoners for 100,000 people.
Figures from Georgia’s justice ministry indicate that half the country’s jails are overcrowded, although a representative told IWPR the numbers did not exceed the legal limit.
Nine of the 18 prisons in Georgia hold more inmates than their notional maximum capacity. Tbilisi’s Prison No. 1, for example, has around 1,200 prisoners crammed into cells designed for 750, and the prison in the western city of Batumi has 715 instead of 557.
Human rights groups say they often receive appeals for help from prisoners alleging mistreatment by guards.
“The prisons are over-full,” lawyer Eka Kobesashvili said. “I’ve heard from prisoners that there are 12 or 13 prisoners in an eight-person cell. The inmates often complain about beatings, or that proper medical treatment is not available. Prisoners with tuberculosis are often kept together with healthy inmates,”
Figures from Public Defender Giorgi Tugushi, the country’s official human rights ombudsman, show that 142 people died in jail last year, 43 of them of TB.
The health crisis in prisons has drawn comments from Patriarch Ilia II, an authoritative figure as head of the dominant Georgian Orthodox church.
“Our prisons are a dangerous breeding ground for tuberculosis. There are no facilities there to maintain hygiene,” he said, adding that ex-convicts often carried the disease home to their families, creating the risk of a major epidemic.
Kobesashvili said the jails were full because judges relied on heavy prison sentences, and did not consider alternative punishments.
“Amnesties only ever apply to people who only have a few months left to serve anyway. Judges have the option of not imposing maximum terms and setting a fine instead, or choosing a different punishment that does not involve imprisonment, but in reality they do the opposite,” she said.
According to the justice ministry, just 74 people were sentenced to community service last year.
Dmitri Lortkipanidze, deputy chairman of parliament’s human rights commission, argues that the number of prisoners is too high and their rights are being infringed.
“One of the reasons for the overload is the amended criminal code passed in 2006 under which, if a person has committed several crimes, the penalties are added together [consecutively],” Lortkipanidze said. Before 2006, sentences ran concurrently.
“Further amendments were made to the code subsequently, so that judges can now lighten the sentence – but this depends on the judge, not the law,” he added.
Lortkipanidze wants parliament to institute a mechanism for checking up on the prisons.
“I have suggested creating a monitoring group drawing on representatives of all parties. This group could visit any prison at any time and acquaint itself with the situation. So far, this suggestion hasn’t received backing, but I intend to put it on the agenda again,” he said.
The justice ministry said allegations of abuse were always investigated, and that its representatives systematically monitored penal institutions to ensure that inmates’ rights were being protected.
In a statement, it said a new prison was being built to hold prisoners with TB. This should be completed next year.
Otar Kakhidze, head of the ministry’s research department, said steps were already being taken to reduce prison overcrowding.
“A bill has been submitted to parliament that would shorten the penal terms for 20 offences – both the maximum and minimum sentences. A draft law on community service has also been prepared; it would allow us to use more effective forms of punishment,” he said.
Kakhidze said the ministry had also accepted recommendations from the European Union, which proposed that Georgia adopts as system used in The Netherlands where, in cases involving relatively minor crimes, a prosecutor can halt the investigation before it goes to court if the accused provides restitution, pays a fine or does community service.
Tea Topuria is a freelance journalist in Georgia.