CPT and juveniles in prisons


Note:This article is one of the NPM TRAVELBOOK series written by Mr Pavel Doubek and invited by Covenants Watch (CW), Taiwan. The original text was written in English and was translated by Yi-Ching Tsai, CW’s researcher.

Author/Pavel Doubek (Czech scholar and lawyer formerly working at Czech NPM)
Translator/Yi-Ching Tsai (Researcher of Covenants Watch)

Given the early age and vulnerability of juveniles, special legal measures should be applied when a person under the age of 18 commits a criminal offence.

Like in Taiwan, children under the age of 12 are not punishable under the Czech legal system. While corrective and protective measures can be imposed on children between the ages of 12 and 15, criminal measures, including imprisonment, can only be imposed on young people over the age of 15.[ii]

Under the Czech Juvenile Justice Act, examples of “corrective measures” include the supervision of child behaviour by a probation officer, the imposition of educational duties, etc.; “protective measures” means placing children into institutes such as reformatory schools to provide them with protective institutional care in reformatory schools.

And “criminal measures” include financial measures, house confinement, andor imprisonment. [Translator’s note: In Taiwan, the term “protective measures” under article 42 of the Juvenile Delinquency Act covers both the corrective and the protective measures mentioned above.]

Sometimes the line between protective measures (e.g. the reformatory school) and criminal measures (e.g. prison) can be really thin.

However, the former reformatory school is more of an educational institution designated to reform one’s behaviour, while the latter prison is a punitive facility designated for criminal punishment. (See the previous story of the reformatory school in Chrastava).

As a principle, prison sentences should be used as a last resort where a less invasive “educational” approach is of no avail. Furthermore, the Czech criminal law moderates the conditions of juvenile offenders in comparison with adult offenders in several ways. [i]

In particular, juvenile prisoners must be housed separately from adult prisoners and be provided with additional educational and restorative activities.

To achieve the objectives of a prison sentence, each prisoner will be provided with an individual plan that highlights certain activities, which may include educational activities (such as mathematics and English course), sports activities (gym, basketball), practical activities (e.g. training kitchen), library, priests service, etc.

The treatment of the juveniles is designed and delivered by a team of specialists, such as special educator, psychologist, social worker and instructors.

Young delinquents are an extremely vulnerable group in prison. They are easy prey to abuse by both prison officers and other prisoners. In most cases, it is also very difficult to investigate such acts of violence and to hold the perpetrators to accountability.

Therefore, the prison must apply various preventive strategies, for example, to ensure adequate numbers of juveniles in the accommodation units, to recruit a sufficient number of specialist staff, to carry out appropriate activities and promptly investigate any allegations of violence or other abuse.

When the competent authorities fail to fulfill their duties, it is the responsibility of the National Preventive Mechanisms (NPMs) to reveal the truth and pressure for reform.

However, this time I’m going to share with you a “unsuccessful story” of the Czech NPM, in which the national rights body didn’t monitor the conditions of juveniles in prisons in a systematic way. Instead, the role was taken up by a regional rights body, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT). [ii]

Note 1:The Juvenile Justice Act stipulates that the duration of the imprisonment sentence set in the Criminal Act shall be halved, and the maximum duration of the sentence must not exceed five years. In the event that a juvenile has committed an extremely serious crime for which the Criminal Act allows to impose the extraordinary sentence (e.g. life imprisonment), the Youth Court may impose a prison sentence of five to ten years.

The Juvenile Justice Act further emphasizes that unconditional imprisonment prison sentences without probation can only be imposed on a juvenile as a last resort, if it’s evident that the purpose of the Act would not be satisfied otherwise considering “the circumstances of the case, the person of the juvenile or the previously applied measures”.

Note 2:Pursuant to Article 7 of the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the CPT conducts regular visits to places of detention in the member states. Based on these visits, the CPT issues visit report with recommendations that are addressed to the government of the member state. Government is obliged to cooperate with the CPT and fulfil its recommendations. CPT thus serves as a European NPM.

Two rights bodies visiting the same prison with contrary findings

There are no specialized juvenile prisons in the Czech Republic, but only specialized juvenile departments set up in normal prisons. Among the 35 prisons in the Czech Republic, the juvenile-specialized departments are set up in 5 male prisons and 1 female prisons, which are holding 47 male juveniles and 7 female juveniles today.

The Czech NPM does not systematically monitor the condition of juvenile prisoners. The last visit took place in 2010 when it visited the male prison in Všehrdy and the female prison in Světlá nad Sázavou.

The NPM visit revealed two major deficiencies in the Všehrdy prison and recommended these practices should be changed. First, the prison was overcrowded with 140 juveniles, who were concentrated there because the other prisons were under reconstruction at that time. This made it impossible for the prison to separate aggressive prisoners from the others and to ensure a sufficient number of specialist prison workers.

Second, the prison school was unable to enable the juvenile to complete primary education, or to provide them with adequate training programs at the secondary level. The capacity of these courses was limited, and prison staff were reluctant to enrol young prisoners on the grounds that they were more problematic than adult prisoners. Therefore, most of the juvenile were deprived to receive a secondary education.

Photo by wonsung jang on Unsplash

Apart from these two deficiencies, the Czech NPM considered the general conditions in the Všehrdy prison to be satisfactory and in some respects even appreciated the prison management.

This made a stark contrast when the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture visited the same prison in the same year and received several allegations of physical ill-treatment of juveniles by prison staff. It appeared that the prison staff are using slapping and batons to impose order and discipline. The CPT delegation also received a number of allegations of inter-prisoner violence, including the humiliation of sexual nature.

The CPT gained the impression that “inter-prisoner violence was a characteristic of prison life at the units for juveniles, resulting from the combined effect of an absence of meaningful activities for the majority of inmates and the inability to exercise adequate staff supervision, due to low staffing numbers and the layout of the living areas.”

Photo by Isaac Jenks on Unsplash

Based on the ill-treatment identified therein, it recommended that the management at Všehrdy Prison shall deliver a clear message to prison officers that all forms of ill-treatment are not acceptable and will be punished accordingly; and that the Czech authorities shall draw up an integrated action plan to combat inter-prisoner violence in the units for juveniles at Všehrdy Prison.

Disappointingly, the Czech government denied the observations of the CPT and insisted that the inspections carried out by domestic authorities, including the NPM under the Ombudsman’s office, showed neither violence against prisoners nor any kind of inter-prisoner violence.

The government also reassures the CPT that no ill-treatment is tolerated and that all cases of physical violence, bullying or psychological abuse found at the Všehrdy Prison are always investigated and dealt with promptly. Of course, the CPT was not satisfied with such response, and it decided to follow up the issue in the next 8 years, which eventually led to some positive changes.

Photo by Isaac Jenks on Unsplash

Sustained interventions from the CPT

In 2014, the CPT carried out a follow-up visit to the Všehrdy Prison. The delegation interviewed all the 22 juveniles who were being held in the juvenile department at the time and reached the conviction that the situation had deteriorated since the 2010 visit.

Consistent and numerous allegations of physical ill-treatment were made against the prison officers. The alleged ill-treatment mostly took place in the juveniles’ cells or in a storage room, and consisted mainly of slaps and punches, with custodial staff sometimes wearing leather gloves.

The CPT also gained the impression that physical ill-treatment and threats were an accepted feature of the treatment of juveniles and it perceived an atmosphere of fear in the juvenile unit. In addition, at least one juvenile was threatened with reprisals immediately after having spoken to the delegation by prison staff.

Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

The CPT urged the Czech government to carry out a prompt, independent and thorough inquiry into the allegations of physical ill-treatment and ensure that the juveniles will not be the subject of any reprisals. Again, the Czech government replied that the prison service carried out the investigation into the issue and found no deficiencies.

In addition, the government stressed that the public prosecutor, who are responsible for supervising the allegations, did not find any misconduct of the Prison Service, either. The statement by the Czech ombudsman in 2010 that the prison conditions were “well above average” was repeatedly mentioned by the government to defend itself.

These unsatisfactory responses led the President of the CPT decide to address a letter to the Czech authorities, urging for a detailed account of the concrete steps taken in this regard within three months.

The Czech government finally reported some real actions this time. After assuring that the investigation files would not be handed over to the prison wardens, the public prosecutor interviewed 33 juveniles without the presence of prison staff. Then the majority of juveniles testified to the disturbing facts of unlawful behaviour of members of the Prison Service.

The supervising public prosecutor immediately issued an interdiction of direct contact with juveniles to 16 prison wardens. Later on, a total of 18 members of staff had been transferred to other duties where they were not in direct contact with juveniles and several juveniles had been transferred to other prisons.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

In 2018, the CPT had carried out an additional follow-up visit and confirmed that the Czech authorities did carry out an investigation into the allegations and had taken steps to prevent reoccurrence of ill-treatment.

The delegation asked the Czech government to provide the outcome of the investigations and of the criminal/disciplinary sanctions imposed on the prison staff concerned. In December 2019, the Czech government informed the CPT that one officer of the Czech Prison Service was conditionally sentenced to 2.5 years in prison for abusing official powers and another officer is being prosecuted.

Although no disciplinary proceedings were initiated with regard to the remaining officers involved, some of them left the prison service by themselves or were reassigned within the prison guard department.

On 22 July 2019, the locally competent public prosecutor notified the Všehrdy Prison that the order to ban the contact between the officers and the juveniles concerned was now lifted, since reasons for issuing the order had ceased to exist.

Lesson: torture prevention beyond the NPM

Readers may be wondering what role the NPM played in this story and why it had not identified the serious cases of abuse that the CPT had revealed.

Since I was not part of the NPM at that time, it is extremely difficult to assess a visit that took place so long ago. However, it must be said that no control body is 100% accurate all the time and there will always be some facts that remain hidden to NPM monitors. 

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

It’s a shame that state authorities may tend to misuse the NPM findings to cover up their own misconduct, as we can see in the story. NPMs should learn the lessons and do their best to ensure their findings are evidence-based, maintain vigilant and appreciate some good practices from other countries.

We should also remember that the NPM is not the only measure prescribed by the Convention against Torture to prevent torture. The public prosecutor, the independent judiciary, vigilant non-governmental organizations as well as international scrutiny,  are all important elements to ensure effective domestic implementation of the Convention.

As in this case, the CPT remained vigilant and did not let the Czech people  be lulled into the government’s claim that no ill-treatment occurred. Given that there’s no similar international monitoring mechanism in Asia to supervise the practices in Taiwan at this moment, it is even more important to enhance the expertise and effectiveness of domestic authorities and civil society organisations.