No new prison has been built in Bulgaria over the last 80 years and the state makes no investment in prisons, with basically all funding coming from external donors, writes Krassen Nikolov.
Krassen Nikolov is a journalist specialised in judiciary affairs. He works for Mediapool and is a regular contributor for BulgarianPresidency.eu for the six months of the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU.
A little over 7,000 people are serving sentences in prisons in Bulgaria. Over the last three years 51 people have escaped from prison. In addition, over 900 people sentenced to jail managed to escape before they were placed behind the bars. Despite the negative tendencies, the Bulgarian authorities only paid attention to the problems after the last daring escape of two murderers from the Sofia Prison.
On 3 April in broad daylight Radoslav Kolev, sentenced to 26 years in prison for murder, and Vladimir Stefanov, sentenced to 30 years for robbery, kidnapping of a mother with her child and attempted murder of two policemen, managed to escape from prison . They were serving their sentences in the most stringent regime, but managed to get a gun and a knife. They passed all prison guard posts and disappeared with a car waiting for them at the fence. It turned out that the prison guards were not armed and most of them have been taking cover from Stefanov, who shot several times on them. He shouted that he had a hand grenade. [More details here:]
Two days later, another attack on a guardian occurred in the same prison. An employee of the Sofia Prison has been hit several times in the face by a prisoner who was convoyed from the hospital from his cell. Authorities recognise that such incidents are recurrent for years. However, no measures have yet been taken.
“Indeed, we have identified the last incident with the escape of the two prisoners as a breakthrough in the Republic’s security system”, Tsvetan Mihailov, one of the representatives of the guards union said.
On 10 April Justice Minister Tsetska Tsacheva, who is responsible for the prisons, announced that the state would act. But what became clear from her statement is that the institutions had virtually no idea what to in the short term. Several working groups will be set up to identify the necessary measures. The minister pointed out that the state does not have a strategy for reforming the prison system and hopes to get EU funding to start drafting one. Until concrete measures are taken, a year will pass, and very likely no measures will be taken at all.
When the news of the escape of the two prisoners broke, Tsacheva said she was “shocked” and “angry”. But she did not resign. He said she would if Prime Minister Boyko Borissov had asked her. But he didn’t ask her to resign. In exchange, Tsacheva accepted the resignations of the two heads of the prison system.
But the prison guards refuse to accept all responsibility on themselves.
“If Mrs. Tsacheva is angry and shocked by what is going on, then it means that during all our meetings she did not listen carefully to what we were telling her, she did not consider the information we had submitted to her officially in writing and the letters from our organization, she has not heard the messages of our protests”, the trade union leader said.
The huge problem in the prison system is corruption. The guards are paid about €350 per month. Many find a solution to their financial problems by bringing a variety of prohibited articles to prisoners against bribes. Each time a prison is checked huge quantities of drugs, mobile phones and even blades are found. During the last prison escape, inmates under the most strict regime were in possession of a loaded firearm.
Low wages lead to understaffing. On average, a guard in the Bulgarian prisons is responsible for the security of 102 prisoners, which is an extremely difficult task. The mission becomes almost impossible in the absence of modern security equipment. For years, the Bulgarian state has made no investment in prisons, the funding having been secured primarily by external donors. This demotivates prison staff and they prefer to take bribes rather than try to remedy the system failures. Corruption is wrecking the whole system and causing irreparable damage to the prison guards’ mentality, which is unlikely to change if wage were increased. Some of them will continue to take bribes because it has become systematic behavior.
It is expected that prison staff will get 15% higher wages this year, but that will not solve the problems because salaries will continue to be too low. The state will simply pay more to get the same, as there is no strategy to solve the problem. However, minister Tsacheva believes that this will help.
“Mr. Borissov (the PM) understood the pain and the difficulties of the prison guards in the performance of their duties”: this is how Tsacheva explained the decision for the symbolic salary increase.
But in fact the prime minister will have to find much more money.
No new prison has been built in Bulgaria over the last 80 years. The result is that many of the largest prisons in the country are now almost at the center of the big cities. Such is the situation with the prisons in Sofia and Varna, where nearly one third of all sentenced prisoners are serving their sentences. Old buildings only deepen the problems. Bulgaria relies on a €18-million donation from Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein to build a new prison in Sofia. Its construction has not yet begun.
The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg issued a number of decisions with respect to the poor living conditions in Bulgarian prisons. Many of the convicts live on an area of less than 2 square meters and lack of access to toilets. The European standard is a minimum of 4 square meters. This allowed many Bulgarian prisoners to condemn the state before the Strasbourg court. The Council of Europe has several times allowed extra time to Bulgaria to improve this situation, but the state continues not to invest national funds.
Prison reform is also being monitored by the European Commission, although Brussels’s focus is on judicial reform and the fight against high level corruption. Given the security situation of those convicted, this Brussels effort seems pointless. Even if the Bulgarian prosecutor’s office would sentence a VIP to jail, he has every chance to escape.