Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Czech Prisons Reverberate as Thousands Protest

by Julia Lutsy

An uprising at 21 of the Czech Republic's 33 prisons was touched off on January 10, 2000, when a guard turned off prisoners' television an hour early in the Vinarice prison in Central Bohemia. This gave rise to a hunger strike and, two days later, the protests escalated to include the destruction of bunks, bedding and furniture.

No confrontations with guards were reported, but prisoners' windows soon were festooned with banners proclaiming, "We are people, not animals" and "On hunger strike for our rights." Leaders presented a list of prisoners' grievances. Of 37 demands, the authorities conceded 15 almost immediately as the protests began to spread. The most important were related to severe overcrowding, followed by those related to the lack of work opportunities, poor food, unhygienic living conditions and severe new restrictions which had been instituted at the beginning of the year with respect to the receipt of parcels from families. At the peak of the protests, on January 12, 6,000 prisoners were on the hunger strike.

Though Czech President Vaclav Havel issued an amnesty in 1990 emptying the prisons of their 20,000 prisoners, they are now filled to excess with 23,000. Even the authorities concede that the prisons hold over 17 percent more prisoners than the regulations stipulate; some cells, constructed to hold six persons now hold up to ten. Of the 23,000 Czechs imprisoned, approximately a third are remand prisoners, i.e., they have not been tried. Remand prisoners were among the protesters; they spend nearly twice as much time in prison now as they did before Havel's 1989 "Velvet Revolution." The present prison overpopulation can be traced to the huge crime wave which followed upon the re-introduction of unbridled capitalism in 1998. It is the petty criminals who fill the prisons: Two thirds of convicted Czech prisoners are completing sentences of less than two years. The majority of them are first offenders.

The vast majority of all Czech prisoners have no work and are poorly fed, receiving the equivalent of about $1 worth of food per day. Frequently they must make do with one change of clothing every other week; they are prohibited from washing clothing in their cells. Hot water for showering is available for only 20 minutes a day in some prisons. All of them had previously been allowed to receive two five kilogram packages (something over 22 pounds) a week. The new regulations cut the ration for convicted prisoners to two five-kilogram packages a year. Ostensibly, the reason for the change was to end the flow of drugs to the prisons. After the protests started the government proposed extending the new regulations to include the remand prisoners.

Another general amnesty is not presently under consideration: President Havel is of the opinion that "truth and love" prevail now that "communist oppression" is ended.

Source: The New Worker, 28 January 2000, Great Britain

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login