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Budapest detention facility “unsuitable for human habitation”

A cell in the detention facility of Aradi utca. Source: Magyar Nemzet

Hungarian prisons have never met European standards, but a recent OPCAT study conducted by the Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights found that conditions of incarceration in Hungary are even worse than thought.

According to data provided by the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, the overcrowding rate of penitentiaries has been constantly increasing in Hungary in the past few years, resulting in the country’s prisons being among the most crowded in Europe. The average overcrowding rate was 143% at the end of 2013.  It reached 200% in certain institutions, with pre-trial detainees constituting almost a third of the prison population.

Not suitable for habitation

According to a recent OPCAT (Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment) study obtained by Hungarian daily Magyar Nemzet, things have not changed considerably in the past year. The Commissioner for Human Rights, László Székely, examined two prisons where people were either held in preliminary custody or for short-term sentences. One of them, the preliminary prison in Budapest’s Gyorskocsi street, was deemed “unsuitable for human habitation”, not only for prisoners but for employees as well.

The commissioner’s findings stated that circumstances in prison cells violate every European regulation possible as prisoners have less than the 3 square meters of personal space required by law. Walls and floors are dirty and in a terrible condition, and cells have no separate bathrooms.  Walls of the common lavatories are moldy and moist. Even tables are dangerous because of rough edges. Moreover, the courtyards where prisoners can walk during the day were inches deep in water during the visit.

Prison guards are not better off. Both in Gyorskocsi street and in another detention center in Aradi street, their offices receive no natural light and their break room has no windows at all. Doctors and nurses in the prison are often on call 24-hours. Security is also an issue: monitors are in a terrible condition, and it’s not possible to store their recordings, which means they cannot be used in abuse cases.

There are some areas that cameras do not monitor at all.

Pilot judgment

The findings are bad news for the Hungarian government, which is already in trouble over the inhumane conditions of its prisons and other detention facilities. Last year, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) issued a pilot judgement, obliging the state to immediately resolve the overcrowded nature of its prisons.

According to data obtained previously by news website Origo.hu, currently there are at least 500 cases pending against the Hungarian state by prisoners complaining of conditions in detention. Their numbers are indeed so high that there are law firms in Strasbourg specialized only in these cases.

In one of the cases last year, ECHR awarded damages of EUR 73,900 to six Hungarian inmates and ordered the government of Hungary to pay EUR 6,000 in legal costs. The court found that the conditions of the six petitioners’ incarceration violated article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.  The six convicts, who served their sentences in different facilities in Baracska, Szolnok, Budapest, Sopronkőhid, Pálhalma, Debrecen and Szeged, brought suit three years ago.

Were the court to render similar judgement in those cases, it could end up costing the state HUF 1.6 billion (USD 5.5 million).

The Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment is a treaty that supplements to the 1984 United Nations Convention Against Torture which establishes an international inspection system for places of detention.

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