In Hungary prison violence is part of everyday life for juvenile inmates

May 30, 2015

The three suspects at the court / Photo: Márton Magócsi
The three suspects at the court / Photo: Márton Magócsi

Translation of Ákos Albert’s article “The young prisoners don’t even know why they are beating each another” (“Azt sem tudják, miért verik egymást a fiatal rabok”) posted on abcug.hu on May 28th, 2018.

Juvenile prisoners are capable of the most inconceivable cruelty. They are usually neglected and try to handle trauma and an unfamiliar prison environment by using as much violence as they can. Three teenagers tortured two of their cellmates for days but were unable to explain why. The custodians try to monitor what is going on but find themselves outnumbered by more and more prisoners. Often the victim also has to be convinced to talk about the experiences of being constantly abused.

Hit the leg: the victim inmate stands in the middle of the cell, and others start kicking his shin.

Dog-game: Depending on the answer to the question “Who is a dog?” abusers start to punch the victim with their fists.

Respect-game: The victim is asked the question “Who do you respect?” The answer does not make a difference, one of the inmates, not named as being respected, will start to hit the victim.

These activities are only games in name. In reality these are ruthless power techniques widespread in Hungarian prisons. Their objective is to establish pecking order by subordinating certain prison inmates to their peers. As a prosecutor from the Northeastern Borsod county put it in an indictment: all this is not necessarily the product of evil intentions, but of “a peculiar order of dealing with things” that goes on every day.

Gábor, aged 18 and Béla, aged 17 were sentenced to juvenile prison in Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén county, occupying cell number 315. Their teenage cellmates, Ábel, Zsolt F. and Zsolt B. received them with interest. They started to ask them about life outside, and the guys started a conversation. What happened next is being told differently by all involved. What we know is that three of the cellmates are presently facing charges of sexual assault at court.

The three suspects at the court / Photo: Márton Magócsi
The three suspects at the court / Photo: Márton Magócsi

According to the indictment, everything started with a cigarette that the accused wanted to take away from Béla, so they started the “Hit the leg” game on him. Ábel challenged him to fight one-on-one, and when Béla said yes, all three started to beat him. The next day they restarted the whole thing for fun in the cell toilet. Both him and the other prison rookie were forced to have sex with them. One of them was raped while being pushed up against the tiles. “If you alert the guards, you will get a severe beating” they were warned.

The three teenagers are accused of raping and beating the other two teenagers for days, who were subjected to “Hit the leg” or “Respect” on a daily basis. Their food was taken, they were threatened, and were forced to clean up. In the meantime, the abusers bragged about “having shagged both of them” in the prison courtyard. Finally, one of the prison guards noticed the wounds from the beatings on the victims, and started a disciplinary procedure.

Young prisoners are much more violent

The amount of violent crime in Hungarian prisons has been decreasing for years.  That being said, 350 such cases were reported in 2014 alone, the majority of them involving severe physical abuse and coercion. Brutal cases such as Béla’s are rare but not without precedent.  According to a January indictment, three prison inmates used the leg of a wooden chair to rape the fourth prisoner. The abusers there received an additional 18 years in prison. Like Ábel and his cellmates, these were teens as well.

“We experience violence and had cases being more frequent among juveniles” Borbála Ivány, attorney of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee told Abcúg. According to her, there could be multiple reasons for this. These children can be characterized by a severe lack of socialization, neglect, and most of them arrive from extremely harsh social backgrounds. “The trauma, the unknown environment and the strange behavioral sub-culture could also play a role, triggering extreme violence, resistance and the seeking of conflict” Ivány added. Violence on the other hand also serves as a means to achieve more power.

Photo: Márton Magócsi
Photo: Márton Magócsi

Disciplinary authorities also think that juveniles need much more attention. In an official response to Abcúg, the press officer of National Law Enforcement Command wrote that with young people the particularities of their age mean that their personality and sense of responsibility is in an unfinished stage, therefore, in their case, dealing with imagined or real conflicts by brute force is more frequent.

“He was a rookie, so I beat him”

The case of Béla and his peer has been discussed for the first time in Miskolc District Court on Tuesday. While the indictment was being read out, the three accused teenagers never looked up, only rarely uttering a word, and not making confessions. They were not defending themselves at all, but not admitting to what they did either.  Two of the accused sat emotionless.  Zsolt F. sometimes looked up at those sitting in the audience looking visibly frightened.  According to his guardian he was the one who started to stutter during his police interrogation, even though never doing so before.

As they kept silent in the courtroom, it was never revealed why they chose to physically abuse their cellmates. The judge however read out the testimonies they have given during the police investigation. Even though one of the accused refused to speak to police, the two others talked. There was little logic in their confessions, however. Both aimed to downplay their part in the atrocities. The few subtle remarks give the impression of three youngsters who react violently to even the smallest problem, while having no idea what they have done.

“Everyone was having a chat, and then I just slapped the new one in the face twice. He was a rookie, so I beat him” Zsolt B.’s testimony read. The 18-year-old prisoner only finished the first 4 grades of elementary school, but already has a 9-month-old daughter. A name, Bettina, can be read on a tattoo on his wrist.

Photo: Márton Magócsi
Photo: Márton Magócsi

“Ábel challenged me.  He said that I dare not humiliate him. He said he bets my daughter’s life on this”  Zsolt told police. This is allegedly why he dragged Béla to the toilet, and forced him to have oral sex. The other accused, Zsolt F. says that Zsolt B. started beating Béla and his newbie friend because he learned that his daughter was hospitalized. And this was his natural reaction. After that Ábel hit them on the fingernails with a broomstick. “I think this was because he was subjected to that before” Zsolt F. testified.

The disciplinary procedure of the prison was not yielding even that amount of reasoning as to why Béla and Gábor were raped and beaten. “I don’t know” was the answer most used. But testimonies show that problems between each other were also being dealt with by beating the two weakest in the cell. “Ábel cursed my family, so I slapped Béla twice or three times.” Zsolt B. confessed.

None of the victims were present at court, even though they were invited. One of the witnesses, another teenager, was revealed as the former cellmate of Ábel who had also been terrorized previously. “It is difficult to recall it” he said. When he first got into prison, he aimed to be on good terms with everyone, but this did not work out. “I weighed 88 pounds.  They started to hit and abuse me right from the start” he said. He was beaten and made to eat cockroaches. In the end, his custodian noticed his wounds and he was taken out of the cell.

We asked the law enforcement authority what do they do to avoid abuses similar to Béla’s case.

The answer explained that authorities work with a risk analysis system based on a classification of prisoners. They aim to select out those who could be victimized at the very beginning of serving their sentence.

A reintegration officer, psychologist and a cleric are also dealing with all the inmates, and, according to the authority, prison labor and various activities help diminish the tensions.

They also told us that prisoners are free to notify them anytime if they have a problem.

Authorities aim to bring about cell communities by pre-screening potential offenders and victims, and pairing them accordingly.

At the courtroom, a more concrete example of how guards were confronting such atrocities was offered. Two educators from Szirmabesenyő prison were heard out. They were the ones handling the case of Béla and Gábor.

You cannot tell from the outside whether somebody has been raped or not, but physical signs of beatings are visible, one of the custodians said. One such occasion is when the aggressor removes part of the victim’s hair, but nothing like this occured in Béla’s case. But this is a frequent sign of humiliation, determining where Béla’s place is in prison hierarchy. Educators make a pass around prison cells every morning.  At that time anyone can notify them of problems. Because of intimidation, a few prisoners would do so so custodians also look for visible wounds, or whether somebody’s hair has been cut. Then they will know exactly, that there is a problem.

Photo: Márton Magócsi
Photo: Márton Magócsi

In such instances, the educator takes the suspected victim and interrogates him. Often they need to be persuaded to admit to being abused, as offenders could easily have friends in other cells. One of the educators said that he usually tells these people they are better off talking about these atrocities, otherwise they would be made to return to the same cell.

If somebody eventually agrees, a disciplinary procedure can be initiated. The cell is immediately searched and guards interrogate each inmate. “We try to work in a way so that inmates are as separated from each other as possible. This is however very difficult sometimes, because of the crowdedness” the educator said.

Ten days of solitary confinement

According to Borbála Ivány, Hungarian prisons need much more expert attention. Therapies for traumatized victims and for offenders need to be introduced. “Besides physical separation, law enforcement does almost nothing, thereby triggering the risk of the repetition of crimes” she said. She also added that the best course of action would be if prison sentences for juveniles could be discontinued except for the most severe crimes. And even then, education, socializing and psychotherapy should be favored over simple law enforcement measures.

A disciplinary procedure within the prison has been concluded in the case of Béla and Gábor. A criminal procedure was initiated, and the three suspects were placed in ten-day solitary confinement. They refused to comment on this or any other aspect of the case at court. The two victims have since served their prison sentences.  The suspects remained in their cells. At the time of sentencing all can expect their prison sentences to be extended by a number of years.