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Polish prisons still struggling with overcrowding

The Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, together with the Association for Legal Intervention, addressed the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers to refer to the Polish authorities’ failure to enforce judgments of the European Court of Human Rights made in cases involving the overcrowding of Polish prisons. In 2009 ECtHR entered judgments in two cases of Polish prisoners, Orchowski v. Poland and Sikorski v. Poland. In both cases, the Court found a violation of the prohibition of torture (Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights). The violations had been caused by the overcrowding of prison cells occupied by the applicants. The ECtHR also made a note of the systemic nature of the problem.

“These landmark decisions should result in bringing about solutions needed to mitigate and, finally, eliminate the underlying reasons of the problem of overcrowding in Polish penitentiary facilities”, says Katarzyna Wiśniewska, a lawyer with the HFHR.

Under the legal regulations currently in force, the minimum floor space per prisoner in Poland is three square metres. Notably, the three-metre standard established by the Polish law is one of the lowest in Europe. By way of comparison, the Austrian law guarantees inmates a cell floor space of 6 square metres, and the relevant figures in Belgium is 9, Greece – 10, and Turkey – 8-9 square metres.

The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment emphasised in four consecutive country reports on Poland that Polish authorities should take decisive action to reduce prison overcrowding and achieve the standard of at least 4 square metres of living space per prisoner.

According to information posted at the Prison Service website, as of 17 May 2013, the total prison population in Poland was 86,612. The average national occupancy rate in prisons and detention (remand) centres was 98.1%. Among them, there are units where the rate surpassed 110%. The statistics are based on the Polish standard of 3 square metres of floor space per prisoner, which is incompatible with the CPT standards.

“The problem of overcrowding is related to a high incidence of custodial sentences”, explains Katarzyna Wiśniewska, HFHR’s lawyer. “It is thus necessary to review the law, apply more constraint in ordering pre-trial detention and use non-custodial measures more frequently”, adds Ms Wiśniewska.

According to the organisations, the ECtHR judgments in the cases of Sikorski and Orchowski have not been enforced. The signatories of the address call the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers to supervise a proper implementation of the judgments.

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