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Gov’t to End ‘Prison Business’ by Suspending Payment of Compensations for Poor Living Conditions

Ábrahám Vass 2020.01.16.

The Hungarian government has suspended the payout of compensations for prisoners, due to the poor conditions in which they have been kept, the PM’s Office Secretary of State Bence Tuzson announced. While the government says it is ready to debate the issue, Hungarian prisons are still the most overcrowded within the EU.

Gov’t in action

In an interview with pro-Fidesz Hír TV, Tuzson stated that there are currently 12,000 cases underway and a business has been built around this: “…as soon as someone enters jail, someone -a non-gov’t organization, a lawyer- approaches him/her and informs them how to make business out of that,” he claimed.

He also added that the government will discuss the issue with the European Parliament and the Council of Europe, and in the meantime no payments would be made.

KDNP group spokesman Lőrinc Nacsa went even futher and blamed George Soros and organizations linked to him. He claimed “prisoners, including murderers, rapists, fraudsters and robbers, thanks to sneaky lawyers and the Soros-network are suing the state for tremendous amounts of money due to the prison conditions.” According to him, prison conditions in Hungary are improving, and more and new places are being built.

These announcements come on the heels of the Prime Minister’s recent and very vocal criticism of the compensation system. At his year-opening press briefing, Viktor Orbán said that the “people’s sense of justice is hurt” and it is “impossible to pay criminals money,” insisting that this issue needs to be addressed immediately and they are ready to take on the debates.

Hundreds of millions for compensation

The first case of compensation made headlines in 2015, when (since there was no legislation domestically) 43 inmates launched lawsuits at the European Court of Human Rights, which eventually awarded them a total of 231 million forints (EUR 691 thousand) of compensation for the poor conditions in which they had been kept. The ruling also found that there are systemic problems with the Hungarian prisons, as almost one and a half times more people are imprisoned than jails could accommodate.

It was then in October 2016 when the Parliament -with Fidesz-KDNP’s two thirds majority- adopted a law in order to establish the legal path and means for the compensation system domestically. This, besides a number of additional conditions (toilets, amount of sunlight etc.) and requirements determine that at least 6m2/person of living space must be provided in case of an individual cell and at least 4m2/person in case of shared accommodation. The amount of compensation was fixed at 1200-1600 forints (Eur 3.6-4.8) per day.

According to government politicians, as of now, the Hungarian state has had to pay 10 billion forints (EUR 30 million) in compensation to prisoners.

This, however, doesn’t mean that prisoners get the total amount in hand. Recently, in perhaps the most notorious case, certain aggressors involved in the lynching of teacher Lajos Szögi, received compensation worth millions from the state. This, would, however be spent almost exclusively on the compensation these murderers owe to Szögi’s family.

Family of Teacher Lajos Szögi Killed in Olaszliszka to Receive Compensation

While experts admit there a number of jails with improving conditions, a number of reports and articles draw attention to the over-crowding and poor conditions. According to a Euronews report in 2018, Hungarian prisons are the most over-crowded in the EU. While this data has since been showing an improving tendency, the secretary of Hungarian Society of Criminology Erzsébet Kadlót, who regularly visits prisons, also claimed that most of the problems are due to over-crowding, and shortage of low salaried prison guards. She told leftist daily Népszava that although the government promised in 2015 to build eight new prisons, it’ll take a long time for the promise to be materialized, if ever.

Meanwhile, the Helsinki Committee, which three years ago was unilaterally banned from the prisons after a long cooperation, in a statement denied certain aspects of Tuzson’s claims. They call it an “obvious lie” that “NGOs go to jail with a lawyer,” and denied that NGOs have received money for the representation in 12,000 cases, arguing that they help their clients for free. The Committee notes that the compensation has been possible since 2017, “..because prisoners are often held in dog-like conditions for years.” In addition, the system was set up by the same government that now deems it unacceptable.

featured image via MTI/Tibor Rosta