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Prison Compensations: Two Major Changes in Legislation in 4 Years

Ábrahám Vass 2020.02.26.

The parliamentary debate is now over about the compensation system for prisoners because of the conditions they are kept in. The ruling parties majority has voted to suspend compensations. The case has been making headlines since PM Orbán’s year-opening press briefing. Although government politicians have since been calling the issue simply “prison business,” blaming the “Soros network” and “greedy lawyers,” it is much more complex.

Over-populated prisons

It has long been known that Hungarian prisons are over-populated. A 2013 conference revealed that Hungary was the last country in Europe in the square meter per inmate ratio. According to a Euronews report in 2018, Hungarian prisons were the most over-crowded in the EU.

An analysis by legal expert portal Ars Boni blames the tightening of the penal code after the change of government in 2010, that resulted in about 3,000 more people appearing in Hungarian prisons, causing over-population.

Since the Social-liberal governments’ approach seemed quite lenient towards criminals, one of the main promises of Fidesz was “putting the country in order.” According to this, they have tightened the penal code (and often choose to tighten that ever since, although crime rates tend to decrease), consequently sending more people to jail and for longer periods of time. But the prison capacity did not keep up with the change of rules.

Five thousand lawsuits for the “herring-money”

Up until the end of 2015, around five thousand inmates sued the Hungarian state at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) for what in prison slang is known as “herring-money.” This resulted in the Hungarian state often being forced to pay thousands of Euros to prisoners. The 2016 legislation was thus meant to address this problem, in order to save money.

The László Trócsányi-led Justice Ministry (IM) set to follow the Italian example, which had previously faced the same problems, where thanks to domestic legislation, prisoners couldn’t turn anymore to Strasbourg.

October 2016: Fidesz-KDNP’s two-thirds majority vote in the “prison business” legislation

At the final vote, the legislation was only voted on by Fidesz-KDNP MPs, while MSZP and LMP politicians abstained, and Jobbik voted against it. That time, likewise to today, one of the presenters of the law, the Justice Ministry’s parliamentary state secretary Pál Völner, interpreted the government’s standpoint. While László Salacz (Fidesz) claimed that this package, together with new prisons, will effectively put an end to the current situation.

At the debate, opposition politicians more or less predicted what would be the debate four years later. Socialist (MSZP) MP Imre Horváth stated: “If (…) most detainees are given compensation due to circumstances that are not at all adequate, but among the Hungarian prison conditions are average, that might result in a surprising amount of compensation for the inmates after a few years of detention. All of this can understandably trigger shock within the society, without improving the conditions detainees are kept in.” As a result, he insisted on his opposition to the legislation, as “it fails to effectively address systematic problems.”

LMP’s Benedek R. Sallai, although welcomed the government’s aim to address the problem to “save money for the state,” also warned that the legislation opens the gate to many (more precisely: nearly all) prisoners to seek compensation, as overcrowding is very high all over the country. He added that perhaps other forms of penalties (fines, community service) should be considered instead in many cases, hence easing the overpopulation.

While Jobbik MP Gábor Staudt aired what Fidesz criticizes the most at the moment, and warned that certain lawyers might push prisoners to launch lawsuits, resulting in countless lawsuits. He also warned that only to bring legislation regarding the matter to Hungary (instead of the ECHR) wouldn’t solve the problem in itself. He also spoke of alternative ways such as the improvement of reintegration methods to only those inmates who “deserve that.”

Anyhow, the governing alliance eventually voted in the legislation. It must be noted, however, that the proposal contained the idea that the compensation could be spent on the compensation the perpetrator was due to pay (the state didn’t and still doesn’t have any other method in case the perpetrator didn’t have the financial background to compensate victims).

Minor steps to ease prison over-population

From the point of view of easing overcrowding, the government seemed rather reluctant to solve the case. While there have been announcements about prison-buildings (Orbán in 2017 announced eight, Minister of Interior Sándor Pintér in 2019, announced five new prison plans), these projects aren’t moving forward as easily as stadium buildings, as only one project has been delivered thus far (in Kiskunhalas, which didn’t involve any major construction, as former barrack buildings were transformed into a detention center). While three of them (with 2000 places) have been totally been called off, and the rest put on hold due to financial or public procurement problems.

Meanwhile, a number of reports show how badly locals would need and like these new detention centers originally planned in rural, under-developed areas, often hit hard by unemployment. For example, in Ózd where a number of potential guards had already finished training, the project had been totally called off. Or the Komádi prison project (put on hold), besides easing overcrowding, would employ around 250 people in one the most underdeveloped and forgotten parts of Hungary.

“Prison business”?

To date, according to state secretary Bence Tuzson, around 12,000 processes have been launched. To put in context: around 17-20,000 people can be found behind bars (in 2018 this was around 18,000). While he claimed that a business is built around this and there certainly are law firms out there advertising such services, ruling party politicians failed to specify who are they blaming exactly.

The NGOs, such as the Helsinki Committee, repeatedly mentioned by govt politicians and pro-govt media for its Soros-ties, consistently denied the government’s allegations that they get paid for legally helping inmates. The Helsinki Committee could hardly do that anyway as after fruitful cooperation with the authorities, they got banned unilaterally from prisons three years ago.

The new legislation puts a stop to compensation

The government is about to launch a new ‘national consultation’ about the “prison business” and other issues, whilst on Tuesday, Parliament voted to suspend compensation payments to inmates who have sued the state over conditions in overcrowded prisons until June 15th.

The new legislation, passed with 139 votes in favor, two against, and four abstentions, also stipulates that the government must prepare a proposal for rules governing compensation to the victims of crime before May 15th, based on the results of a national public survey now under way.

Under the new law, the government is obliged to ensure that by September 30th, the occupancy rate of prisons does not exceed 100%.

In future, any amount paid in compensation to a prisoner will be transferred directly to their bank account or added to their deposit managed by the prison to avoid abuse of payments.

featured image: inmates having lunch in the Szolnok prison (2013); via MTI/László Beliczay