In this article we present a general picture of how the Hungarian prison system works, including an overview on the possibilities within prisons to successfully reintegrate offenders back into society. We also hear from a prisoner who says that half of all prisoners “improve” as a result of incarceration. We also look at the scope for alternative forms of punishment, how they could take the burden off the prison system and what barriers make this difficult.
Hungary has been struggling with overcrowding in prisons for years, with average overcrowding rates of 130-140 percent not uncommon in the middle of the last decade. This has now been eliminated, and we asked Attila Horváth, head of the BvOP Security Service, about the background to this.
A.H.: Thanks to our capacity expansion programme, thousands of new places have been created in recent years, but the real breakthrough came before last year. By 2020 we managed to reduce prisoner occupancy to below 100 percent. It’s worth looking back at previous years: in 2013, for example, the occupancy rate was 146 percent, but by the end of 2020 it had fallen to 96 percent. A major contribution to this was the opening of our country’s newest prison in Kiskunhalas in 2019, which increased our capacity by 472 inmates. In addition to the increase in capacity, an important element of the investment was the creation of the infrastructure for the tailoring and sewing activity to provide employment for inmates moving in.
The next stage in the development is the construction of new facilities in 10 existing prisons in 2020. In Állampusta, Pálhalma, Sopronkőhida and Szeged, 110, in Tököl 220, in Baračka, Veszprém 330, in Kiskunhalas, Tiszalök 440 and in Miskolc 550 prisoners. A total of 2,750 people can be accommodated in the new wings. The new hospital will provide health care for prisoners at a national level, offering long-term care, guarding and outpatient specialist care. The number of staff has also increased, with 2,468 new staff recruited in 2020.
Eurologus: There are currently very old and very new prisons in Hungary. To what extent is life different in these new and old prisons, and do they have different tasks in terms of day-to-day organisation?
A.H: The daily life is the same in all the prisons in Hungary, the daily routine of the prisoners is exactly the same in the old and the new prisons. The prisoner’s risk profile, his behaviour and his participation in reintegration activities determine his daily routine when serving a custodial sentence. Within each level (prison, jail, detention centre), the benefits granted to the prisoner may vary according to the regime associated with each level. Thus, a prisoner may be classified under general, more lenient and more restrictive regimes. In fact, these rules determine both the daily life of the prisoner and the range of activities of supervision inside the prison, rather than whether they are in an older or a newer prison.
EUrologus: Alternative forms of punishment are emerging in the modern prison system, which no longer focus solely or primarily on deprivation of liberty. What do you think about these?
A.H: Of course, alternative methods are also used by the Hungarian prison system. Reintegration custody is a legal instrument that significantly supports social reintegration, helps to find work, strengthens family ties and, last but not least, reduces prison overcrowding by offering convicted prisoners who have committed a less dangerous crime the possibility to spend the last months of their imprisonment in their homes, secured by remote monitoring.
Those who must be locked up – and then released
Probably the best-known prison in the country is the Szeged Prison and Penitentiary, more commonly known as Csillag, which has a capacity of 1,462. Its director is Brigadier General Károly Kopcsik. This prison has the highest number and proportion of serious offenders and those who spend years, even decades, behind bars.
EUrologus: To what extent do long-term prisoners require a different concept and method of detention?
Károly Kopcsik: Prisoners serving life sentences or sentences of at least fifteen years are housed in Specialised Long-term Centres (HSRs). For those serving life sentences, the primary aim is to help them integrate into the prison population. In creating this special unit, the prison service has placed particular emphasis on the need to ensure the overall security of prisoners, other prisoners, staff and the institution, and to safeguard life and property. In all cases, the area must be designed to be hermetically separated from the rest of the building. The accommodation of inmates is provided in the form of cells and additional rooms. In this way, the prisoners can divide up their internal living space to create