Hungarian prisons still take an austere approach

The Hungarian prison system has undergone a significant transformation in recent years: prison capacity has been expanded and institutions have been modernised. But imprisonment is only one form of punishment.

Published On: March 31st, 2022
Hungarian prisons still take an austere approach_62cca292ad64f.jpeg
Hungarian prisons still take an austere approach_62cca292ad64f.jpeg

Hungarian prisons still take an austere approach

The Hungarian prison system has undergone a significant transformation in recent years: prison capacity has been expanded and institutions have been modernised. But imprisonment is only one form of punishment.

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.

After overcrowding

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 an environment suited to their needs.

Most of the time, care of long-term prisoners does not differ spectacularly from that of other prisoners. For both categories, the primary aim is to reduce security risks, to ensure that the long period is spent in a useful way and that the detainees are properly integrated into the community. However, the question of how to reintegrate prisoners back into society arises, even decades later.

EUrologus: What tools can you use to help reintegration?

K.K.: The main task of the prison service is to prepare prisoners for life after release. We do our utmost to ensure that prisoners become useful members of society and avoid a life of crime after their release. This process is called reintegration. This includes training in marketable skills, organising rehabilitation programmes and helping them to complete their studies. From drawing lessons to obtaining a certificate as a tiler, there are many ways of achieving this objective.

Through the bars

We also spoke to a prisoner who we were unable to meet in person because of the epidemic. We interviewed 45-year-old Norbert Nagy, a resident of the Budapest Prison Institute, via Skype.

Norbert Nagy: I was not afraid of prison, but of being deprived of my freedom, of not being able to live my life. I was sentenced to seven and a half years for fraud, embezzlement, and forgery of documents. I was on the run for about three years, which I managed to do because I was abroad and when I came home I was caught. All the time I was on the run, I thought I was the clever one, but it was only natural that I was caught. I’m in my fifth year, and the first year and a half was a year and a half of self-pity. It took me that long to realise that I couldn’t feel sorry for myself because I was the only reason I was here. That’s when I started planning what to do, how to change. I came to the conclusion that I had to learn, that I had to take advantage of the opportunities offered. I had to let go of my passion for gambling and set new goals. Gambling had made me turn away from some of my family and friends, I was constantly lying, deceiving others and slowly I lost everything around me. It was very hard to deal with.

EUrologus: How did your relationships develop inside the prison?

N.N.: I think of myself as an open person, but in here I think of myself as more distant. I have to get to know the other person in order to open up to them. I seek out the company of people who think like me and want to change. And I certainly don’t want to make friends with people who will pull me back down later. At the moment I work as a butcher in the prison kitchen, one of my professions is cook. I’ve completed a school for electricians, I’m attending a reintegration course to learn how to deal with stressful situations, to get motivated, and I’m learning languages. But it is difficult to plan for the future without seeing the future. I have two more years in here and life has passed me by, I need to catch up with myself and the outside world.

The punishment may be different

Punishment is not only imprisonment. There are also so-called alternative forms of punishment which, under certain conditions, can represent the same sanction as deprivation of liberty. Their use and prevalence tell us a lot about a country’s penal policy.

Within the penal system, alternative sanctions to imprisonment are the following: suspended imprisonment, probation and parole, with the possibility of probation supervision. There are also so-called community sentences, including community service and reparation work. Their aim is to make symbolic reparation for the harm done. Electronic monitoring as an alternative to imprisonment is also mentioned by some authors. This includes penalties and measures that can also replace imprisonment, such as fines.

“If Hungary’s penal policy were not prison-centred, we would not have to struggle with overcrowding,” points out Lili Krámer, criminologist and member of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee’s Criminal Justice Programme. She believes that the solution to overcrowding is not to increase prison capacity but to change penal policy. The situation is illustrated by another figure: the incarceration rate per 100,000 inhabitants in Europe has been steadily decreasing over the past decade, while in Hungary the number will increase steadily between 2010 and 2020. Of course, it would also be possible to reduce overcrowding if less serious offences were not punished by imprisonment or detention. To sum up: science and experts have known for a very long time that building prisons alone will not make penal policy effective, and will not reduce the number of offenders.

The Hungarian Helsinki Committee is taking part in an international comparative survey to get a European picture of alternative sentencing.

“The Hungarian toolbox of alternative sanctions is adequate by international standards, and the relevant provisions of the Criminal Code are modern”, Lili Krámer explains. “According to our research, the problem lies in the lack of adequate support for practitioners. This includes the court, the prosecution, the probation service. The results of our research show that if there was a dialogue between the professions involved, there might be a greater use of alternative sanctions because there would be more confidence in their compliance.”

Already in 2016, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee formulated its recommendations to reduce the number of people in prison in a reasonable and justifiable way. These included, for example, the assessment that “the Penal Code places too much emphasis on imprisonment as opposed to other non-custodial sentences and threatens immediate imprisonment for minor offences such as criminal damage, drink-driving or theft”. They proposed to extend the possibility of reintegration detention. They argue that the purpose of the sentence can in some cases be achieved if the custodial sentence is not served in prison. Many countries have chosen to reduce their prison populations by not imprisoning people for short periods of imprisonment. For example, Italy has maintained the legal instrument of home detention for sentences of less than 18 months.

Back to society

Ildikó Benkó, a reintegration officer working in Szeged Prison and Detention Centre, has direct contact with those who need help to get back to their lives.

EUrologus: As the outside world changes, what new things do educators have to adapt to, what do they have to learn?

Ildikó Benkó: Having the right competences and professional knowledge is a prerequisite for this job. Therefore, today, a reintegration officer must have a thorough knowledge of the law and developed social skills in order to do their job well. The work of reintegration officers is of paramount importance because they are the link between the prison world and the outside world for the prisoner, they represent the opportunity between “inside” and “outside”. Their work should help the prisoner throughout the process from reception to release. I need not explain that the role of this link has become even more important during the epidemic. Although the reintegration officers do most of their work within the walls of prisons, the changes and challenges of the outside world have an impact within the closed environment. Interestingly enough, reintegration officers have to deal not only with the prisoner’s troubles but also, indirectly, with the problems of family members, because if one or the other party does not have access to information or does not know about each other, it will be reflected in the prison. To give a concrete example, a few years ago it would have been unthinkable to have such a high use of Skype contact between prisoners, as relatives either did not have adequate internet access or did not know about it and therefore could not use the programme itself. These were the problems that many prisoners used to come to their reintegration officer with.

In recent years, the prison service has also tried to catch up with digitalisation and technological developments. The best example of this is the introduction of the so-called KIOSZK. These tablets, which are placed in the corridors, essentially replace the paperwork involved in prisoners’ applications and act as electronic points of contact. This development has specifically reduced the administrative burden for the reintegration officers.

The benefits of the work of the reintegration officer were also seen in the case of Norbert Nagy. The prisoner, who we interviewed earlier in this article, had no contact with anyone for almost four years because he was too ashamed to talk to anyone. Finally, his mother contacted him through the police and, thanks to the help of the reintegration officer, Norbert Nagy finally dared to pick up a pen after 5-6 months. “I wrote a letter to my mother apologising. Now I talk to my sister, which also means a lot. I want to do something good for my family after my release,” she said

EUrologus: How can you motivate prisoners to stay out of prison?

I.B.: During the sentence we transmit values to the prisoners, by which – although the personality is naturally formed by adulthood – we should try to start and accompany the person who has committed a serious crime on the path of reintegration. The question of motivation is not simple. You need to get to know a prisoner well to know what are the specific things you can do to motivate him. The most important thing is to look at his problems with the right empathy. The two most important pillars of reintegration are employment and education. For both, the result is obvious: the prisoner, before and after release, should receive an income. To this end, particular emphasis is placed on providing prisoners with employment and involving them in vocational training and education. In addition to financial support it is important that, through employment and education, the detainee can receive positive feedback and a sense of achievement. This can help to develop their personality and self-esteem. These positive experiences and reinforcements can provide the basis for a new life based on constructive values. Long sentences allow more time for and support these changes. There are many examples of prisoners who, with persistent determination, supported motivation and hard work, have successfully passed their school-leaving exams within our walls, even without primary education at the time of admission. This can give them, as well as their families and those close to them, the belief that a path of personal development can be chosen instead of crime, and that the detainee will be properly supported. Once released, the risk of re-offending is significantly reduced if the prisoner is able to find a job with the skills and work experience gained. After release, the receiving environment plays an important role in acceptance of the past and support for the future.

50 percent may be rehabilitated

Norbert Nagy says he is one of those who needed prison to change. He believes half of all prisoners have the same chance.

EUrologus: Did you need prison in order to change?

Norbert Nagy: In concrete terms, yes. On the outside, I couldn’t drop my passion for gambling. I had to realise that if I started going to the casino again, it might not lead me back here, to prison, but it would ruin all my relationships. I would make my life unlivable and lose everyone around me. So prison time must go with very serious and long-lasting self-awareness training.

EUrologus: How common is the situation among prisoners?

N.N.: About fifty percent. Vowing is much higher, nine out of ten people say they will never commit any crime again. Those who are serious are asked about what they should do after their release. For example, if I have to go to work in a kitchen, I can do it for as long as I like. And if I like it, I won’t think about anything else.

EUrologus: What are your plans?

N.N.: I will most probably work abroad, because I will have a criminal record and wherever I go, I will very soon find out that I have been in prison. But I will definitely work. If I stay at home I will be an electrician, if I go abroad I will be a caterer. As long as there are plans there is a future, without a future there is no life.

A demand for austerity

Tünde A. Barabás, a senior lecturer at Hungary’s National University of Public Service, published an analysis entitled “The effectiveness of alternative punishments in the Hungarian justice system” in the Miskolc Legal Review in 2019. He writes: “At first glance, the criminal policy in Hungary has clearly shifted in the direction of increasingly tightening, retributive and custodial solutions in the last decade. This is not a unique phenomenon. The great social and technical changes of the 21st century, the info-communication revolution, globalisation and all their unintended consequences – the recent population migration, the increase in poverty in some areas, the emergence and spread of new forms of crime, terrorism – have brought back the need for deterrent punishment. However, this is mainly reflected in the prevention of serious crime and the neutralisation of dangerous offenders.”

At the same time, he also points to the benefits of alternative sanctions. “Instead of protracted criminal trials, quick procedures that respond adequately and directly to the crime can be cheaper and more effective. More time and energy can be devoted to the investigation and adjudication of complex cases. This can also lead to more effective enforcement of sentences. After all, criminal proceedings can take many years and are very expensive and have little deterrent effect on the offender because they are slow. Sometimes the offender no longer feels the link between the offence and the punishment. A swift and adequate punishment can therefore be more successful in deterring offenders, and those sentenced to prison can receive more attention, both during and after the enforcement of the sentence”, he says.

Groping in the dark

EUrologus: It is not enough to have a legal framework in place if the judge is not sure whether the punishment he imposes is fit for purpose.

Lili Krámer: We are not in a position to judge how well the judiciary is prepared to impose alternative sanctions. Our research shows that there is not enough information in the system, for example, about what rules of conduct can be imposed in the case of probation supervision. This is an alternative sanction that can be imposed alongside other alternative sanctions, not on its own. For example, someone is threatened with a penalty, but before imposing it, the court prescribes an alternative approach. This could be alcohol withdrawal treatment, a conflict management group, aggression management training, or an appearance before a probation officer. But the court does not have enough information about these solutions, so it is understandable that it will not impose something that it does not see as guaranteed. An example of a measure that can be imposed as a mild penalty is reparation work, the purpose of which is precisely stated in the Criminal Code: to make reparation for the damage caused by the offence. But the courts do not apply it, apparently because they do not see a guarantee that it will accord with the purpose of the punishment. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee’s research also shows that in Hungary the use of fines is increasing and that of community service is decreasing, which is also an undesirable trend if we want to shift the focus away from imprisonment towards alternative sanctions, which we believe should be the aim.

Eurologus: So there is legislation, but what is missing?

L.K.: It is necessary to have an interprofessional dialogue and to bring the different law-enforcement bodies to the table, and to exchange experiences on a regular basis. Alternative sanctions work well in a country if there is proper discussion on them, if there is a continuous exchange of good practices or if there is an accessible shared knowledge base.

Lack of data

We have already mentioned that, although overcrowding in Hungarian prisons has fallen, the prison population per 100,000 inhabitants is among the highest in Europe. Based on 2020 figures, it is 171.8, the 12th highest in Europe (true, a few years earlier the figure was even higher at 184-185). The Council of Europe regularly produces a report on prison conditions in Europe. There is a separate report on the state of prisons and another on the use of alternative sanctions, i.e. probation and parole. Knowledge of the latter would give us some idea of where Hungary stands in an international comparison of alternative sanctions. However, the Hungarian authorities do not provide data for this report.

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