Overcrowded Czech prisons spur renewed calls for alternative sentencing

There are more people behind bars in the Czech Republic per capita than anywhere else in central Europe, despite efforts over the past decade to promote alternative sentences, such as house arrest or work-release programmes. With the penal system at overcapacity, Prison Service officials have renewed calls for action.

Illustrative photo: Kristýna MakováIllustrative photo: Kristýna Maková In his final New Year’s address of 2013, outgoing president Václav Klaus announced a controversial wide-ranging amnesty, applying both to inmates and suspects awaiting trial, to mark 20 years of the Czech Republic’s independence.

That presidential pardon resulted in the release of some 6,400 people and, for a while, took pressure off of the overcrowded prison system, cutting the population by a third. But despite moves to extended capacity and build new facilities, the penal system is again under strain – about 4 per cent above the intended maximum population.

Petr Dohnal, photo: archive of Czech Prison ServicePetr Dohnal, photo: archive of Czech Prison Service Gen. major Petr Dohnal, head of the country’s Prison Service, is among those who have advocated giving judges greater leeway to hand out alternative sentences and reduce the pressure on the system.

“Today, we are again dealing with prison overcrowding. There are about 22,000 people in Czech prisons. The overcrowding affects mainly high-security prisons. In some cases, there are up to 15 inmates in one cell. The Prison Service would definitely welcome more alternative punishments and house arrests. Also, the inmates would not be cut off from their families and wouldn’t lose their jobs, which, unfortunately, is often the case if they end up in prison.”

The Ministry of Justice has laid out plans to motivate judges to grant alternative sentences, in part by rewarding them for doing so by reducing their administrative burden. Prison Service deputy director Brig. Gen. Simon Michailidis says having fewer people incarcerated as punishment benefits the country as a whole.

“I would greatly appreciate more alternative sentencing. This would help the Prison Service but also Czech society. Alternative sanctions are much cheaper. Even if they turn out to be as effective – or perhaps as ineffective – as the deprivation of liberty, at least they are economically beneficial.”

Photo: Filip Jandourek / Czech RadioPhoto: Filip Jandourek / Czech Radio Mr Michailidis says regardless the punishment, treating convicts with greater respect also helps prevent recidivism – noting that about a third of the prisoners released under the 2013 amnesty of Václav Klaus ended up back behind bars.

"On the one hand, we were relieved after the amnesty. But we hoped that the Czech Republic would then devote itself to implementing the necessary reforms before capacity was replenished. We had wanted there to be fewer people in prison than before the amnesty.”

According to the Office of the Ombudsman, in 2016 there were 203 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants in the Czech Republic, some 25 more than in other post-communist EU countries – and twice that of neighbouring Austria and Germany, where alternative sentencing is more common.