It is without precedent in Hungary’s penitentiary system that convicts were only allowed to have visitors in merely four months in the past two years. In the rest twenty months, no one was permitted to have any kind of visitor under any condition. Even if this unjustifiable restriction ends in May 2022, the accumulated problems of the past years caused by the unnecessarily strict criminal policy will not be solved. Today, forty thousand children are being deprived of their right to family life.
In proportion to the population, Hungary has one and a half times more people in prison than the European average. This average also includes the data from Russian, Turkish and Albanian prisons which makes the difference even clearer: the government is doing something entirely different than other countries in the European Union. Finland possesses the lowest rate in the EU: one fourth (!) of the Hungarian one.
Hungary is not at all a paradise for criminals, since the number of committed crimes is relatively low and is decreasing. However, the amount of people in prisons is not decreasing in the same way. Moreover, it is increasing, now being over nineteen thousand.
In addition, there is another strange phenomenon happening in our country: after many years of decrease, the number of people under pretrial detention has started to increase at the time of the pandemic.
One of the reasons behind this is criminal policy getting stricter, which is strongly supported by the society. The state and the vast majority of society find the most serious punishment, imprisonment, necessary and proper, even in the case of petty offences. However, this is not inevitable because when minor crimes occur (for example, stealing, vandalism, etc.) the victim and the aggrieved party would be satisfied with compensation. Nevertheless, criminal justice barely provides any chance for this. A real change in criminal policy, that is, promoting alternatives to prison could certainly change the mind of the public.
There are plenty of measures besides prison sentence, which is the most limiting, most expensive, and most straining for the family. On many occasions, people are imprisoned for not being able to pay the fine for a petty offence. Prisons are also often “substitutes” for the lacking social and psychiatric care – they are often used for “solving” problems caused by mentally disordered and homeless people or prostitutes.
Prohibiting collective punishment
Prison is a modern institution. It is as old as the modern principle that prohibits collective punishment. Since the punishment is personalized in all cases, the transgressor’s guiltless (innocent) family should stay unpunished. Especially because in most cases the family is the most efficient factor in social integration. Therefore, the family has the most power to prevent reoffending. Hence, a modern, scientifically proven discovery shows that the state – which includes the prison service – should make sure that families are not broken apart during the prison sentence.
Despite all of this, staying in touch during detention in Hungarian prisons became harder in the past few years. The rules for receiving packages, correspondence and personal visits have been getting stricter with every passing year. The COVID-19 pandemic made the situation even worse. Out of the past twenty-four months, personal visits were allowed only in 4 months. In the past two hundred years, only the Rákosi-era (1949-1956, the time of a Soviet-style totalitarian police state) entailed such extensive prohibition of personal contact within Hungarian prisons. Even then, it only applied to political prisoners.
The approximately nineteen thousand convicted altogether have approximately one hundred thousand relatives, parents, grandparents, partners and children. According to estimations, forty thousand Hungarian children have parents in prison. The arbitrary prohibition of contact also infringes on the family members’ right to family life.
The use of plexiglass during personal visits was introduced before the pandemic. There have been no exceptions. Neither has there been an opportunity for a hug, nor for a kiss. Fathers haven’t been allowed to hold their children, even if they committed a non-violent crime and their sentence is not final, even if they have never committed a transgression inside prison walls. The no-contact visit policy was justified by security when it was introduced years ago, and since the pandemic public health reasons were added to this justification. In fact, in spite of the absolute prohibition of visitors, the number of illegal drug and phone smuggling has not decreased significantly within prison walls.
What needs to be done?
The Hungarian Helsinki Committee as a member of FECSKE (Support Network for Detainees and their Families – fecske in Hungarian means the bird swallow) is convinced that unique and personalized regulations are needed for the individuals, based on their circumstances and the children’s best interests.
Families were allowed to talk via phone during the quarantine, but that costs 69 forint per minute. A merely 5-minute daily phone call with the whole family costs 10 350 forints per month. The number of poor people in prison is significant and for them, this money is a lot. A priceless time frame should be created for those who cannot afford a phone. It would make sense if the family members were allowed to call the convicts from home and if the convicts were given more time for phone or Skype calls.
Prisons seriously lack professional workers. The number of guards is decreasing, meanwhile, there are increasingly more convicted people which lead to constant tension. Accompanying convicts inside the prisons for a walk, for sport, for psychological or for medical reasons is difficult to provide. Therefore, it is in the law enforcement’s best interest to have as few people in prison as possible and only those whose imprisonment is necessary. The circumstances of both the guards and convicts would significantly improve if the number of people imprisoned were reduced by at least a few thousand.
Reintegration custody, a strictly controlled penitentiary house arrest, is simpler and cheaper than prison. As a result of the application of the sanction the prisoner is allowed to spend the rest of their sentence – up to one year in the case of committing a criminal offence negligently – at home being monitored by an electronic anklet. This option should be used more extensively.
In addition, the punishment of those who are nearing the end of their sentence, maintaining good behavior and committed a non-violent crime should be released on parole sooner. Parole is being used today, however, it should be used more extensively.
We are here for you!
FECSKE’s We are here for you! campaign calls attention to a broad but suppressed social problem: the arbitrarily restricted contact between convicts and their families.
In our campaign we share personal stories of people with a relative in prison and sometimes stories of the imprisoned persons. The stories are about their lives and how prison tore them apart. The narratives cover what the hardest was in the time spent apart, how they stayed in touch when personal meeting was not an option for two years and how they were effected by the lack of connection mentally and in practice.
We believe that every convict has the right to serve their sentence in humane prison conditions and maintain sufficient contact with their loved ones. Humane conditions and social services provided during incarceration help people adjust to life and with social integration after release. Contact with family is part of humane treatment.