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The situation in Hungarian prisons in light of COVID-19

Information update

Translation is available for this content

Váltás magyarra

The penitentiary institutions in Hungary became more closed and less transparent than they were before the outbreak of COVID-19, and they were extremely restrictive and difficult to access by the public before as well.

Back in 2017 the Hungarian Prison Service terminated the cooperation agreement with the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and denied them access to prisons after two decades of cooperation and countless monitoring visits by the NGO. Now NGOs have no access to prison. Churches and other religious organizations had to suspend their operations in prisons. Due to the lack of adequate resources and funding of the National Preventive Mechanism, it has no capacity to visit a sufficient number of prisons (it has conducted 12 monitoring visits in prisons in the past five years). The Prosecution Service supervises the legality of penal institutions’ operation, and they still conduct regular visits weekly in most institutions, however, the effectiveness of their control has always been questionable.

Attorneys are allowed to enter penitentiaries for consultation after their temperature is taken. The warden of the Budapest-based Metropolitan Penitentiary Institution informed the Budapest Bar Association about the following measures taken with regard to attorneys: prison staff takes the temperature of attorneys before entering, and pose them a series of questions about potential exposure to COVID-19, and may deny entry on the basis of these; communication happens with a plexiglass between the attorney and the defendant, via phone; they disinfect regularly the rooms used for consultations; they ask attorneys to refrain from handing over documents to the defendants; they ask attorneys to rather consult their clients via phone or Skype.

The Hungarian Prison Service called upon the relatives of detainees to “minimise the number of visits”. However, visitation in general is still allowed if the family members are separated from the detainee by a plexiglass screen. (All penitentiaries have been equipped with these already, irrespective of the epidemic, and visits conducted behind plexiglass screens became the main rule in April 2019, not allowing physical contact, kisses or hugs, without any differentiation with regard to the security concerns posed by a given detainee. This has been heavily criticized by NGOs previously.) Also, the number of visitors has been reduced to two per visit, and the Hungarian Prison Service proposed to detainees to avoid initiating visits with their elderly or young relatives. Phone calls and Skype calls are allowed to everyone to a certain limit, but according to complaints received from relatives and attorneys, not all can use this opportunity, partially because of the lack of sufficient financial or technical resources of their family. It is to be mentioned that some institutions suspended visitation referring to the curfew restriction Hungary introduced on 27 March 2020. The rules of the curfew allow people to leave their homes for work or for “essential” activities such as buying food (or even for going to a hairdresser), but visiting family members in prison is not one of the reasons for leaving home under the rules.

On 5 April 2020, a Government Decree introduced tighter measures for prisons, for example:

  • new detainees are isolated for two weeks;
  • new detainees with any symptom of COVID-19 will be transferred to hospitals;
  • leaving the institution shall not be authorised even if a close relative is dying or to attend a funeral.

The Hungarian Helsinki Committee also received information that all training and educational activities have been suspended in the prisons, and the daily routine, including the one-hour outdoor walk (which is the only obligatory out-of-cell activity) might be changed. In order to compensate the restrictions, free use of the gym and television to each of the cells is authorized and provided. Furthermore, the Hungarian Prison Service introduced some other supportive measures, like providing information to detainees on an ongoing basis, and the provision of defensive equipment.

The Hungarian Helsinki Committee called on the Government to consider the early release especially of elderly and sick offenders who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, and to suspend the sentence of all petty offenders.

There is no publicly available information on how the Hungarian Prison Service seeks to prevent the virus spreading into or within the Hungarian prisons. Based on publicly available information, temperature testing and health assessments at point of entry is ordered in all institutions. However, the key would be the regular testing of prison staff and providing them with the necessary protective tools. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee has submitted FOI requests regarding the number and results of COVID-19 tests, and regarding the availability of masks, protective equipment and disinfectants in prisons; the response is pending.

According to publicly available information, there is no infected detainee or staff member in the penitentiary system.

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Hungarian Helsinki Committee