Beatings and no reform in Bulgaria’s only juvenile jail

From: The Peninsula (Qatar), February 11, 2015
BOYCHINOVTSI CORRECTIONAL HOME, Bulgaria—Angel, 17, was due to be released soon so he was not afraid to talk about the abuse he says staff commit in Bulgaria’s dilapidated and only youth prison, Boychinovtsi Correctional Home.

“I was beaten a week after I arrived. They told me to come to the bathroom, it is their boxing ring,” Angel, one of 62 adolescent boys locked up at the facility, said as AFP was allowed inside for a heavily supervised recent visit.

“If you say something bad about the prison over the phone, the officer downstairs cuts the line and asks you to come over,” the tall, thin teenager added.

But others, fearful of the consequences of speaking to outsiders were not so talkative. Apart from Angel, only a few selected by staff were allowed to speak to AFP — and none in private.

“I was not beaten and I never saw the wardens using sticks,” said a sheepish Sevdalin, 20, half-way through a nine-year sentence for a crime he described as “the worst”.

The director of the prison also denied any abuse by staff.

Eight years after ex-communist Bulgaria joined the European Union as its poorest member, it is still struggling to reform its inefficient, corrupt judicial system and improve deplorable conditions in all its prisons.

But Boychinovtsi has come in for particular criticism, having been the subject of two recent damning reports — prompting a scrutinising mission by the justice ministry and an investigation by prosecutors.

According to one of the reports, issued in December by rights group Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC), staff routinely beat the inmates, including with bats, broomsticks and other objects.

These were punishments for “speaking loudly”, “smoking in the TV room” or “not cleaning well”, BHC expert Zhenya Ivanova told AFP.

And after the BHC visit, the boys were threatened.

“They were told, ‘Don’t forget that they’ll leave and you’ll stay here, you’ll leave in a wheelchair’,” Ivanova said.

According to the second report, from the Council of Europe’s Prevention of Torture Committee (CPT) issued in late January, another common sanction applied “frequently” is solitary confinement.

This took place in “cold and dilapidated bar-fronted cells, equipped with low wooden sleeping platforms and unscreened, dirty and malodorous toilets,” the CPT said, calling the prison “extremely dilapidated and dirty”.

– Bitter cold –

The facility is set in an isolated rural area of northern Bulgaria and consists of a sprawl of former military barracks built before World War II in varying states of disrepair.

The inmates — mostly aged 14 to 18 — are serving time for thefts, assaults and even murders.

They complained to the BHC about the bitter cold in the rooms, saying they did not take off their jackets during the day and slept two in a bed to keep warm.

The heating was on during AFP’s visit but taped cardboard substituted missing glass panes on some of the windows.

In the rooms, four beds and two empty wardrobes were the only objects. There were no personal items.

The boys said they washed their clothes in cold water. Hot water was available only on Mondays and Thursdays in bathrooms the CPT said were “in an outrageous condition”.