Justice chancellor: Open prisons using unnecessary strip searches

Tallinn Prison.
Tallinn Prison. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Conditions at three open prisons in Estonia are not satisfactory, Chancellor of Justice Ülle Madise recently said, with issues highlighted including full strip searches upon return to the open prison – despite those placed in open prisons seen as lower-risk – and catering, sports and medical provisions needing improvement, as well as inmates being barred from using communications tech while on the outside.

The chancellor emphasized in a letter sent to the Ministry of Jusice that, despite her predecessor's 2016 letter to the ministry on the topic, inmates in three open prisons, in Tallinn, Tartu and Jõhvi, are still barred from using computers, the internet or smartphones outside the prison facility.

This hampered inmates reintegration into society after the end of their term, Madise wrote.

"Cutting out the digital world does not help law-abiding behavior or return to normal life. It also does not save prison service hours," Madise wrote.

The Office of the Chancellor of Justice found that detainees from Tallinn and Viru (Jõhvi) open prisons returning from outside – for instance workplaces, stores, meetings, etc.) had their belongings searched and were subject to full strip searches at random, or at the discretion of prison authorities if they felt the need.

In the case of Tartu open prison, full strip searches were the norm upon return to the facility, meaning inmates often had to expose themselves fully nude in front of prison staff on a daily basis, which Madise said could constitute degrading treatment.

"The situation was perceived as particularly degrading by a female detainee, who described how she would have to fully strip and then squat, every day."

"It must be borne in mind that inmates whose conduct is already presumed to be compliant are placed in open prisons. The security of the prison is very important, but measures must be taken which are proportionate to the aim. The more restrictive the measure, the more careful consideration must be given to its use," the letter went on.

The chancellor's opinion was that strip searches should only be used based on individual considerations of specific detainees, and that prohibited objects being brought into the prison could be found in less severe ways, such as using a scanner.

Madise also said that open prisons' catering arrangements could be reorganized, in conjunction with the justice ministry, so as to cut out waste (i.e. food was being prepared on-site which was then not consumed by inmates, as they had gone out for the day and presumably eaten elsewhere-ed.).

Sporting facilities for women at Tartu's open prison were not adequate either, the chancellor wrote, noting that the necessary sports equipment should be installed in the prison yard, and/or set times for women-only and men-only exercise sessions.

Proper, medical rooms and break facilities for staff were also needed at the prisons, the chancellor noted.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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