Prison inmates in Estonia have for many years been engaged in obstruction tactics on a scale that opposition politicians could perhaps only dream of, with repetitive and frivolous inquiries including those on what types of metal prison spoons are made out of, or requesting items be sent to a cell, only to then submit a query asking why this item was provided.
The volume of the largely meaningless queries and appeals is such that they made up over a quarter of cases processed at administrative courts last year, and generate hours and hours of work at ministry and state agency level, costing sums which could be put towards more worthy recipients.
Now, the Ministry of Justice is looking for ways to alleviate things.
The appeals and inquiries stretch into the hundreds, and are often of a repetitive, speculative, trivial but time-consuming nature – much like the recent Riigikogu filibuster in fact.
Rait Kuuse, undersecretary at the Ministry of Justice and who holds the prisons portfolio there, outlined how this had been done.
At the Viru Prison, one of three, modern penitentiaries in Estonia which house the majority of the country's comparatively small prison population, one inmate submitted around 700 such appeals to prison authorities in the space of a year – or around two per day, Kuuse said.
"Another has submitted 355 appeals," Kuuse added. "But we have to deal with these appeals one way or another."
Some inmates have candidly stated that perhaps their intentions were not wholly born out of a sincere demand to know the answers to the questions posed, while at the same time, some have said they will call a halt to making the appeals, or withdraw those already made, if certain conditions are met.
Nonetheless, the state "should create better grounds for itself to stop processing frivolous or malicious appeals," Kruuse argued.
Inmates can also go to court if the appeals are not processed in the time-frame specified under law. In fact, of the 2,500 cases processed by the first-tier administrative courts last year, 700 of them were the result of inmate complaints.
Kuuse added that 415 of the 700 in turn were authored by just 29 inmates – ie. 14 complaints per inmate, a right not extended to law-abiding citizens outside of prison who are not supported by the state.
The bureaucracy in processing these complaints in turn takes time; Tallinn Prison responded to 5,400 appeals in 2022 which, Kuuse said, diverts too much attention from the prison system's raison d'etre and may also foster an unrealistic expectation on the part of inmates on how the real world works, once they are released.
The phenomenon is not new, Kuuse added.
Certain patterns in appeals have emerged, and while the same type of questions get asked over and over again, nitpicking on the part of inmates needs to be addressed by officials, who must ensure that nuances have not been added to an appeal which have not yet be answered.
The subject matter can range from finer legal points to the mundane – why all the cells are the same color, what material a bed is made of, why a bed is as it is whatsoever.
The farce continues with questions such as why slices of bread differ in size, and what metal alloy prison spoons are made of.
One of the most egregious instances of trolling Kuuse mentioned involved an inmate requesting something be brought to their cell, then, once it arrives, invoking the Administrative Procedure Act in asking why exactly that item was brought to the cell.
Not all appeals are framed as questions, either, he said – unrelated chit-chat, excerpts from legislation, articles, photos etc. are sometimes included.
Friends and relatives on prison visits are sometimes also pressed into filling out the appeal forms on a sort of production line, which the inmate then simply signs
Other state institutions as well as the prison service and the justice ministry are also petitioned, which creates headaches and confusion, the passing around between relevant agencies of the correspondence, and many hours of wasted and unnecessary work.
The Ministry of Justice on Wednesday sent to the coordination round amendments to the Imprisonment Act which, it is hoped, will lead to a more effective way of dealing with inquiries from prisoners, including leaving some unresponded-to, and answering others verbally and more rapidly.
."We should very clearly state in the bill the basis on the conditions an appeal must meet in order to qualify it as frivolous or malicious," Kuuse said.
"Obviously, the content and purpose of an appeal should be taken into account, but repetitive appeals should also be scrutinized," he added.
Editor: Andrew Whyte, Mirjam Mäekivi