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Prisons in Macedonia: the Infected Wounds of a Fractured Social State

Note from LeftEast Editors: This article has been published in collaboration with the web-portal


A month and a half has passed since a Presidential blanket amnesty of over 50 corrupt government figures and their collaborators sparked social upheaval across Macedonia. The action laid bare deep societal rifts, cracked open by double legal standards, dividing on the one end a corrupt political class and their clients shielded by impunity, economic capital, and political power, and on the other the majority of citizens dispossessed of access to legal and social justice. Although public attention has focused on those protesting in the streets and the corrupt elite’s attempts to castigate them, other forms of protest were also sparked by the amnesty, by those who are already behind bars, the prisoners across the country’s overcrowded penitentiary system.

Already in September 2015, hunger strikes spread across Macedonia’s prisons, with prisoners demanding pardon for less serious crimes to combat overcrowding and inhumane conditions in the country’s jails. The initiative gained momentum following pressures made by relatives of individuals imprisoned for up to 5 years. A large number of people, for example, had been arrested for transporting refugees across the country in the period before this was made legal in July 2015. The prisoners and their families started an initiative for submitting an amnesty bill to pardon inmates convicted of lesser crimes who have served 40% of their sentences. Following half a year of impasse, the Presidential amnesty for officials in mid-April produced an echo of amnesty demands such as a letter by 2,200 prisoners addressed to the President, asking for a reduction of their prison terms by 30-50%. Following the his refusal to grant the pardon, on the excuse that the blanket amnesty of politicians had been in the national interest, which doesn’t apply in the case of other prisoners, 106 female prisoners from the main prison in Idrizovo went on hunger strike on the 25th of April whilst a more general strike across 13 penitentiaries across the country was scheduled for the 5th of May. However, on the day of the scheduled strike, reports came from the management of the main prison in Skopje (Idrizovo), denying that the strike had taken place, and media circulated reports of attempts at coercing the convicts and their families against striking, with threats of subjecting them to worsened conditions in prison, or promising reductions of penalties in exchange for their foregoing of the strike.

Three key issues were exposed with the prisoners’ demands and the subsequent Presidential refusal to grant them an amnesty. The first one relates to the selective justice, which was exposed through the impunity reserved for over fifty members of the corrupt political elite. Amongst those pardoned were individuals pardoned for up to 16 charges. The amnestied charges ranged from covering up murder, rigging elections and massive embezzlement of public property and money. Juxtaposed with the absence of leniency in granting reduced sentences for less serious crimes, which pale in comparison to those committed by members of the corrupt elite, the vulgar extremes of selective justice in the country were illuminated.

Secondly, the prisoners’ demands exposed the dire conditions in the country’s penitentiary institutions. Indeed, one of the key arguments put forward in the case for the amnesty have been the substandard conditions in Macedonia’s prisons. According to the Helsinki Committee of Human Rights for Macedonia, there is overcrowding of 156%, with 156 people on average accommodated in spaces that can take only 100. As of 12th of April 2016, the number of people in one of the 13 penitentiary institutions across the country is 3,446 whilst the capacity for accommodation is 2,026. (There is a discrepancy between the figures provided by the Helsinki Committee, and the Directorate for the Execution of Sanctions within the Ministry of Justice, with the former saying the capacity is 2026 as of April 2016 and the latter 2519 as of January 2016). In addition to overcrowding, the Helsinki Committee reports also on inadequate healthcare, inefficient legal support, failure to implement re-socialization programs, bad hygiene, infestation and abuse by the prison management. Additionally, their reports confirm that almost everything can be bought from the prison, from mobile phones and drugs to conditional release to better accommodation in the prison.

Indeed, the Council of Europe’s anti-Torture committee had on multiple occasions following their site visits confirmed that conditions are substandard and require urgent improvement. It was such alarms that paved the way for the Council of Europe’s Development Bank (CEB) granting of a €46-million loan to the Macedonian Ministry of Justice in 2010, to renovate the existing facilities and building new ones in the central prison facility in Idrizovo in order to increase the capacity from 900 to over 1,600 people, alongside revamping facilities across the rest of the country. However, in spite of claims by the Ministry of Justice made in 2010, that this “Project for Reconstruction of the Penitentiary Institutions” would be completed by 2012, it has still not been completed four years after the deadline.

Meanwhile, in spite of the availability of the CEB loan for over 6 years, and in spite of reported reconstruction work in the intervening period (in 2013, the Ministry signed a contract with the private Slovak construction firm Chemkostav to revamp the existing prison blocks and build new facilities at the main prison in Skopje, with a scheduled finish of September 2015), the total capacity in the penitentiary institutions has in fact decreased from capacity of 2,531 in November 2015, to a capacity of 2519 in January 2016, as reported by the very institution responsible for implementing the Project, the Directorate for the Execution of Sanctions, a body within the Ministry of Justice.

In a political context marred with high levels of embezzlements of public funds and corruption amongst the political class as confirmed in recent wiretaps, the inability to efficiently put to use the €46-million loan raises questions as to the possible mishandling and/or misappropriation of these funds. What is also highly worrying is the absence of a mechanism by the loan provider, the CEB, for tracking the use of the money towards the project’s implementation. Indeed, in response to a question on this specific issue, the CEB Communications Unit confirmed “the Evaluation Department has not yet undertaken evaluations of CEB-financed projects in the penitentiary sector.” Furthermore, they confirmed that the project is being delayed, citing economic slowdown as the cause: “Considering the economic slowdown and resultant budget retrenching in Skopje, the implementation of the project did not advance as originally planned. As a result, the overall project is now being restructured with Technical Assistance funded by the EU/Western Balkans Investment Framework, with the aim to complete the whole project under a new timetable. The CEB is closely monitoring the process in terms of progress reports, procurement, environment and other social safeguards.”

It is questionable however how an “economic slowdown” can affect a loan, which is already granted and which should have been in the process of implementation for over 6 years now. The outcome is all the more concerning considering that similar penitentiary sector projects have also been funded by the same institution across the region. It shows not only the incapacity of government to put to appropriate use the existing funds, but also the inability of European institutions to monitor and advance the project’s implementation. Secondly, the questionable use of funds points to the possibility of appropriation of funds from loans for further enriching of corrupt elites and their further empowerment. Beyond such familiar concerns with the implementation of EU projects, the EU financing for expanded prison capacity across the region has possible implications for the financialization of the prison system, which could in fact serve as a prelude to privatization of prisons in South East Europe.

The question of capacity and substandard conditions in the penitentiary sector is only in part caused by the institutional incapacity to address these challenges even when the funds are available. The second part of the problem relates to the fact that the justice system is sending more people to prison, and for longer periods, than the prison capacity allows. This problem requires that in addition to the problem of capacity, the causes of prison overcrowding are also addressed in relation to the crime levels in the country and their rootedness in the degradation of the welfare state in the years following the onslaught of neoliberalism and the accompanying state capture in the hands of corrupt establishment figures, especially during the last 10 years under the leadership of the governing coalition of DPMNE and DUI.

According to the Directorate for the Execution of Sanctions, the number of convicts in prisons has been on a consistent rise, having increased by 46% from 2010 to 2016. That the convicts represent “categories trapped in the margins and cracks of the new neoliberal economic and moral order,” (Wacquant), is apparent from the spread of prison convicts according to the type of transgression. According to the latest figures out of a total 3,016 convicts, in 2014, the largest majority of 1,303 prisoners falls under the category of Crimes against Property. This is a category where we find robberies, most likely inflicted by those most badly affected by poverty and the inability of the welfare state to answer their needs. Another subcategory in this group is also the theft of electrical energy, which is directly related to the privatizatio,n and monopolisation of electricity provision in the country, which has resulted in widespread energy poverty across the country.

The second largest category of convicts consists of 466 convicts imprisoned for Crimes against Health. It is here that we find a subcategory of drug addicts, which in the state’s inability to open and manage appropriate rehabilitation centers means that the large majority is being sent to prisons.

It is such categories of unemployed, drug addicts, homeless and poor people which are the living incarnation of the generalized social insecurity produced by the erosion of the welfare state and the decomposition of the social solidarities (Robert Castel). Additionally, in the Macedonian context, the capturing of the institutions by the trio formed of the police, the judiciary and the prisons in the hands of political party clientelism and corruption, means that those with least connections with the political parties, and those with the least finances available for bribes, are also the most likely to become victims of the penal system, whilst those responsible for serious crimes enjoy impunity or at least a privileged position within the penal hierarchy. Considering the political nature of the prison problem, the division between political and criminal prisoners becomes blurred in a system where the combination of corruption, clientelism, and a collapsed welfare state makes a good majority of those imprisoned suitable for the qualification of political prisoners.

With this in mind the first step in the direction of addressing the wider problem is to resist the neoliberal temptation of succumbing to a logic, which solely considers individual responsibility in isolation of the wider collective and political irresponsibility of the failed social contract. An approach which considers only the question of prison capacity in isolation from the deeper societal and ideological causes of prison overpopulation, would signify the creation of incentives for more imprisonment, as the penal system turns into another profit making enterprise another public institution to be privatized or another source for misappropriation of public funds. Correspondingly, the solution of Macedonia’s overcrowded prisons, requires a two pronged approach, one which in parallel to the provision of more humane conditions in prisons also addresses the deep causes of overcrowding and starts considering its prisons as wounds of a welfare state fractured and collapsed under the offensive of neoliberal economic inequality, political clientelism and corruption.

While some in the prison reform movement may welcome the expansion of capacity to decrease overcrowding, the experience in general of such expansions has simply meant an expansion of the prison population itself (with little to no relief in terms of overcrowding); this is especially true in cases where the prison system itself becomes a substitute for social welfare provision, mental health programs, and a coherent anti-poverty and anti-homelessness policy.

adela Adela Gjorgjioska is a PhD Student living in Rome, researching the social representations of human rights and justice. Her research interests include contemporary radical politics, social representations of the Left and of the Ottoman Empire, and conflict resolution.

By Adela Gjorgjioska

Adela Gjorgjioska is a researcher based in Skopje. She has a Phd in Social Representations and Communications, with a dissertation on the ideological functions of positivist social psychology. Her research interests include international political economy in the context of the Belt and Road Initiative, social representations of China and the BRI amongst the Western left and critical (social) psychology.