Human rights advocates have long assailed Georgia for the squalid conditions of its prisons. Reforms implemented in early 2009 have produced few tangible improvements inside prisons, activists say. Officials insist, however, that the overhaul of the prison system is moving forward ahead of schedule.
In a 2006 report, Human Rights Watch characterized conditions in Georgia prisons as "appalling." Many inmates were vulnerable to "degrading treatment" due to overcrowding and unsanitary facilities, the report added. More recently, the State Department's 2008 human rights country report for Georgia noted that the country's prisons and pre-trial detention centers failed to meet international standards. It also expressed concern about Georgian Justice Ministry data that showed 94 inmates died while in custody in 2008.
The government responded to the steady drumbeat of criticism in February of this year by creating a new state agency to oversee the penitentiary system. The agency -- led by Dimitri Shashkin, the former head of the International Republican Institute in Tbilisi -- was given a budget of 110 million lari (roughly $65 million) to implement reforms and to assemble a new penal code. The outlay marks a quantum leap forward for expenditures on Georgia's justice system. In 2004, only about 10 million lari (roughly $6 million) were allocated for the maintenance of prisons and pre-trial detention centers.
Officials began implementing changes in prison infrastructure and in prisoner treatment using a combination of state funds, donor programs and pilot projects by non-governmental organizations. Agency officials claim some notable results already have been achieved, especially in the areas of education and vocational training. For example, a joint program operated in cooperation with the Ministry of Education now offers young offenders peer-compatible schooling, officials say. One juvenile inmate scored in the top 10 for this year's national university exams.
In addition, the prisons agency has teamed up with a private company, MegaFood, to train prisoners as bakers. Selected prisoners can earn a monthly salary of 250 lari (roughly $150). Other employment programs include an icon painting school that, together with the Georgian Orthodox Church, trains prisoners to create religious icons that are sold through church stores.
Shashkin could not say exactly how many prisoners were participating in the vocational or educational programs.
More than a half-year since the start of the reform offensive, some serious problems remain unaddressed, said Simon Papuashvili, the regional program manager for Penal Reform International (PRI). Overcrowding remains one of the biggest issues for Georgia's penal system, Papuashvili pointed out. Today, there are approximately 20,000 prisoners in Georgia --- a 300-percent increase over the past five years, according to a 2009 PRI report.
Shashkin countered that five new prisons completed over the past 10 months have eliminated the "temporary" problem of overcrowding. More prisons are expected to be built in 2010, he says.
But just building more prisons is not enough, Papuashvili stated. "Unfortunately, even those facilities which are new and are quite a big investment from the government side, they do not comply with the international human rights standard," he said.
International standards mandate that each prisoner has a minimum living space of seven square meters, Papuashvili claims. The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, however, recommends 10 square meters as a "good size" for individual occupation.
Shashkin said Georgian prisons comply with domestic law, which stipulates a minimum of 2.5 square meters per prisoner. It is each individual country's sovereign right to determine its own standards for prisons, he said. "Talking about international expertise, we have to pay attention to the financial capabilities and the economic capabilities of the country," he emphasized
Tamar Tomashvili, the coordinator for the country's criminal justice reform strategy action plan, says that overcrowding is part of a larger, more complex problem -- the need to overhaul the country's entire criminal justice system.
To tackle overcrowding, the government's action plan calls for reducing the length of sentencing, creating a new system for early release and parole, establishing alternatives to pre-trial detention, and using community services as an alternative to prison sentencing. The government is working with the public defender's office, NGOs and international donor organizations to create and finance new programs to implement such reforms, Tomashvili said. "It is quite easy to criticize, but it is much harder to help the government to build," she added.
Other issues under discussion include the prison system's approach to health care. Public Defender Giorgi Tugushi terms health care the "main issue" that needs to be resolved.
Prison rights advocates like Irena Gabunia, a lawyer with the Georgian Young Lawyers Association, noted a need for far-reaching changes. "Under the law, [prisoners] should be treated equally," she said. "[Today] they are on the brink of death [when they are brought to the hospital]."
Gabunia lauded the government's ideas for prison reforms, but emphasized that good intentions had to be followed up with concrete actions. "They have the wish to do something, but we want to see it in fact," she said. "We cannot say at this time there is a huge achievement from Shashkin's [agency] . . . We will see what will be."
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.