Interior Ministry uses family visits as means of repression
“I do not think that two-hour visits can have a significant impact on the rights and freedoms of persons held in detention. Besides, as you know, we have a liberalization of the opportunities that they have. It’s about parcels, the weight of parcels. We approach this issue comprehensively. But two hours or three hours... Maybe for someone it is essential, yes. Well, probably not essential for you and me[i],” said Interior Minister Ihar Shunevich.
Is it a matter of principle for the minister? Certainly, not. Together with numerous violations of prisoners’ rights at the legislative and law enforcement levels. Pre-trial prisoners who have not even been declared criminals are not entitled to vote in elections; inmates of penal colonies face discrimination of their labor rights; there are regular reports of cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment of prisoners; the death penalty is still used; against this background two or three hours does not matter to us, especially if two or three hours is only the maximum duration of a visit. And who asked the prisoners and their families, which often go to the colony from afar: is an extra hour essential to them, although under the supervision of prison staff? To many, such visits are the last thread linking them with the family.
Has anyone thought about another aspect of prison visits: they are not only the right of the prisoner, but also the right of his family.
Prison rules in Belarus in terms of visits are excessively cruel as compared with the neighboring countries. The text will analyze visits to prisoners of penal colonies (for adults) and prisons.
The duration of visits and the number of persons who can attend these visits are determined by the penal legislation. In accordance with the Criminal Executive Code, persons sentenced to imprisonment are provided with short visits of up to four hours and extended visits lasting up to three days in a specially equipped room located in the territory of the detention facility.
Such a wording condemns prisoners to be completely dependent on the discretion of prison administration. There are no criteria to be used by prison staff when choosing the duration of visits.
The scope of persons who can visit prisoners in Belarus is also defined in the Code: short visits with relatives or other persons take place in the presence of an employee of the prison administration. Persons who are not relatives of prisoners can only visit them at the discretion of the administration. Extended visits are granted to close relatives.
The number of visits is determined by the regime of detention:
- persons sentenced to imprisonment in a minimum security penal colony are entitled to have three short and three long visits during the year; persons transferred to serve their sentence under improved conditions of detention are allowed to have two extra short and two long visits during the year;
- persons sentenced to imprisonment in a medium security penal colony are entitled to have three short and two long visits during the year; persons transferred to serve their sentence under improved conditions of detention are allowed to have two extra short and two long visits during the year;
- persons sentenced to imprisonment in a maximum security penal colony are entitled to have two short and two long visits during the year; persons transferred to serve their sentence under improved conditions of detention are allowed to have one extra short and one long visit during the year;
- persons sentenced to imprisonment in a special security penal colony are entitled to have two short and one long visit during the year; persons transferred to serve their sentence under improved conditions of detention are allowed to have one extra short and one long visit during the year;
- convicts serving a sentence in a minimum security prison are allowed to have two short visits during the year; convicts serving a sentence in a medium security prison are allowed to have one short visit during the year.
Contrary to the prevailing international practice, violations of prison rules can be punished by a deprivation of long or short visits. In imposing the penalty, the type of visit is determined by an official in charge of imposing this penalty. The convict may be deprived of his next visit to which he was entitled at the time of imposition of the penalty.
The same rules apply, with certain differences, to female prisoners (convicted women are only held in penal colonies of minimum and maximum security, they cannot be held in prison).
The Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners lay down the following rules for the treatment of prisoners[ii]:
- Discipline and order shall be maintained with firmness, but with no more restriction than is necessary for safe custody and well-ordered community life;
- Prisoners shall be allowed under necessary supervision to communicate with their family and reputable friends at regular intervals, both by correspondence and by receiving visits;
- Special attention shall be paid to the maintenance and improvement of such relations between a prisoner and his family as are desirable in the best interests of both;
- From the beginning of a prisoner's sentence consideration shall be given to his future after release and he shall be encouraged and assisted to maintain or establish such relations with persons or agencies outside the institution as may promote the best interests of his family and his own social rehabilitation.
The penitentiary laws of states similar to Belarus in terms of development and promotion of legal values reflect the spirit of respect for these standards.
The Penal Code of the Russian Federation establishes the duration of visits in accordance with these principles: persons sentenced to imprisonment are provided with short visits lasting four hours and extended visits lasting three days on the territory of the correctional institution. Short visits by relatives or other persons are supervised by a representative of prison administration. Extended visits are granted to a spouse, parents, children, foster parents, adopted children, siblings, grandparents, grandchildren, and with the permission of the correctional institution – with other persons. This means that the range of persons who can meet with prisoners is much broader than that provided in the Belarusian law: prisoners can be visited by people who are not their relatives without the permission of prison administration, and with the permission such a person may have a long meeting with the prisoner. The duration of such visits is clearly established and does not depend on the discretion of prison staff.
Prisoners in Russia can enjoy a much greater number of visits. Prisoners cannot be deprived of visits as a disciplinary measure.
In accordance with the Executive Code of the Republic of Moldova, regardless of the gravity of the offense and the type of penal institution, the convict is entitled to one short visit a month and one long visit during three months. Long visits are not available in the following cases: if the prisoner faces a suspension of the right to extended visits; if the prisoner has been transferred to the initial level of security as a disciplinary measure; to persons sentenced to life imprisonment and serving the sentence under the initial security.
Under a general rule, short visits with the spouse and relatives up to the fourth degree of kinship, inclusive, and in cases stipulated by the charter of the penal institution with other persons at the option of the convict may range between one to four hours with the written permission of the prison staff. These visits are conducted in specially equipped premises, under visual supervision or video surveillance by representatives of the prison administration.
Long visits with his the spouse, parents, children, brothers and sisters, grandparents and grandchildren of the convict, and in cases stipulated by the charter of the penal institution with other persons at the option of the convict may range between 12 hours to three days with the written permission of the prison staff.
Head of the penitentiary should allow meetings of prisoners in case the convicts are held in the same prison, if they are married, which is certified by a copy of the marriage certificate.
As a disciplinary action, the Code provides for a suspension of the right to short and long visits for up to three months; at the time of disciplinary isolation the prisoner is deprived of visits, except for visits with the counsel.
As an incentive, prison authorities provide no more than four short visits and two long visits per year. Prisoners with uncleared disciplinary penalties cannot enjoy the right to a visit as an incentive. Visits as an incentive are only provided to the spouse and relatives and are not available to others.
In exceptional cases, prisoners may receive other persons: for example, short visits in the absence of a spouse and other relatives if they have not visited the prisoner for more than one year. Long visits in this case are provided only with those with whom they are in a relationship of cohabitation or have children together.
In all cases of visits with other persons, they can be granted by the administrator institution only when that will not have a negative impact on the prisoner, and if there is no doubt that the visit will not be used for the preparation or commission of crimes, destruction of evidence, intimidation and influencing witnesses, victims or other persons, and in other illegal purposes.
According to the Penal Code of the Republic of Kazakhstan, prisoners may receive visitors: short two-hour visits and two-day long visits on the territory of the institution.
Short visits are provided to relatives or other persons in the presence of a representative of prison administration. Extended visits are granted to the spouse, close relatives (parents, children, foster parents, adopted children, brothers, sisters, grandparents, grandchildren), in exceptional cases with the permission of the head of the correctional institution - with other persons. The number of visits depends on the level of security. Convicts held under concessional terms of imprisonment, even in maximum security institutions, can have unlimited number of short visits. As a form of disciplinary action, prisoners in Kazakhstan cannot be deprived of visits.
Even the Penal Code of Turkmenistan establishes a more favorable duration of visits as compared with Belarus: short visits – lasting four hours, long visits – lasting up to three days. Short visits by relatives or other persons take place in the presence of a representative of prison administration. Persons who are not relatives of the convict can visit the prisoner only at the discretion of the correctional institution. Extended visits are granted only to close relatives (spouse, parents, children, foster parents, adopted children, siblings, grandparents, grandchildren), and in exceptional cases, with the permission of the head of the correctional institution – to other persons.
Persons sentenced to imprisonment can be deprived of long or short visits for violation of the established order of serving the punishment, as well as a ban on telephone conversations for up to one month.
At the same time, in Turkmen penal colonies prisoners are allowed to have twelve short and eight long visits per year; convicts serving a sentence in a maximum security penal colony may have ten short and six long visits during the year; convicts serving a sentence in a special security penal colony may have eight short and four long visits during the year. Turkmen prisons of minimum security allow convicts to have six short visits during the year; maximum security prisoners have the right to receive four short visits during the year.
Thus, the comparison of prison rules is clearly not in favor of Belarusian prisoners. Meetings with family and friends, which can and should be a means of re-socialization of prisoners, have become for Belarusian prisoners one of the means of restraint. It is the adoption of new standards and reducing the time for contacts with relatives of prisoners, despite the opinion of the Minister of Internal Affairs, that inevitably “levels the educational function of these institutions”.
[ii] Adopted by the First United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, held in Geneva in 1955, and approved by the Economic and Social Council in its resolutions 663 C (XXIV) of 31 July 1957 and 2076 (LXII) of 13 May 1977