human rights

Hungarian prisons are overcrowded, there have never been so many behind bars

Átlátszó’s public data request revealed that prisoners are being moved around in Hungarian prisons. In January alone, more than a thousand prisoners were transferred. According to the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, the problem is not new, as the prisons have been trying to balance the saturation for years. But the task is getting harder: never before in 33 years have so many people been behind bars. The government explains this by the high number of traffickers caught, but does not talk about the failure of the prison expansion programme or the under-use of alternative sentences.

„One day, the guards came in and told me to pack my bags because they were taking me to another prison – on the other side of the country. I couldn’t understand why. I heard back later that it was „because of the overcrowding in the prisons”. But where I went, it was even worse, there were more of us in the same cell. So I still don’t really understand.” This case was brought to our attention, and we tried to find out what might be behind it.

The National Prison Service told us that in January 2023, 1,068 people were transferred from one prison to another. Although the response did not indicate where prisoners are typically transferred from and to, the previous data request from the Hungarian Helsinki Committee may partly answer the question. According to the data sent to them, almost all Hungarian prisons are over 100% full, with only a few between 90% and 100%. Presumably these are the institutions to which the prisoners are transferred.

The situation is not new. According to Lili Krámer, researcher and project coordinator of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, it has been particularly prevalent since the European Court of Human Rights ordered the Hungarian state to find a sustainable solution in 2015 to end overcrowding.

„In our experience, the attempt to balance occupancy levels in order to eliminate overcrowding can lead to prisoners being transferred to a prison far from their home”

– Krámer told to Átlátszó.

Although the law states that imprisonment shall be carried out by the penitentiary organisation „on the basis of the law or the measure of the national commander” in the penitentiary institution „preferably nearest to the convicted person’s address”, the word „preferably” allows for sending detainees to a faraway prison.

Record number of detainees

And what could be the reason for this? According to the Hungarian Helsinki Committee expert, „the fact that there have not been so many people in prison since 1990 puts a particularly strong pressure on the prison system.”

According to the latest figures, 19,347 people were held in prison on 31 December 2022 in Hungary. This is against a backdrop of a declining population – meaning that a growing proportion of the country’s population is going to prison, whereas the aim should be to do so only as a last resort.

Photo credit: MTI/Zoltán Máthé

In this light, it is not surprising that there are again more overcrowded prisons. According to the Prison Service response, as of 31 December 2022, the overall occupancy rate was 107 per cent. The highest occupancy levels were recorded in the Central Transdanubian National Penitentiary Institute in Székesfehérvár (128%), the Balassagyarmat Penitentiary and Prison (120%) and the Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg County Prison Institute (120%).

Too many human smugglers

The government says the formula for why domestic prisons are once again full is simple: migration.

According to the National Prison Service „in recent years, the number of offenders of crimes related to human smuggling has been steadily and proportionally increasing in Hungarian prisons.”

They now make up the prison population of four average Hungarian prisons.

However, according to the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, „state agencies and government politicians are hiding the fact that the increase in human smuggling is clearly linked to the deliberate governmental dismantling of the Hungarian asylum system.

Indeed, asylum applications cannot be submitted either at the border or in Hungary since May 2020. Those who are illegally staying in Hungary (for example, without a valid passport or staying longer than allowed) are forced by the Hungarian authorities to the Serbian side of the border fence without any procedure, regardless of where they came from and who they are.

Photo credit: MTI/Tibor Rosta

By making it impossible for asylum applications to be lodged, potential asylum seekers are encouraged to try to enter the country through people smugglers,” argues the Helsinki expert. And more cases of this kind will obviously be detected by the authorities.

Half as many new places as needed

The government has tried to solve prison overcrowding by increasing the number of places in prisons, but even this has not been successful. The original plan was to build a prison with a total capacity of 4,500 people, but only a few new wings were built to accommodate 2,750 people.

The Ministry of Interior has not answered why. According to them, the document containing the answers was provided with a „Non-public” management instruction, which serves as a basis for further future decisions, and therefore access to the data is restricted for 10 years from the date of its creation.

But at least we did manage to find out that

the contractors of the lightweight buildings were companies close to the government.

According to the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, other forms of punishment such as non-custodial sanctions should be preferred to imprisonment, such as community service, restorative justice measures or fines. In addition, the possibility of reintegration (remotely supervised) detention should be extended and house arrest should be preferred to pre-trial detention. This would help to reduce the number of people in prison.

Written and translated by Eszter Katus. More detailed Hungarian version of this story. Photo credit: MTI/Tibor Rosta