I was recently fortunate enough to be invited to Lithuania by a voluntary sector organisation based in Kaunas which works with prisoners and released ex-offenders. During this visit I was able to visit a number of prisons, talk to volunteers, inmates and staff and address members of the Govt.
It came as quite a shock to find an EU member state in which the prison conditions and facilities were so poorly funded and where prospects for released prisoners are so negative (avg. spend is 1.5 euros per day per prisoner for everything). However, the real lesson comes from the story of the voluntary sector which attempts to improve things by doing simple stuff like purchasing bags of cement or plaster so that prison inmates can repair their rooms, or building showers or kitchen areas in the women and children facility. Volunteers buy these materials from their own income as well as providing skills and educational training where they can. Their story is that the public attitude towards those who offend has changed little since the days of communism where a criminal offence was seen as betraying the state, and there is little or no public awareness of something which is seen as the responsibility of that state. In fact they became so used to people effectively disappearing that today someone going into prison in Lithuania is likely to be unemployable on release, highly likely to have no accommodation or supportive family network and stands a high probability of re-offending within days. Suicide rates are high and many who leave prison leave the country not as economic migrants but as virtual deportees.
Because there is so little public sympathy the government apparently devotes very little time to addressing conditions or considering the need for improved facilities, and are able to do so with comparative impunity because the offending community has been effectively demonised as non-citizens. They do not see it as a priority at a time when building their economy is paramount and the result is evident in lack of investment or concern.
Of course we in the UK can bask in our excellent reformist history, which has seen conditions in prisons vastly improved, and a sense of public interest underpinning a rehabilitative ethos which allows the not inconsiderable criminal justice expenditure which we enjoy. Not for us the cynical demonising of social groups as scroungers or non-citizens so that we can avoid any responsibility for the welfare of those less fortunate or able to cope than ourselves. It is difficult to conceive of a situation such as seems the case in former Eastern Bloc countries ever emerging here. Or is it?
Image: By User:SKopp (Own work) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons