The Hungarian Helsinki Committee monitors the evolution of the COVID-19 pandemic They share with us the latest news.
The Hungarian penitentiary institutions have become even more closed and less transparent since the COVID-19 outbreak. They were already extremely restrictive and difficult to access by the public before. On 5 April 2020, a government decree introduced tighter measures for prisons. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee updates us on the situation.
NGOs have no access to prisons
The measures taken: an overview
March. New rules for the Prison Service
Back in 2017, the Hungarian Prison Service terminated the cooperation agreement with the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and denied them access to prisons after two decades of cooperation and countless monitoring visits by the NGO. To this day, no NGOs have access to penitentiary facilities. Churches and other religious organisations had to suspend their operations in prisons. Due to the lack of adequate resources and funding, the National Preventive Mechanism is unable to visit a sufficient number of prisons (it has conducted 12 monitoring visits in prisons in the past five years). The Prosecution Service supervises the legality of penal institutions’ operations, and they still conduct regular weekly visits in most institutions. However, the effectiveness of their control has frequently been questioned.
Attorneys may be denied entry based on their answers to questions about potential exposure to COVID-19.
The warden of the Budapest-based Metropolitan Penitentiary Institution informed the Budapest Bar Association about a series of measures for attorneys. Attorneys’ temperatures is taken before entering. They are asked a series of questions by prison staff about potential exposure to COVID-19, and may be denied entry based on their answers. Communication between attorney and defendant is made via phone through a plexiglass screen. Consultations rooms are regularly disinfected. Attorneys are requested to refrain from handing over documents to the defendants. It is recommended that attorneys rather consult their clients via phone or Skype.
The Hungarian Prison Service has asked detainees’ families to “minimise the number of visits”.
Visitation is still allowed provided that family members are separated from the detainee by a plexiglass screen. All penitentiaries had already been equipped with these before the epidemic. Visits without physical contact, such as kisses or hugs, had become the rule by April 2019 for all detainees, regardless of their security level. This measure has been heavily criticised by NGOs.
The number of visitors has been reduced to two per visit and the Prison Service has asked detainees to avoid visits with their young or elderly relatives.
Phone calls and Skype calls are allowed for everyone, but only to a certain extent. According to complaints received from relatives and attorneys, many detainees have not been granted this opportunity, for lack of financial or technical resources of the families.
Some institutions suspended visitation due to the curfew introduced on 27 March 2020. The rules of the curfew allow people to leave their homes for work or for “essential” activities such as buying food (or go to the hairdresser’s), but visiting family members in prison is not listed as an essential reason.
April. A Government Decree
On 5 April 2020, a Government Decree introduced COVID-19 related measures for prisons. For example:
arriving detainees are held in isolation for two weeks, those with symptoms of COVID-19 are taken to the hospital;
leaving the penitentiary facility is not authorised even to visit a dying close relative or to attend a funeral.
The Hungarian Helsinki Committee received information that all training and educational activities have been suspended in prisons, and that the daily routine, including the one-hour outdoor walk (which is the only permitted out-of-cell activity) might be changed. In order to compensate for these restrictions, free use of the gym is authorised and a TV set is provided in each cell. The Prison Service introduced other supportive measures, such as providing information to detainees on an ongoing basis, and the provision of personal protective equipment.
There is no public information on how the Hungarian Prison Service seeks to prevent the spread of the virus
Appeal from the Hungarian Helsinki Comittee
The Hungarian Helsinki Committee calls on the Government to consider the early release of elderly and sick offenders who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, and to suspend the sentence of all petty offenders.
There is no public information on how the Hungarian Prison Service seeks to prevent the virus spreading into or within the Hungarian prisons. Based on current publicly available information, temperature testing and health assessments at point of entry has been ordered in all facilities. The Committee recommends that regular testing of prison staff be put in place, and that they be provided with the necessary protective equipment.
The Hungarian Helsinki Committee has submitted access to information requests regarding the number and results of COVID-19 tests and the availability of masks, protective equipment and disinfectants in prisons. They are still awaiting a response.
According to official sources, there are no COVID-19 positive detainees or staff members in the penitentiary system to this day.
The Hungarian Helsinki Committee
The Hungarian Helsinki Committee is a public benefit human rights organization that protects human dignity through legal and public activities.