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Ombudsman Takes Stand in Relation to His Visit to the Szombathely National Prison

At the Szombathely National Prison, the elderly and chronically ill detainees, belonging to the high-risk group for COVID–19 infection, were placed on one floor, separately from other detainees, for the purpose of their protection, and the time spent outdoors with physical activities was increased by one hour per day, taking advantage of the characteristics of the facility, Ombudsman Dr. Ákos Kozma concluded. All these measures were qualified as good practices by the OPCAT National Preventive Mechanism.

On 13 May 2020, the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights, acting in his competence as OPCAT National Preventive Mechanism (NPM), paid a visit to the Szombathely National Prison (hereinafter: the “Institution”), which is one of the two Hungarian penitentiary institutions operated on the basis of a PPP (“Public Private Partnership”) contract. According to the contract, FMZ Savaria Szolgáltató Kft. [FMZ Savaria Services LLC] (hereinafter: the “Operator”) was in charge of the daily operations, such as providing the necessary supplies and maintenance, while the staff members employed by the Institution performed the professional tasks of law enforcement. In consideration of the state of danger declared by Government Decree 40/2020 (11 March), the Ombudsman announced his visits in advance – in contrast to the general practice of the NPM. The members of the visiting group inspected the premises of the Institution wearing appropriate protective equipment, and they conducted interviews with the management, the staff members, and the detainees.

The purpose of the visit was to inspect the implementation of the measures taken by the Institution with a view to preventing the COVID–19 pandemic and to eliminating its consequences, as well as to examine how the restrictions ordered due to the state of danger affected the detainees’ daily lives. Although the NPM had already visited the Institution once before, in consideration of the epidemiological situation, reviewing the implementation of the recommendations made in Report No. AJB-793/2017 on that visit was not an objective included in the scope of the present inspection.

At the time of the visit, there were no persons infected with the COVID–19 virus at the Institution.

In his report on Case No. AJB-2728/2020, Dr. Ákos Kozma concluded that the commander of the Institution had taken measures to provide adequate protective equipment and disinfectants, as well as to prevent that the virus appear at the Institution. In accordance with the specific legislation adopted in light of the epidemiological situation, the detainees’ possibilities for communicating with their relatives and participating in education or leisure activities and occupation were restricted at the Institution. The detainees were not allowed to receive visitors. Participation in education was provided without the personal presence of teachers. Leisure activities were organised in smaller groups, in the buildings serving for the placement of detainees. Due to the fact that it was not possible to ensure the separation of the detainees and the civil employees employed by the Operator at the Institution, the range of employment opportunities was considerably limited. The detainees used the increased time available for making phone calls and the possibility to communicate on the Internet provided in compensation for the ban on visits, and the latter was highly appreciated by them.

The NPM qualified it as a good practice that the elderly and chronically ill detainees, belonging to the high-risk group for COVID–19 infection, were placed on one floor, separately from other detainees, for the purpose of their protection, and the time spent outdoors with physical activities was increased by one hour per day, taking advantage of the characteristics of the facility. However, the NPM also found that in view of the mentally highly demanding epidemic period, it was particularly worrisome that more than half of the psychologist statuses were unfilled at the Institution, which caused an impropriety related to the enforcement of the right to physical and mental health.

For the report, please click on the following link: AJB-2728/2020.