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Polish prison: life of inmates with disabilities


Jarek Kopczuk, HR defender, a representative of Helsinki foundation on human rights tells why other inmates do not help disabled ones; why administration is ready to pay for household running costs and to help a released prisoner with employment and a place to live.

- Can you tell us about the conditions people with disabilities are kept in Polish prison? Very often such inmates need some special conditions.

- We have inmates serving sentences with different types and degrees of disabilities that is why it is difficult to talk about some universal approaches. For example, there are different kinds of disabled persons: wheelchair-bound, getting about on crotches. Those having crotches walk relatively free. We understand that such a person needs a lower berth of bunk bed, to be placed on the first floor. It is a bit more complicated with wheelchair-bound disabled: we have special cells taking into account their special needs. There is more space in these cells for free movement. There is a bathroom and a W.C. It is clear that in old buildings there were no ramps. But if we have a need in it we either construct them or use special elevators.

Jarek Kopczuk

There are cases when a person is very sick and needs special rehabilitation. For such people, mainly suffering from mental diseases or who are retarded we have special wards in prisons. For every such “client” we work out special rehabilitation program and a team of specialists such as doctors, psychologists, instructors work with them.

The general idea is that healthy inmates don’t have to care of disabled. The state is responsible for the general comfort and accessible environment of such inmates. Prison staff have to provide with such conditions that everyone can freely move around and use the necessary for him services.

- Do prisoners have a possibility to work?

- There are three types of prisons in Poland: closed, semi-open and open. Prison commissions decide to what kind of prison a person is sent. According to my observations, the majority of persons with disabilities serve sentences in open and semi-open prisons, because they don’t impose a threat to the society.

Possibilities to develop and to work mostly depend on the kind of prison: in closed prisons inmates work at the territory of the prison; in other kinds of prisons they can leave the premises without convoy for working outside. But it is not so easy to provide persons with disabilities with a job: country’s unemployment rate is 13% and among prisoners it is higher and among disabled prisoners – unfortunately very high. Because of peculiarities of their health they can’t do any work.

- So, theoretically they have a possibility to earn some money.

- Labour in a prison is divided into paid and volunteer. The latter is, for example, cleaning the territory, serving food to other inmates – prisoners are not paid for such work, but they get some preferences. There is less paid work – the part is provided by the prison and another part by outside employers. We choose those prisoners who can work well and not violate the regime. The other case is when an employer starts business which is aimed at employment of persons with disabilities. It happens when firms want to get some preferences from the state.

- What kind of work is it?

- It depends on the degree of disability. Usually it is a simple work. For example, prisoner in a wheelchair can work on computer – there is no need in physical power. For people with mental problems – making envelopes, packing goods, etc.

- Are there any mechanisms of support for released prisoners? If a former prisoner, for example, has no place where to live and no money he doesn’t have any choice – either to become a homeless or to go to a special institution…

- As a rule a prisoner in Poland doesn’t lose his apartment. Another problem is that he can’t afford to pay for it while in prison. We, as prison administration, can help to pay some debts for household running costs. We don’t do it for everyone, only for those who are really in great need. If a prisoner had money on his banking account they are transferred to us. Besides, after the release a prisoner gets some money for the first time.

If a prisoner doesn’t have a place to live in, family and relatives refuse to help him in this case, in some time before the release we start to think how to help him: where to live and work. If it is necessary we find them a place to live – usually it is a shelter. We also help to file all the necessary documents, put in line for getting apartment.

- What rights of prisoners with disabilities can be violated in prison and if it is possible to prevent it?

- I think that it can be the same rights as the other prisoners’. First of all, we have to provide security for these people, very often because of disability such people need adopted environment which will help to live a full life.


The interview is prepared during the participation in educational program “Lifetime long education: employment and social activation of persons with disabilities”, which became possible thanks to cooperation with “Helsinki foundation for human rights” and “Office for the rights of persons with disabilities”.