Based on your experience, what is the situation in the Czech prison system in the second half of 2022?
I monitor the Czech prison system in great detail, especially the part I deal with. From my point of view, the Czech prison system is systematically failing in its function of re-education. This is also confirmed by the high recidivism rate, which is more than sixty percent. I can see it in our clients, in what condition they return from prison. A number of things are quite outdated and hard, and it is difficult for employees and convicts to deal with things in such an environment. On the other hand, I have to say that the system is trying to modernize and respond to current trends. During the COVID pandemic, addiction services managed very quickly to switch to the online space when working with convicts, thanks to the prompt approach of the prison service. Unfortunately, I have already experienced in practice that the functional parts of interest are often easily lost under everything that such a huge system includes.
What are the current trends in the Czech prison system – both negative and positive?
Systems such as the prison system always respond to how the whole state is currently doing. Now, due to the war and the worsening economic situation, it is rather bad. For example, even prisons are now affected by budget cuts, which significantly affect prisoners’ quality of life. Conditions after leaving prison are also deteriorating. Finding housing, for example, is becoming more and more difficult. Everyone who is looking for housing today will probably encounter this trend.
Interesting trends related to the prison system are, for example, open prisons, restorative justice, decriminalization, or mitigation of criminal penalties for less serious crimes. The choice of effective sentences as an alternative to imprisonment is also important.
With your organization, you support people with addiction in prisons. What does your work look like?
We have signed cooperation agreements with cooperating prisons. We have agreed on intervals of how often we enter prisons. We mostly work with prisoners who are our clients, individually; in the past, we also worked in groups. We visit our clients in prisons once every two weeks. The ideal time to enter into cooperation is six months to a year before the convict’s release. Our goal is to support them in preparing for their journey after their release from prison and in planning what their life will look like after their release. We do not tend to duplicate the already existing services of psychologists, social workers, therapists or special educators in prison. We prefer to build on what they have already done. This makes the work more accurate and efficient, and the client’s subsequent steps after their release are more successful.
At the beginning of our cooperation, we map the situation of the person and prepare an individual plan with them. It also includes treatment after release in an outpatient or residential facility. The fact that a client abstains from addictive substances for the entire duration of his or her sentence does not mean that he or she can continue to abstain after release.
We try to support our clients in securing work and housing. We map the possibilities for our clients, and we ask to what extent they have support from their family or loved ones. The riskiest thing is to leave prison and not have anything ready. The first days after the ascent, maybe the first hours, are the riskiest. If the released person has nothing at that moment, they may return to where they know, which can be the street or the drug world. If they have something ready and are connected to someone who they trust, they will turn to them after their release.
Leaving prison is generally a very challenging situation, and not everyone can handle it. Anyone who wants to make it needs a lot of strength. It takes a lot of effort. People who have been released are very fragile and need a lot of support.
So how long after their release do you see clients outside the prison again?
Sometimes it happens that we pick up the client directly at the prison and continue with the individual plan. We usually offer this in those cases where the client has broken relationships with their family. If we agreed that they would contact us a week or two after their release, it would not happen in most cases, and the chances of continuing to work together would decrease. It is best to get in touch on the day of release or the day after.
The people we work with are usually successful for a longer period of time than those who don’t participate in our program. It might happen that they have a relapse or a minor relapse, but they are able to speak up and say that they need help because they have slipped and are not doing well. This, too, is a success: to be able to ask for help to stop the use of drugs.
You are one of the organizations involved in the Work Behind Bars project. One of its goals is to introduce a case management method to work with people with addictions in prison. What else does this project bring, and how will it be beneficial for your work?
The biggest benefit will certainly be greater interconnection – with all the organizations that are involved in the project, as well as with the prisons themselves and their staff. We now have the opportunity to meet regularly with colleagues during educational blocks and other project events. Until now, the meetings have only taken place at the meeting of the Prison Drug Services section, APAS.
At the same time, greater support for clients after release is also envisaged. For example, we can now use the project’s funds to pay for the accommodation of clients after their release from prison for a certain period of time, to buy them a hygiene kit or a tram ticket. Thanks to the project, we also have the services of psychiatrists and addictologists, which we do not normally have in the program. We are also counting on intensifying our contact with prison staff. However, it will probably be different in different prisons. We expect that we will now receive more frequent reports and recommendations from prison experts about what the client will need after release, so that we can build on their work from prison. The collaboration will lead to greater efficiency.
Another benefit I see is that we are educating ourselves in the case management method. During the project, we will learn about different approaches in this method, and we will be able to try out how it works in practice.
What helps to break the ice between you and prison staff? How do you manage to strengthen successful cooperation?
I found it useful to explain the goals of our program to the cooperating employees, right from the start. I explain that we do not want to duplicate their work, but to continue where they end, to build on what they do. Some were more interested, some less. It also works well for me that when we have a common client, I try to cooperate with other experts in the prison and meet in person during that cooperation. After that, it is easier to reach out to each other in the case of other clients. I am also interested in the work of other employees. To keep track of it, I go on internships in specialized prison sections to get to know what they do, what they are working on, what they are struggling with.
On the other hand, what do you think works well in the Czech prison system? What could be built on in this project?
I certainly perceive positively the fact that most professional employees are aware of the importance of follow-up care after release and are glad that they have someone to send the convicts to after their release. They can appreciate the opportunity to cooperate with our program. There are many workers in prisons with many years of experience who can not only pass their experience on to their colleagues, but also enrich cooperation with us and create a functional system of care for our clients.
Václav Zeman, Storyhunters