Georgia: politics of punishment

Behind Georgia's prison-abuse scandal lies a large-scale, self-funding penal system whose effects - not least psychological - pervade the society, says Gavin Slade.

Gavin Slade
30 September 2012

Georgia's prison-abuse scandal has pushed the prisons of this south Caucasus country to the centre of attention for many Georgians as well as for analysts from abroad. The truth, however, is that the shocking abuse revealed in videos broadcast on two Tbilisi-based TV stations is also confirmation that penal excess and the abuse of the wider criminal-justice system have, since the "Rose Revolution" of late 2003, been central to understanding Georgian politics and society. It can be said that the model of governance, and even economy, adopted in the post-revolutionary period by the administration of Mikheil Saakashvili depends on this system (see "Georgia's prisons: roots of scandal", 24 September 2012)

Between Texas and Siberia

The combination of Georgia’s pro-western, specifically pro-United States orientation and its Soviet past has created two strongly pernicious influences on penal policy. Firstly, the US’s politics of punishment is premised upon the idea that small government has no role in rehabilitating offenders; hence, warehousing them is a better, cheaper, policy. As a result, the US is today by far the biggest incarcerator in the world. Secondly, while the Soviet Union believed in rehabilitation (read: re-indoctrination) it still incarcerated huge numbers of people in labour-camps, with the underlying goal that the gulag should economically sustain itself.

Georgia has combined the worst of both of these worlds: it is a world leader in imprisonment, lacks any rehabilitative philosophy, and its corrections system has become an economic system in its own right. The huge prison population, the highest in eastern Europe and the post-Soviet space per capita, stands at 24,000 (with many more in administrative detention), and in the probation system at 38,000.

The majority of court-cases in Georgia are decided by plea-bargain. In return for a guilty plea and a money-transfer to the state budget, prison sentences are reduced. With an acquittal rate of around 0.1%, most defendants (87.5% in 2011) plead guilty and take a plea-bargain, since they will be found guilty anyway. Moreover, legislation allows prosecutors to confiscate property where a defendant cannot prove that ownership was legitimately acquired - a tough task in Georgia. Transfers to the state budget from this system, which processes some 20,000 cases a year, have been one of the main sources of revenue for the government. In 2011, the money collected in fines alone was equal to the penitentiary-department’s budget.

Once inside the prison, the prisoner finds the system completely monetarised. Phone-cards are for sale, as are foodstuffs and medicines at stores run by well-known retailers. Conjugal visits cost 50 lari ($30). Skype video-calls with relatives are charged at one lari (60c) a minute. A bankcard is required to receive money from families - with associated transaction-costs. Those in administrative detention can pay 400 lari ($242) to be released.

On leaving prison and entering the probation system, more tariffs are presented. Fines for being late to meetings with a probation officer are levied. An offender who pays more can reduce the number of such meetings; even trips abroad while on probation will be accommodated for the right fee. This surely reveals the true goal of probation in the country.

The political economy of punishment

This almost self-funding corrections-system fits a wider political economy of punishment. Criminal justice and penal policy in Georgia must be understood as part of social welfare. When spending on social protection is low or decreasing, spending on crime control and punishment increases. Whether deliberate or not, this has been called the "punitive regulation of poverty". In essence, this translates into criminal-justice solutions for social-justice issues.

Poverty, along with crime, was an inheritance of the chaotic 1990s which the Eduard Shevardnadze era bequeathed to the Mikheil Saakashvili administration. The government continues to boast of its successful police reform, anti-corruption efforts, and low crime-rates; but considerable and worsening issues persist in Georgia, such as poverty, unemployment and inequality.

These wider socio-economic issues have been dealt with not by ameliorative social policy but by the criminal-justice system. Despite the high-profile arrests of famously venal officials from the Shevardnadze era, the majority of people imprisoned throughout Georgia are those left behind by the reform process: the poor and unemployed. Such a policy is justified by harsh rhetoric, borrowed from the criminology of right-wing America, which suggests that criminals are simply bad people, insusceptible to rehabilitation. In short, crime-control became more than about law and order; it became a system of governing a whole array of social problems in Georgia (see "Georgia's mafia: the politics of survival", 21 August 2010).

The wrong priorities

The great Georgian prison-building binge has swallowed up massive government resources. While the prison population has seen an increase of 300% from 2003-10, the spending on the penitentiary department has risen 760% in the period 2004-10. The penitentiary-department budget for 2007 alone stands at roughly 0.5% of Georgia's total GDP for that year; in 2004, the figure was just 0.1%.

To put this in context, the World Bank estimated that to extend the coverage of"targeted social assistance" (i.e., funds to help those in poverty) to all of Georgia’s extreme poor in 2007 would cost 0.4% of GDP. Zero-tolerance on crime does not come at zero-cost.

Moreover, when the government lacks the funds to build up its penal empire others are willing to provide it. In June 2011, Georgia received a €60-million loan from the Council of Europe’s development bank to build a new prison in Laituri in western Georgia, an impoverished region with high unemployment. This is just one instance of the way international organisations have helped construct the Georgian "penal state", all the time in the name of prison reform, while turning a blind eye to the wider implications of this model of "governing through crime".

The mental revolution

The Rose Revolution, like so many revolutions before it, has laid claim to making a "new man". In Georgia, this man is law-abiding, incorruptible, the antithesis of homo sovieticus. The Economist was the first to proclaim this "mental revolution"; the government has since endlessly repeated this catchy phrase. The Georgian prison scandal has shown up such an assertion to be premature at best. It is much more likely that law-abidingness in Georgia is based not on a fundamentally new moral orientation to the law, nor even an underlying sense of the law’s legitimacy, but rather fear of a system built on cowed courts and penal excess. This fear is not simply the preserve of the genuinely criminal and corrupt; it percolates through the whole of Georgian society.

Citizens are fearful of being forced into one of two things: unemployment or prison. State employees are intimidated into showing support for the government at rallies. Small businesses fear government shakedowns. Protestors are arrested for minor offences and placed in administrative detention with no due process. Schoolchildren internalise the idea that their education is about obedience and rule-following as ministry-of-interior-trained officers patrol school-corridors. There is a widespread belief among many that their phones have been wiretapped (wiretapping is commonly used as evidence in court in lieu of state’s witnesses). Surveys show that 52% of Georgians believes that innocent people are sent to prison often or occasionally. 

Governing through crime has resulted in a control mentality. Georgia’s prisons are the incubators of this mentality. These new, shining and renovated facilities stand as monuments to the political-economic choices and priorities of the current government.

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