Georgia's prisons: roots of scandal

The exposure of violent abuse in the Georgian prison system has shocked its people and rocked the government of Mikheil Saakashvili. The intense focus on zero-tolerance and mass incarceration in the criminal-justice system is a key to understanding why it happened, says Gavin Slade.

Gavin Slade
24 September 2012

"We want zero-tolerance. And it works. It is a fact that it works." These were the words of Mikheil Saakashvili, president of Georgia, at his annual address to parliament in 2006 as he introduced mandatory custodial sentencing for petty crime and criminals. The policy was aimed at "cleaning our streets of this rubbish", the president said. Swept up by a metaphorical presidential broom, thousands of Georgians were incarcerated as a result. From 2003-10, the country's prison population soared by 300%. By 2012, there were more prisoners in Georgia per capita than any other major country with the exception of the US and Rwanda.

A clear political philosophy underlay the president’s statement: bad people exist, the government cannot change them - all it can do is warehouse them and keep them out of sight. On 18 September 2012 and subsequent days, these invisible people came back into view as powerless victims of shocking abuse, when videos of torture, beatings, rape and sexual humiliation in Georgian prisons were aired on two Tbilisi-based TV stations; one includes the use of a broom to sodomise an inmate.

The scandal made the political atmosphere, already intense because of the imminence of Georgia's parliamentary election on 1 October, even more febrile than usual. There were immediate protest demonstrations in the streets of Tbilisi (which continued in other cities such as Kutaisi), where anger over the abuse mixed with vocal opposition to Saakashvili and his government. The fallout continued with the sacking of the ministerial official responsible for the prison system, then the resignation of the minister for corrections and legal aid, Khatuna Kalmakhelidze. 

There are at present many rumours and counter-rumours as to the purpose of the torture and why it was recorded. Some claimed that the videos were made by a small group of staff in league with serious criminals, but this view was discredited when more films were released showing large numbers of staff ganging up on inmates in one prison, Gldani #8; in addition, separate footage of abuse of juvenile offenders was circulated.

Georgia's former and current "public defender" (or ombudsman) have both consistently highlighted the fact that abuse and torture have continued in Georgian prisons for years, and that not enough has been done to counter it. The videos have now shown the extent of this brutality. How did the Georgian prison system come to host such extreme acts of depravity?

The roots of scandal

In December 2005, prisoners rioted in Kutaisi prison #2. The principal cause of the disturbance was, counterintuively, the transfer of prisoners to a new facility built to higher standards. Thousands more prisoners went on hunger-strike across the country in support. Then, in March 2006, prisoners rioted in Ortachala prison, a notoriously decrepit facility in a suburb of Tbilisi. Special forces moved in and seven prisoners were killed. Ortachala was closed shortly afterwards and the prisoners transferred to reconstructed facilities.

The investigation of prison-riots often concludes that institutional performance is the key factor in their occurrence. Where a prison fails to provide for the needs of prisoners, resistance builds. But in the Kutaisi case at least, the prisoners were being moved to better facilities when they rioted. Why?

The explanation lies in the wider processes occurring at the time. The prison system was being shaken up; a huge turnover of staff had taken place, criminal bosses (known as "thieves-in-law") and their deputies (so-called "overseers") had been removed from the bulk of the prison population (see "Georgia's mafia: the politics of survival", 21 August 2010).

The reforms intentionally targeted and sought to change the established normative framework and practices for resolving disputes and managing violence in Georgia's prisons. Those expressing support for the norms of the thieves’ criminal subculture were given extra punishment. The prisoners' social relationships and established hierarchies were rearranged through movement from open-plan barrack-style prison "zones" to new prisons containing small cells and controlled communal-spaces.

At the same time, Saakashvili’s zero-tolerance policy, established on the back of successful police reform and a politically dependent judiciary, began to cast thousands of people into the new or renovated prisons springing up around the country. All of this created instability and uncertainty - and sparked resistance, which the state met with violence of its own.

A lesson is that the social life of prisons cannot be transformed immediately or simply through top-down reform; nor can new, informal social practices spring up overnight. This is a problem because prison staff, in a context of continuous resistance (passive or active), depend on many informal social arrangements to gather and utilise information, and to maintain control. The examples include tattoos, code, ritualised categorisation among prisoners, systems of informants, and quid pro quo arrangements between prisoners and staff.

In Georgia, these arrangements were breaking down in the context of the reforms. The culture and codes of the prisons were becoming fluid, as the numbers of prisoners soared and uncertainty increased. All this created the potential for violence from both prisoners (as in the case of the riots) and staff (in their attempts to establish order).

In such a situation, how can compliance in the "penal estate" be ensured? The evidence from the public-defenders' reports and the latest revelations suggests that the answer is simple: brute force and coercion. In a changing environment for both prisoners and staff, the strongest dynamic between these groups became one of fear, abuse and violence. This is reflected in the way that some of the current recordings show the victims being forced to renounce the status of "thieves-in-law" and the older norms.

The restructuring of social relationships behind bars goes a long way to explaining this dynamic and the repulsive acts it has ultimately resulted in. Amid the absence of oversight mechanisms, and the effective sanctioning of abuse by staff, violence became widespread and abuse normalised. The resignation of Khatuna Kalmakhelidze is a tacit acknowledgement of this fact.

The foundation of justice

The question raised by the prison videos is also one of Georgia's wider political culture, in which - almost a decade after the "rose revolution" of late 2003 and its promise of modernisation and renewal - it seems entirely legitimate to demonise anyone who breaks the law as somehow against "the progress Georgia has made" or "wanting a return to the past", and thereby liable for unmerciful custodial punishment. This is echoed in the tendency to blame any controversy, from street-protests to the Mukhrovani army mutiny of 2009 (and now, ironically, even the torture recordings themselves), on serious "criminal elements" and "criminal authorities". Georgia's legal code criminalises mere association with such "authorities". This stigmatising rule-making and rhetoric has caused, however indirectly, the dehumanisation and abuse of those who ended up in prison having broken the decrees of a state that is itself not yet governed by the rule of law (see "The Threat of the Thief: Who Has Normative Influence in Georgian Society?" [Global Crime 8/2 May 2007]).

Mikheil Saakashvili's government has tried to minimise the outrage by suspending all Georgia's prison staff and temporarily making the patrol-police responsible inside the prisons. This is a shrewd move politically as the patrol-police enjoy high public trust. In practice, though, it is very risky. Trust towards the police inside prisons is not going to be the same as it is among the wider public. Moreover, the entire background of the crisis provides a cautionary tale about the consequences of hasty and poorly implemented reforms in the volatile context of the prison-system.

The simplest way to ensure prisoners are not abused would be to have fewer of them in a more manageable, stable penal estate. The response to the scandal should not be some huge overhaul of prisons that once again creates turmoil. The answer lies in the broader goals of criminal justice and its underlying philosophy. The government should move quicker to reform the judiciary, and develop the probation service and alternative sentencing, and scrap the rhetoric of "zero-tolerance" (and accompanying metaphors that associate criminals with garbage). President Saakashvili wants "zero-tolerance for human-rights violations", he now says. With elections looming, and the terrible details of the abuse circulating and fury rising, he may find that tolerance in Georgian society has indeed reached zero.

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