Report on the visit to the Gherla Penitentiary

Tuesday - 24 September 2013
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On September 24, 2013, two representatives of APADOR-CH visited the Gherla Penitentiary and its external section located in the city of Cluj. The previous visit to the facility took place in 2006. The most important finding of that visit was that it was absolutely necessary to rehabilitate Unit 3 and to fix the heating system. While the latter problem was remedied in 2007, Unit 3 was left in the same deplorable state. The prison management said that no funds had been provided for repairs and were not expected to be in the near future. A project for a new unit with 250-300 detention places was however under assessment.


1. General considerations


Gherla Penitentiary was a coordinating facility for all detention units under the jurisdiction of the Cluj Court of Appeal – the Baia-Mare and Bistriţa Penitentiaries and the Dej Penitentiary Hospital. The facility held all categories of detainees, of all ages, both male and female. Adult male detainees were held in the main unit, while female detainees and minors were held in the external section, in Cluj.


The governor said that the facility had earned a reputation as a very safe detention unit, mainly because no one had escaped from it. The Gherla Penitentiary was equipped with video surveillance systems on the corridors. Footage was stocked for 3 months, in case some incidents needed to be reviewed (such as special interventions by the agents or violent conflicts among detainees). The facility had a 30-strong permanent intervention squad (“masked” squad). At the time of the visit, the penitentiary had learned about the decision of the National Administration of Penitentiaries (ANP) regarding the obligation to equip the masked agents with number plates   and was planning to implement it. Although no signal scrambling system had been put into place, the facility did not face the problem of mobile phones smuggled in to detainees because the very thick walls disrupted the signal. As a result, detainees were unable to use mobile phone, even if they had them. The facility had no video or audio alert system, so that detainees had to knock at the door every time they required the presence of a supervisor.


2. Population, detention spaces, equipment, personnel


On the day of the visit, the total prison population was 1,017 detainees, of whom 839 male, held at the main unit, and 178 at the external section (female and minors). By detention regime, most of the detainees served their sentences under the closed regime – 545; 161 were on preventive arrest; 114 under maximum security regime; 77 under semi-open regime, mostly women; and 99 under the open regime. The remaining 21 detainees had not been categorized yet. Of the total population, 856 detainees had a definitive sentence.


The Gherla unit had a generous piece of land (about 6 hectares) with three detention units, an administrative building, the kitchen building and a food storehouse, an orthodox church and a furniture factory. Only Units 1 and 3 were used as detention spaces, while Unit 2 accommodated the school and other social and educational activities.


Unit 1, the central one, was a 150 years old building and held most of the detainees in Gherla, more precisely males held under the closed regime, maximum security and preventive arrest. The unit also accommodated the observation/quarantine section, the medical office and the infirmary. About 850 persons shared a detention space of less than 2,400 square meters – under 3 sq meters per detainee – which meant that the unit was overcrowded. There were two types of rooms, small ones (10-15 sq m) and larger ones (40-55 sq m), all equipped with a sink and toilet. Shower rooms were outside, where detainees were taken twice a week. The building had a ground floor and three upper floors, each divided in two sections: A and B. Each floor had two canteens, one for each section. Almost all detainees had their meals there (except those under quarantine, those who were ill and those considered as high-risk detainees).


Unit 3 was a historical monument built in the 16th century. It had three stories (ground floor and two upper floors) and was in an advanced state of decay. It held the 59 male detainees under open regime. The 19 rooms were all equally small, of about 9 sq meters, partly occupied by a small storage, leaving only about 8 sq m of usable space. Most of the rooms had 4 beds. The lavatories – a toilet and a sink – were on the corridor, one on each floor. The only shower room was on the ground floor. All sanitary installations were insalubrious. However, since most men held here were working, the prison management made an exception regarding the hot water schedule, so they were able to take a shower every night.


The Gherla facility had several large exercise yards, equipped for various sports: ping-pong, basketball, soccer, fitness. The clerk’s office, the visitation and matrimonial rooms were clean and well kept. The bathrooms of the two matrimonial rooms were under renovation at the time of the visit.


The external section was in the building of the Palace of Justice in Cluj-Napoca, where the First Instance Court, the Tribunal and the Court of Appeal were also located. The section held female detainees (all detention regimes) and minors (male and female). Detention rooms were located in a 4-storey building and measured from about 8 sq m to 30 sq m. The total surface of the rooms at the external section was about 500 sq m. Here, too, overcrowding was obvious. Female detainees could take a hot water shower three times a week. The exercise yards were small and had no equipment whatsoever, so detainees could no nothing but take a few steps. The clerk’s office, search room and visitation rooms were clean and correctly equipped.


Both the Gherla and the Cluj facilities had payphones, mail boxes and info-kiosks in accessible locations for detainees. In the central hall of Unit 1, the most circulated, a screen displayed the addresses and contact numbers of several human rights organizations and of the People’s Attorney (Ombudsman)


Both natural lighting and airing were satisfactory in all sections. Detainees said that appropriate heating was provided in wintertime and that during the summer heat waves the metallic doors were taken out (leaving only the bars) even in the maximum security and closed regime sections, in order to reduce the discomfort caused by high temperatures as much as possible.


The staff who worked directly with detainees amounted to 393 employees, 350 of whom worked at the security and penitentiary regime department. The social and educational department counted 23 employees – 12 educators, 4 social workers, 2 psychologists, 3 sport trainers, one orthodox priest and a technical worker. The medical office employed three doctors (one working at the external section in Cluj) and 16 nurses (of whom 3 worked in Cluj, as well). The Association points out that the social/educational and medical departments were severely understaffed.


3. Work for detainees


Throughout 2013, the average number of detainees who went to work was around 400. In august, there were 425 detainees employed, of whom 230 were paid (contracts for services, in general shoe stitching and street cleaning), 32 worked at the farm and 160 at in-house service jobs. At the time of the visit, 42 of the working detainees were women. Only two male detainees who served under the open regime went to work without escort. The ratio of working detainees at Gherla (about 40%) was very high compared to the penitentiary system average. The governor said that he struggled to find work for as many detainees as possible for two reasons: to increase the revenues of the facility and to keep the prison population content and calm, less prone to create discipline and security problems.


4. Social and educational activities


The activity of the social and educational department took place in Unit 2, a building in good state and appropriately equipped. The building accommodated the school, a library of 8,500 books, activity clubs, workshops and a closed circuit television studio.


At the time of the visit, 75 detainees were enlisted for grades I-IX. Classes were held by 16 teachers, employed by the School Inspectorate. None of the minors attended school. The representatives of the department said that minors spent very little time at the facility, because only the minors on preventive arrest were brought here. For them, only literacy classes were available. 23 women were included in an alternative type of education – “The Second Chance” program – providing elementary school level knowledge.


The penitentiary had workshops and provided qualification courses for carpenters, building workers, farm workers, haircutter and leather worker. About 20% of the detainees had obtained a qualification or were in the process of obtaining one. Only detainees who had less than three years left to serve could apply for the courses. APADOR-CH considers that this condition should be eliminated in order to increase the chances for detainees to find work while in prison.


Besides the 16 teachers hired by the School Inspectorate, the activity of the department was supported by 23 employees of the penitentiary – 12 educators, 5 social workers, 3 sports trainers, 2 psychologists, one technical worker and an orthodox priest. Although the total number of employees of the department was not small, especially when compared with other facilities, it must be said the personnel specialized in psychology was insufficient. Only two psychologists at a population of over 1,000 detainees was extremely little, especially since the facility held minors and women, but also men under the maximum security regime, considered as detainees posing a  high risk for the safety of the penitentiary.


The orthodox priest held mass at the chapel of the penitentiary (a historical building), but also worked with detainees, including by taking them on outings. Twice a week, the chapel was also used by a Greek-Catholic priest. Representatives of other religious denominations or organizations, such as “Oastea Domnului” (Army of the Lord) organized activities with detainees.


5. Medical care


Three GPs and 16 nurses were hired by the penitentiary. One of the doctors and three nurses worked at the external section, in Cluj. The penitentiary also had a contract with a dentist. The doctor on duty at the time of the visit said that there was a shortage of medical staff (sometimes a doctor had to see more than 100 detainees per day) and that the budget allotted for the purchase of medicines was only sufficient for chronic patients. The same doctor said that the most frequent health problems among detainees were cardio-vascular diseases and mental conditions (at least one detainee in 10 had such a problem), which were a serious issue in the absence of specialized treatment. The effects of financial penury upon the medical act were partly compensated by a very good co-operation with the civilian hospitals, the doctor said, and by the fact that the penitentiary had its own high-performance ambulance vehicle (a donation from “The Army of the Lord”), which proved very useful in cases of emergency.


As prevention measures against HIV/hepatitis, the medical office used rapid testing (no positive results over the last period), but had ceased to distribute condoms for more than two years, since the donating NGOs stopped being financed by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. APADOR-CH takes note with regret that what once was a model of good practice in HIV prevention – the wide scale distribution of condoms at Gherla Penitentiary – has ceased to be applied and reminds that preventing HIV is much cheaper than treating it.  At the time of the visit, condoms were only provided for matrimonial visits and for a few detainees who requested them, and that was possible only thanks to the voluntary contributions of the medical staff.


6. Food


The kitchen area was appropriately organized and equipped (with locker rooms, hot water showers and a toilet for the 17 detainees who worked here), kitchenware was in relatively good condition, but the air was unbreathable. The ventilation system could not cope with the quantity of steam produced, so that walls were damp and full of mould. The Gherla kitchen prepared the food for the penitentiary, the external section in Cluj and the custody facility of the Cluj County Police Inspectorate.

On the day of the visit, the lunch menu included bean soup with meat and cabbage stew. The food looked good. According to the kitchen chief, most raw products came from the farm (including the meat). Each detainee received 400 g of bread per day. Those who went to work received 600 g and diabetes patients received supplements consisting of apples and/or cheese.


Most detainees in Unit 1 ate at the canteens organized on each floor and section. The representatives of APADOR-CH visited one of the canteens during lunch and noted that the stainless steel cutlery was clean and in good state and the atmosphere was calm. All detainees said that the bean soup was good, although it contained little meat.


The food storage of the penitentiary kept all the food produced at the farm as well as donations (at the time of the visit, it contained dozens of fruit yogurts that were going to be distributed as a supplement to diabetes patients). The storage was clean, well organized and contained an impressive quantity of vegetables and preserves (pickles) of good quality.


Detainees could also receive food from their families or buy it from the in-house shop. They were allowed to receive 10 kilos of food and 6 kilos of fruit and fresh vegetables at a time, as well as water or juice. The in-house shop was well provided, including with fresh products, and prices were reasonable (although sanitary items were slightly more expensive than at local shops).



7. The visit to the rooms, discussions with the detainees


At the central venue of the Gherla Penitentiary, the representatives of the Association visited rooms from both detention units and talked to detainees held under the maximum security regime (including high-risk detainees), closed and open regime.


Unit 1, section 6 – maximum security – held 119 male detainees on the day of the visit, of whom 13 were considered as posing “high risk” to the safety of detention. The same section accommodated the offices of the intervention squad (30 “masked” agents). They were present, in their balaclavas and helmets, each time the high-risk doors were opened. Two of these rooms, 10B and 11B, measured about 15 sq m and had each six beds and 4 occupants. The detainees had praise for the way they were treated, for the prison schedule including one hour of exercise or sports every day, two hot showers per week, the possibility to see the doctor every week and TV program until midnight. But they complained about the filthy toilets and the quality of the food. A former drug user, who was transferred here upon his request and hoped to be released in a month, said that he had chosen to come to Gherla because no drugs or mobile phones came in, so he was protected from temptations and his chances to be released increased. The former drug user was not on the patient list of the psychologists. APADOR-CH recommends that former drug addicts should be included in psychological counseling programs.


Room 15B held 15 detainees under the maximum security regime. The 45 sq m room had 20 beds and, even though not all of them were occupied, the room was still overcrowded. The mattresses were extremely worn out and dirty, real sources of infection. Detainees here also complained about the unhygienic lavatories.


In Section 2 – closed regime – the 14 detainees in room 13A complained about the lack of space. They had a room of about 40 sq m with 24 beds. APADOR-CH considers that the complaints of these detainees regarding the high level of overcrowding were fully justified.


Unit 3 held 59 male detainees under open regime. The building was so shaky it was a wonder it didn’t just crush. At the time of the visit, most detainees here were at work, at the farm. The representatives of APADOR-CH could however speak to two detainees who were in their rooms. They were satisfied that the detention regime was observed and they were not locked in their rooms, that they could go to work and that they were well treated by the staff. But they complained that the rooms (very small, as shown in chapter 2 of this report) were so crowded that they could not breathe during the night. They also complained about the insufficient and insalubrious toilets and showers.


At the external section in Cluj, the representatives of APADOR-CH talked to women in all sections and to a few minors.


At the time of the visit, the Cluj section held 11 minors, nine of them male (of whom two were in transit and seven on preventive arrest) and two female, held under the open regime.


Room 4 of the boys’ section measured about 15 sq m and had four beds and three occupants. They said they went out for exercise one hour every day but did not attend school. They complained about the bad food and said they never received eggs or anything consistent for breakfast, just the usual jam and bread and tea. Room 6, of approximately the same size, was rather well kept, with freshly painted walls and a tiled floor. The two minors held here told the representatives of the Association that they had hot running water three times a week and were allowed to speak on the phone for 20 minutes every day. They complained about the high prices of the products sold by the in-house shop. The rooms of the minors had each their own functional and reasonably clean lavatory.


The two female minors were held in the same room as two young female detainees, also categorized under the open regime. The room measured about 18 sq m, had two double bunk beds, dirty walls and old mattresses. The detainees said they were provided hot running water three times a week and cold water around the clock. The lavatory was separated from the room by a door and included a sink, a Turkish toilet and a shower, all functional. The minors said they could go out for exercise only twice a day (although they were under the open regime and should have been allowed to go to the yard as often as they wanted). The restriction was introduced because on the way to the yard they had to cross different sections, holding detainees under different regimes. APADOR-CH points out that this is a violation of the open regime regulations and asks for the situation to be clarified.


One of the rooms under the open regime held 12 female detainees in 12 beds (triple bunks) on a surface of about 20 sq m. The room had no windows, so it was lit by an electric bulb. Also, there was no natural ventilation. In the absence of a storage space or a fridge, detainees kept their food on a makeshift shelf. They complained about the lack of space, the bad food, the cold in wintertime and the fact that they were not getting permissions to see their families and kids. Many of the women held here went to work in the night shift – in street-cleaning jobs. They were glad they had work, because for each two nights of work they had a day deducted from their prison term.


In room 16, the confinement room of the maximum security section, a young woman was held alone. The room measuring about 8 sq m had two double bunk beds with old, moldy mattresses and dirty walls. The lavatory was not separated by either door or curtain from the rest of the room, so the stench of the Turkish toilet persisted in the room. The detainee had covered the hole of the toilet with a plastic bottle in the hope that it would reduce the smell. She said that she had chosen to be by herself because she could not get along with the other detainees, most of whom had mental problems and made cohabitation difficult. She had no TV set in the room, so she passed her time reading and writing. Another woman was in confinement, in room 14, but not because she had asked to but because she was sanctioned after trying to hurt herself.


In one of the exercise yards of the external section in Cluj, the representatives of the Association met three female detainees considered as high risk detainees. All three of them showed clear signs of mental problems. They were almost incoherent, failing to answer simple questions (like what they had for lunch, when it was about 5 p.m.), they bore visible marks of self-mutilation and they rapidly changed moods from deep despair to unjustified joy. APADOR-CH considers that the three women require urgent psychiatric examination and treatment and appreciates that it was their mental state that led them to the situation of serving their sentence in the maximum security – high-risk regime.



Conclusions and recommendations:


  1. The Gherla Penitentiary is overcrowded, both at the main unit and at the external section in Cluj, while certain unused spaces it owns could be organized as detention spaces. It also has the available land to build extra detention buildings. Therefore, APADOR-CH asks the prison management to refurbish the existing spaces and the ANP to provide the necessary funding for new buildings.


  1. The Association considers that detention conditions in Unit 3, holding male detainees under the open regime, are inhuman and degrading. The detainees lack vital space and suffered from the unsanitary conditions and the insufficient number of lavatories. APADOR-CH asks that this building should no longer be used as a detention space and that the persons held here should be immediately relocated. The building, a historical monument in the basements of which political detainees were tortured, should be restored and used as a tourist attraction.


  1. APADOR-CH points out again to the problem of mental conditions in the penitentiary system and asks the ANP to take steps to employ or contract psychiatrists.


Other conclusions and recommendations have been included in the report.


Maria-Nicoleta Andreescu                                                    Doina-Adelina Boboşatu