A few months ago, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) found that Lithuania violated Article 3 (“no one shall be subjected to torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”) of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The group of prisoners who won the case are pleased with the results – now, Lithuania will have to make changes to its legal system or face sanctions. However, it is open to debate whether Lithuania will take real action in the end.
Following the ECtHR judgment, life prisoners in Lithuania should expect their cases to be reviewed after 25 years in prison, with the possibility of parole being on the table.
Currently, no one save for the president may commute a sentence under Lithuanian law. Those seeking a presidential pardon may be set free, have their prison term reduced or sentence commuted.
To humanize the system of incarceration, the introduction of parole should be added to the political agenda.
Prisoners face stigma
Unfortunately, the public views former prisoners extremely unfavorably – according to data from 2015, almost 60 percent of Lithuanians would not want to live in proximity to former prisoners, and nearly 44 percent would not want to work in the same workplace.
Former prisoners often face the greatest social barriers in Lithuanian society – 66 percent of all residents claim that they view this group unfavorably or very unfavorably.
“We are a very unpopular segment of society, and it is very dangerous for any politician to talk about us positively, even in the sense of simply making some improvements. Revenge is still very often on people’s minds. They say that we need tougher conditions, more severe punishments – forget about improvements of any kind,” Audrius, a current prisoner, told news site Bernardinai.lt.
Current system is defective
According to the experts, in the 27 years Lithuania has been independent, there have been no changes to the prison system, and it still falls quite short of European standards.
“Lithuanian prisons are still home to a hierarchical prisoner system, a leftover from Soviet times. They haven’t even been able to make individual cells to get rid of it,” said the chairman of the Lithuanian Prisoner Protection Society.
Once people serve their sentence, it’s less like returning to society and more like going to crime school – when they’re isolated from society, it is unlikely that they will successfully adapt, especially when a significant portion of the population does not support them.
In many cases, people who leave prison simply have no place to return or any person to contact, and may return to crime out of sheer desperation.
“Although we have a very low incidence of parole, the rate of recidivism is also fairly small, so we seemingly should be more bold in allowing people to reintegrate into society – however, so far, if we look to the total number of prisoners, parole is only granted to 20-30 percent of convicts, which is way below the EU average,” said Karolis Liutkevičius, a lawyer from the Human Rights Monitoring Institute.
Tiptoeing towards change
Still, halfway houses began operating in four Lithuanian cities last year. They allow prisoners exhibiting exemplary behavior to develop social skills, learn cooperation, and find work with the help of social workers.
And while this opportunity is only available to a small percentage of those who have been released on parole, this is still a small step towards helping them fully return to social life.
We can only hope that the Lithuanian prison system will soon become better for convicts, with more people being given a real chance to reform.