The Bulgarian Prisoners' Rehabilitation Association (BPRA) won a victory on May 22 when it was invited to send a representative to a Ministry of Justice working group on prison reform.
The BPRA was founded in 2012 by Jock Palfreeman, an Australian anti-racist activist serving a 20-year sentence in Sofia central prison after he was framed for murdering a neo-Nazi. It is the first inmate-run prisoners' rights group in Bulgaria's history.
“The body we've now been invited to join and represent the BPRA on is a 'Working Group' for the reform of the penitentiary institutions, laws and practices,” Palfreeman told Green Left Weekly.
“The working group was formed about five months ago by the Ministry of Justice and we've been lobbying the ministry since then to be involved.
“It is the group that will formulate a proposal of changes to the Ministry of Justice. The justice ministry then proposes the changes to parliament for consideration.
“The working group is the result of two major decisions. The first is the European Court of Human Rights ruling in January — 140-odd pages damning conditions in Bulgarian prisons and basically saying that it's systematic.
“The second is the Council of Europe's Committee for the Prevention of Torture report that also came out in January.
“There is a somewhat set agenda, although of course we can raise our own issues. The most pressing issue for the BPRA is fair and automatic access to parole.
“Right now there is no right to parole for prisoners. It is at the discretion of the prison directors and it is completely unregulated, leading to arbitrary decisions as to who can get parole and who can't.”
The BPRA gained representation on the working group as a result of a petition by prisoners and a hunger strike by Palfreeman.
“Late last year, I sent several requests about personal problems here in the prison to the vice-minister of justice, but there was no reply. The legal limit is a month … So immediately when the holidays finished in January, I declared a hunger strike in protest over the ministry's lack of reply.
“The vice-minister sent a personal message through my lawyer and the prison officials that he had found my request that had been ‘lost’ and that I would receive a reply and he would come to see me. This was the first contact we had and we spoke for over three hours.
“After a few months we organised a mass petition signed by many prisoners. I can't remember the exact figures, but about 200 prisoners signed, which is amazing in Bulgaria. Prisoners are very afraid to sign petitions because traditionally the state and prison authorities have always punished prisoners for mass petitions.
“The vice-minister came to see me recently and told me that he understood the extreme difficulty in amassing so many signatures on the petition. Therefore, [he said he would] invite the association to send a representative to the work group, which was the request, complaint and goal of the mass petition.”
The BPRA will be represented by its head secretary, Valentin Ivanov. “He did 22 years prison — 20 of them in isolation,” Palfreeman said. “He was released in February this year.”
Ivanov will serve on a working group dominated by representatives of the prison and judicial authorities. “The work group is made up of representatives of the different jurisdictional institutions,” Palfreeman said.
“There is a representative from the National Prison Authority, from the different courts and prosecutors offices and there is a representative from the ombudsman's office, and one other human rights organisation, the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee.”
He said the BPRA would have only a limited influence on the working group's outcome, “because prisoners are so disconnected from the Ministry of Justice”, but it was important to have such representation.
Palfreeman said violence by guards remained a big issue facing prisoners in Bulgaria. “We are trying to approach that issue from another angle. We are trying to get permission to have our representatives enter the prison with a camera to be able to photograph victims of guard violence.
“What strengthens the BPRA's position in prisons are successful representations of prisoners primarily to court and prison administrations.
“If a prisoner has had his rights violated and the BPRA successfully employs a lawyer to represent the prisoner – we will also work with the lawyer as there are not really any specialist lawyers for prison law - when we win a case the BPRA becomes well known. The prisoner who has been successfully defended spreads the word that it was thanks to the BPRA.
“There are lots of victories. We got an Iranian out of immigration prison. We've gotten prisoners out of isolation punishment cells and gotten prisoners reduced sentences. We've freed prisoners who were kept after serving their sentences.”
[Visit www.freejock.com for more information on Palfreeman's case.]