Country Listing

Poland Table of Contents


Penal System

Under both communist and postcommunist governments, the Polish penal system operated under national authority. Beginning in 1956, the system was under jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice through its Main Bureau of Penal Institutions. Institutions were categorized by the criminal records of the inmates and the severity of their crimes. Each institution had a prison commission that classified inmates and adjusted their treatment according to behavior.

Adopted in 1969, the Penal Code of the Polish People's Republic was one of the most punitive in Europe in actual practice--although the code's rhetoric was quite liberal. Nominally, members of the judiciary had free access to prisons to investigate prisoner grievances, examine documents, and assess prison conditions. In actuality, the Polish judiciary was completely controlled by the PZPR and therefore had no capacity for remedial action. Likewise, codified prisoner privileges such as medical treatment and access to libraries seldom existed in practice. In 1981 Western experts estimated that the penal system managed between 130,000 and 200,000 prisoners--a rate of imprisonment per 100,000 citizens of 350 to 580, compared with 212 in the United States and twenty-five in the Netherlands.

At its inception in 1980, Solidarity began distributing previously unseen information about Polish prison conditions. Patronat, an organization lobbying for liberalized prison policies, emerged in 1981 but was repressed in 1982. The political tensions of the early 1980s triggered a wave of prison strikes affecting two of every three penal institutions in Poland between 1980 and 1982. Press reports on the riots revealed chronic deficiencies in the system. Food standards did not meet human biological needs. Prisoners were routinely beaten, tortured, and denied medical treatment. Large prison populations caused overcrowding, and sanitation and recreational facilities were inadequate. Hard labor--the standard method of inmate rehabilitation--featured dangerous working conditions, and refusal to work led to solitary confinement and other harsh penalties. An uncodified set of prison regulations introduced in 1974 had given prison guards arbitrary power to inflict a wide range of punishments. Those punishments were a key motivation of inmate strikes in the early 1980s. Prisoners could complain only as individuals, never as a group, and until the riots the workings of the prison system were completely hidden from the Polish public.

Data as of October 1992