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Complaints by prisoners clogging up courts

Illustration: Illustratsioon: Martin Perens

Tartu Administrative Court is groaning under unprecedented avalanche of complaints by inmates. Of the total 1,800 this year, a whopping 62 percent – 1,100 – have been written by those behind bars. As recently as last year, such complaints were less than half of that, standing at 450. Demands by prisoners are illustrated by sessions schedule at the court.

Ken Kessel, a dealer with a drug called GHB, demands that he be allowed to stroll about shirtless in summertime. Mr Kessel is altogether picky with all things clothing: the court is also proceeding his plea to make Tartu Prison to issue him warm underwear.

Kenert-Ranner Reva, a murderer of a restaurant businessman for personal gain, wants the prison to issue to him two yearbooks on the SUV Jeep Grand Cherokee.

Martin Villems, a drug and gun businessman, is disturbed at the prison banning thermal cups.

Guntars Kaziks stood accused in rape and murder of a girl aged 17, but was acquitted as guilt proved impossible to prove. The man is doing time for 15 years for another crime. Mr Kaziks demands €10,000 as compensation for moral damage – at court sessions, he needs to be handcuffed.  

By now, the names of some serial complainers are inscribed deep in the brains of judges. No end to the stuff to complain about – up to the potatoes to hard at lunch time. Lion’s share of complaints, however, concern the inhuman conditions at the jailhouse – that being the essence of this year’s avalanche.

The genie was let out of the bottle by Terki Tunis who had a drug lab and miraculously survived as it blew up. At the end of last year, at European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) Mr Tunis defeated the Estonian state and got €10,000 for compensation for non-patrimonial damage. ECHR found that regarding Mr Tunis, the state infringed upon European Convention of the Protection and of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.  

As claimed by Mr Tunis, he was inhumanly and humiliatingly treated during his arrest at Tallinn Prison, as he was denied use of the gym and the cell are was so small as to render him unable to see to his health. The complaint said he developed back problems due to conditions of incarceration.

Line lengthens

After the ECHR ruling in favour of Mr Tunis, hundreds of inmates across Estonia cast their nets into the waters. They also do find the cells too small, and demand the state to compensate. Next to the cell area smallness, a trend is to complain over transportation from one prison to another – the truck is too tight. Herein, Terki Tunis – the one-time state-defeater – seems to be a pioneer.

Meanwhile, the rest of appellants and defendants are having to wait in the administrative court line, the house overburdened by prisoners. Mostly to deal with complaints from behind bars, Tartu Administrative Court is seeking for an extra judge. Up to now, this is mostly the Tartu Administrative Court (TAC) headache as the region includes Tartu and Viru Prisons – the largest in the land.

According to TAC chairman Tanel Saar, their average proceedings time has yet to significantly lengthen. «Should the amount of the complaints stay at the current level or increase, however, this can no longer be ruled out,» admitted Mr Saar.

Just recently, in September, TAC administrative college chairman Tiina Pappel told a prisons administration council meeting that because of a single appellant, appeals against court rulings at the administrative court have also increased by 82 percent.

«We have set is as goal to solve the problem by own means and by creating two additional consultant posts,» said Ms Pappel. «We find that an attempt by one prisoner to hinder administration of justice may not justify creating another judge post. Republic of Estonia ought not to be manipulated by such provocations.»

In the same council, TAC chairman Mr Saar admitted as early as in May that complaints by inmates are up.

«This is an issue of one inmate aggravated,» he explained. «Secondly, there are the floor area cases abounding. At the end of last year, ECHR had a case settled against Estonia as related to conditions at Tallinn Prison. I cannot tell, whether due to that case or some other reasons, the prisoners think relocation [from prison to prison] is an experience highly tormenting.»

In May, the prison had already gotten complaints from 400 inmates that the cells were too small, and it was to be expected that the avalanche would reach court soon.

According to Tartu Prison director Raini Jõks, the prisoners first have recourse to the prison administration. If denied, they may have recourse to the court.

«Demanding compensation for moral damage is a growing trend,» he said. «Mainly, this year the complaints are about the size of the cell and our transfer buses which, think the inmates, are not large enough. The court has never satisfied any such complaint by our inmates.»

Tartu cells larger

While complaining about cell area in Tartu Prison, the inmates have made a miscalculation – when Mr Tunis beat the state at ECHR, the issue was the tighter cells in Tallinn Prison, but in Tartu Prison, says Mr Jõks, are spacious enough. Also, he says the buses are according to rules.

Tartu Prison, housing 840 inmates, employs four jurists; on top of that, they have over 20 inspectors/contact persons dealing with certain kinds of complaints.

Mr Jõks thinks legal knowledge of inmates may not necessarily be better than of those at liberty – while for a bystander this may seem to be the case. The inmates have the right to have a jurist representative, which spells additional taxpayer burden. Mostly, however, the prisons have their own «experts» who master the art of filing complaints. This may be a paid service.

«Surely, we have such inmates here who have better legal knowledge,» added Mr Jõks.

According to Mr Jõks, the Tartu Prison inmates have not yet lost hope to get money out of the state by cell area complaints, as evidenced by the continued recourse to administrative court.

«Being in restricted conditions, they apparently may more intensely feel their rights being infringed,» explained Mr Jõks. «But, let me underline, this is what they feel – very rarely do we make a mistake.»

Court under complaints avalanche

Year (Jan – Nov)     Complaints to Tartu Admin. Court      Incl. by inmates

2011       1,500       912 (60.8%)

2012       1,149       605 (52.7%)

2013       976         450 (46.1%)

2014       1,797       1,113 (62%)

Source: Tartu Administrative Court