Human rights violations, torture, and ill-treatment - international criticism has repeatedly called attention to the deplorable conditions in the prisons of Bosnia. But prison leaders deny the problem.
Up to six prisoners share a cell in block No. 1
Nearly 130,000 people live in Zenica, in the heart of Bosnia-Herzegovina - about 800 of them in prison. It's the largest prison in the country, but it's still not big enough, with room for only 640 prisoners.
Inside, convicts are not divided according to their age or the severity of their crimes. In some of the eight building blocks, euphemistically called "the pavilion," up to six convicts share a cell - young people with violent criminals, thieves with murderers.
Cell block No. 1 is over 100 years old, having been built when Bosnia was part of the the time of the Austro-Hungarian empire. There are wooden bars and the floors are all made of wood - an enormous fire hazard. The living conditions are also worse than in the other cells, admits prison director Nihad Spahic - but he's quick to stress there have been improvements in recent years.
"We've already renovated the fourth cell block. Currently we are working on the third block, and next year we will hopefully also attack block one, the largest block with 400 prisoners, " Spahic said of the measures intended to bring the prison in line with human rights standards.
The basement is no longer used for torture, officials say
Criticism from abroad
But a lack of facilities is far from the only problem. The Council of Europe's Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) reported abuse after a visit to the Zenica prison in March of this year. A 2009 report by the human rights watchdog group Amnesty International singled out Zenica for the ill-treatment of prisoners and continued impunity of abusers "due to an ineffective complaints mechanism."
Spahic, though, downplays the allegations.
"Three or four years ago, there was a nasty case where an inmate was beaten in a cell," Spahic said. "But charges were brought and the case went to trial."
The perpetrator, a prison guard, was convicted.
Still, the Zenica prison is widely feared. Conditions have been improved, albeit from a remarkably low level.
"Thirty or 40 years ago, not even the International Red Cross could enter this prison. Today, I can assure you that in this prison, there is no ill-treatment or torture anymore," said Spahic.
Ramic is serving a 30-year sentence
A dangerous job
Within the confines of Zenica, the aggression of the prisoners often breaks out into violence. Beatings are commonplace. This year, 50 new guards were brought in. Safety is a key concern, and guards remain in constant radio contact with their colleagues.
Admir Karic is one of the old hands. He's worked in the prison for many years and complains that the daily stress impacts his private life.
"We sleep badly, communication with the wife and children suffers," said Karic. "It's not easy, but, you have to work."
Niset Ramic is serving a 30-year sentence for war crimes against Serb civilians near the town of Visoko in central Bosnia.
With a grim humor, Ramic jokes about the filthy conditions of the prison.
"In the building where I am staying, we have both inmates and cockroaches …When you sleep, the roaches crawl across your face. Sometimes they disappear for a short time. But they always come back."
The workshop allows some inmates to earn money
Life on the inside
Mirza Arsenovski has seen the inside of both German and Bosnian prisons. Born in Ravensburg in southern Germany, Mirza was arrested for drug offenses in Germany as a teenager and later repeatedly convicted. Ten years ago he was deported to Bosnia, and he's been serving time in Zenica prison ever since. While Mirza enjoyed having a single or two-man cell in Germany, he says the Bosnian prison offers more freedom.
"From six o'clock in the morning to seven o'clock in the evening, I'm in the yard, working, and I can wander all over the prison. In Germany, I couldn't do that," said Mirza.
The inmates of the Zenica prison prepare in their own way for a life outside of the prison one day. Some of them earn a small amount working in the on-site repair shop; others learn a trade. The work makes the dark days behind prison walls pass a little more quickly.
Author: Belma Fazlagic-Sestic, Zenica (smh)
Editor: Chuck Penfold