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Juvenile 'injustice' in Austria?

After a series of rapes and a suicide among young offenders in prison, Austria is reviewing its juvenile detention system. The justice minister called the rape "an isolated case," but has since sought to fix the problem.

Keys jangle. A metal lock slides into place as a prison guard secures the cells for the night. It's a sound 21-year-old Ricardo knows well. Four years ago, when still a teenager, he was locked up for six months after being found guilty of causing physical harm. Now he's giving an insider's view of a prison system that many fear is failing young offenders.

"In the night, when everyone is asleep, they strike… when nobody notices," Ricardo said.

Ricardo described how in overcrowded cells, prisoners are able to rape their cell mates.

"One stands against the door so the red button can't be pressed - that's the emergency button for calling medical staff or a guard," Ricardo said. "So one covers the button and the others just go at it. The windows are often sealed off so no noise gets out."

Call to action

Juvenile justice hit the headlines in Austria after a local newspaper revealed that a 14-year-old had been raped while in investigative custody. At first, Justice Minister Beatrix Karl described it as an isolated case. She also commented that prison is no paradise. It was then reported that this year alone, there were four reported cases of juvenile rape in prisons - and a suicide. The minister then faced calls for resignation. She didn't step down, rather set up a task force to investigate while announcing some immediate changes.

Austrian minister for Justice Beatrix Karl. (Photo: GEORGES GOBET/AFP/Getty Images)

Austrian justice minister Beatrix Karl assembled a task force to investigate the conditions in juvenile detention centers

"Like two-person occupancy, or the creation of a night shift," Karl said. "There will also be a general activity space provided. And beyond that, we will simply increase occupational possibilities for young people. On the one hand more recreational opportunities - for example, sports. And on the other, more employment possibilities in the workshops."

The minister's taskforce will also make recommendations on alternatives for suspects under 18 years old who are currently held in pre-trial detention. Experts like Heinz Patzelt, from Amnesty International, trace the current problems in the prison system to decisions made 10 years ago when the government closed a special youth court.

Change in government, change in policy

"Many years ago Austria was really a very, very good country for juvenile offenders, which had a specific treatment, a specific court and exactly what they need: treatment, education," Patzelt said. "And then we had a conservative government that dropped all these things because they said law and order is more important than understanding, and now we have the results of that."

The rape and sexual abuse cases that have come to light this year were committed by prisoners against prisoners. But former inmate Ricardo also described aggressive behavior on the part of prison guards.

"There is that too, in psychological form: shouting, making you lie on the floor, cold showers in the night, searching the cells and completely demolishing everything," Ricardo said.

Victims become repeat offenders

Austria's Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Human Rights recently surveyed young inmates and found those subjected to violence would often isolate themselves and become depressed. One inmate was described as a "ticking time bomb." The survey concluded that some of these prisoners will become repeat offenders. Ricardo's experience seems to confirm this.

"There was a also a case in my cell," Ricardo said. "He had been in prison twice, and on the first time he was raped by four other prisoners. They were sentenced for it. He was promised compensation money, but it never came through."

The problems are not confined to just one prison - cases of abuse are being reported nationwide. Josef Adam is in charge of a corrective institution in the city of Graz. Like the justice minister, he says it's unrealistic to expect zero violence.

"It's absolutely not possible to prevent this one hundred percent," Adam said. "So isolated cases happen."

The prison workers' union has also appealed to the minister. They say there just isn't enough staff to provide the recreation, occupation and therapy that should be available to juvenile prisoners. Albin Simma is chairman of the prison guard's union.

Amnesty International Logo. (Photo: Britta Pedersen dpa)

Heinz Patzelt, Amnesty International, called the situation "scandalous"

"The best things for a prisoner or for the re-socializing of one can only really work when there is a daily schedule of activities. And at the moment, for the amount of prisoners we have, we simply can't provide this," said Simma

Violations 'inexcusable'

Heinz Patzelt of Amnesty International said claiming a lack of resource is inexcusable. He thinks better corrective facilities and more staff, including counselors and therapists, are urgently needed.

"It's really scandalous," Patzelt said, "that such a rich country like Austria is treating these very, very vulnerable young people - who are victims and perpetrators at the same time, sometimes - in this awful way."

Austria is a signatory of the United Nations human rights convention. That requires states to take special measures to protect youth from violence - including those in detention. The government's taskforce on juvenile justice has been given three months to find out what needs correcting in this system, and discover a solution.

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