In Bosnia, convicts get weekends off

Our reporter learns that the former Yugoslav state offers annual vacations and weekend furloughs to prisoners.

Prison furloughs in a relatively lawless country like Bosnia may seem like a really bad idea.

But they're the norm here, as I discovered while talking to a local journalist who recently took a wasted trip to northern Bosnian prison to interview a murderer.

"They told me he was at home" for Labor Day, Bosnia's May 1 beach-and-barbecue holiday, Svjetlana Celic told me. She shrugged. "I wasn't surprised, because I know that's the way it works."

Stories like this are common in the region, and I figured that granting furloughs was another leftover of the former Yugoslav system, which fell apart during four wars in the 1990s. Bosnia, however, seemed a sketchy place to continue the practice. Since the 1992-95 war ended, this West Virginia-sized country has been divided into two ethnically based ministates, and ethnic divisions still hamper police cooperation.

In a phone call to Bosnia's Muslim-Croat Federation, the justice official Resad Fejzagic confirms that the policy is based in Yugoslav history. He tells me furloughs are humanitarian, and suggests I go to prison - or rather, on a visit to Sarajevo's medium-security jail in the center of town - to get the lowdown.

I'm buzzed into the Austro-Hungarian building, where a guard is languidly X-raying a pile of prisoner care packages stuffed with cookies and juice. Furloughs are rewards for good behavior, prison director Muhamed Agic tells me, and it's easier to assimilate prisoners back into society if they've already been out in it. The prison's deputy director for treatment, Ferid Niksic, says granting furloughs depends on the length of the sentence and the type of crime.

"Privileges aren't math," he says. But the rule of thumb is that a prisoner in for up to five years has to serve at least one-fifth of his sentence before he's eligible for a furlough. For sentences of up to 10 years, at least one-fourth of the sentence has to be served. It's two-fifths, or 40 percent, of the sentence for anything above 10 years.

While I ponder out loud the fact that someone could behead an entire family, get Bosnia's maximum 40-year sentence, and be sitting on a beach 16 years later, Niksic admits that Americans are often flummoxed by the practice. He recalls how after the war, he gave his inmate list to an American officer with the UN's International Police Task Force (IPTF), which was working with the Bosnian police and inspecting prisons, including the Sarajevo prison.

"Some convicts on the list were here, and some were on their annual vacation," Niksic says. "The American said, 'Annual vacation?' And he repeated it three times. He couldn't believe that was the way it worked."

Other European countries have similar practices. In Hungary, as in Bosnia, well-behaved prisoners can get weekends off. French prisoners can be released for the death or imminent death of a relative. But few European jails can rival Greenland's Institute for Convicts, featured by The Wall Street Journal in 2004. Besides enjoying weekend furloughs, most of the 60 inmates have day jobs outside the prison and don't need to return until 9:30 p.m. Others can go on solo shopping trips. In the summertime inmates are handed shotguns to go reindeer hunting. The only rules for such trips? They must be accompanied by armed guards. Oh, and they can't be drunk.

One prison in Bosnia's Serb half, the Republika Srpska (RS), is apparently taking a page from Greenland's book. Inmates at Tunjice prison aren't given firearms, but a recent surprise inspection by RS officials revealed 40 prisoners absent during the daytime, and dozens of cars parked out front at night, leading inspectors to conclude that the prisoners are doing time only at night - while they're sleeping.

Niksic says that not even 1 percent of inmates abuse their furloughs. "It happens," he acknowledges, but says that the prison lets the police in the inmate's hometown know ahead of time that a prisoner will be out for the weekend. Furloughed prisoners must carry a paper permit, with communist-era columns of typewritten dates and ubiquitous blue stamps, with them at all times.

Permits and police aside, some jailbirds do return to crime. In a well-publicized case last year, two drug dealers on a weekend furlough from Tunjice prison were promptly re-busted for transporting and producing narcotics. But a police spokesman in nearby Banja Luka recently told Radio Free Europe that in the past year RS police had evidence of just three cases of weekend recidivism - two of which were the drug dealers. (The other was a car theft and racketeering case.)

Or maybe reoffenders just aren't caught. Highly respected Romanian journalist Paul Radu, cofounder of the Romanian Center for Investigative Journalism, told me that he was in Bosnia awhile back to interview a Bosnian man doing time for trafficking - buying and selling women as prostitutes, and usually brutalizing them in the process.

Not only was the man on a weekend furlough, he was also once again ensconced in his central Bosnian nightclub that doubled as a brothel.

Mr. Radu met him there, and the man said that he was no longer the owner. But then he trotted out the women to persuade Radu that they were being treated well. And the self-styled reformed pimp fell right back into his old job. "Those girls were half naked," Radu says, "And he also proposed that I go up to the rooms."

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