Inside Bosnia's Bleak Zenica Prison

It's not a great place to be if you like eating razor blades.

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20 November 2013, 9:00am

Human rights work means helping people and hearing lots of different stories, often told by the kind of people your parents warned you about or hoped you wouldn't become. I'm a sucker for stories about disobedience, which is why I'm always eager to go on prison monitoring missions; everybody I end up meeting has a story, a cause and something or someone they've failed to obey.

Zenica prison was once the largest prison in Yugoslavia. Now, it's the largest prison in Bosnia. Zenica itself is an industrial city sandwiched between two mountains and characterised by a bunch of tall chimneys and sprawling blocks of grey monolithic buildings. Thanks to those chimneys, the air in the city has become highly polluted, with locals and environmentalists blaming emissions for a worrying increase of tumours over the past decade.

It's not a city that has to worry too much about being overrun by British stag parties.

Arriving at Zenica, a nervous female guard took our party's IDs and welcomed us in. We were then introduced to the prison's director, his deputies and his advisers – most of whom had too many shirt buttons undone and reminded me a bit of frat boys who'd lost themselves for a decade and somehow wound up guarding prisoners for a living.

The beginning of the talk focused predominantly on how the state's meagre funding of the prison meant it was in pretty bad shape. A little later, a supervisor pointed at a tree leaning against one of the prison's walls and told a story of an inmate who climbed a similar tree in the blistering cold and stayed there through the night. The other inmates cheered from beneath the tree. The guards were scared that he would die from the cold or by falling off his perch. Eventually, he came down by himself and just became one of those stories you hear. I guess you don't have many options when you're stuck up a tree, in a prison.

I relay this tale to you now for a reason: As an outsider, the impression you get of a prison is often influenced by the numerous stories you hear about people trying to escape from it. What the final straw for the prisoner was, how they were treated when they were caught, how close they got to actually escaping, how lax the security is – these are useful indicators of a prison's atmosphere.

From what I've gathered from my time in the Bosnian prison system, any type of escape attempt is interpreted by the guards as a drastic act of attention seeking. The guards tend to have a pretty shallow understanding of prisoners' behaviour, due to the fact they receive a minimal amount of training when they first get the job, and any other instructional sessions are organised sporadically by NGOs. There are also rumours that – as with many other professions in Bosnia's public sector – several thousands euros can buy you the position of prison guard. You don't expect every prison guard to be an empathetic superhuman with a psychology degree but clearly this isn't a situation that attracts the best candidates for the job.

The guards' lack of fundamental understanding became especially worrying in the prison clinic, where we met an inmate who'd been diagnosed with several psychological disorders. He had naive, teary eyes and fists that looked like they could knock through a redwood. He told us how he'd swallowed a big old rusty prison spoon, which tore up his insides and ripped the muscles in his belly.

Upon his miraculous recovery, he demanded plastic surgery to fix his swollen abdomen. When no plastic surgery was forthcoming, he swallowed another spoon.

As well as the spoon guy, Zenica houses a bunch of other men whose identities are informed by the object they've used to harm themselves in the past: razorblade guy, scissors guy, needle guy and so on. Self-mutilation is common in Bosnia's prisons, even more so in Zenica, which is especially slow at dealing with issues raised by inmates.

We also met a number of inmates who had sought legal counsel in the past, only to hit a brick wall when their cases were picked up. One of them was an illiterate, timid man of Roma origin, who handed us a letter written on his behalf by a literate friend. His family had escaped war by moving to Germany, it read, but his alcoholic father was never there – and when he was he'd spend all his time either yelling or crying. The inmate's mother eventually abandoned the family, leaving him to care for his younger siblings. When his father died, he promised them they would never go hungry; he got himself a prison term of seven or eight years trying to fulfil that promise. 

While incarcerated, another inmate supposedly raped him. However, the official investigation into the matter concluded that the sexual act couldn't be qualified as rape as it was part of an agreed transaction of goods; apparently the Roma inmate was promised a stack of cigars in return for sex. When the cigar guy didn't deliver on his promise, he was reported for rape. 

The dismissal of the Roma inmate's case seems to represent a wider trend for completely ignoring what prisoners have to say. Claims go uninvestigated and accusations are palmed off with the explanation that everything is being done for attention. The problem is, guards aren't paying inmates nearly as much attention as they deserve, meaning – whatever their motives – they're going to carry on mutilating themselves with salvaged razor blades and rusty canteen spoons.    

Check out Sumeja's blog here.

More about life in prison:

Barrett Brown is Bored Out of His Mind in Jail

Prison Pit

Romanian Prison Vogues

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