Inside Bosnia's Bleak Zenica Prison

The guards are undertrained and don't pay the inmates enough attention, and the prisoners in turn are often mentally ill, vulnerable, and prone to harming themselves. One man swallowed a rusty spoon and demanded plastic surgery to fix his swollen belly.

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Nov 20 2013, 4:00pm

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 meet has a story, a cause, and something or someone they've failed to obey—which is why I found myself on my way to Zenica.

Zenica prison was once the largest incarceration facility in Yugoslavia; now it's the largest in Bosnia. The town of Zenica is an industrial city full of tall chimneys and sprawling blocks of gray monolithic buildings. Thanks to those chimneys, the air has become highly polluted, with locals and environmentalists blaming emissions for a worrying increase of tumors over the past decade.

When we arrived at the prison, a nervous female guard took our 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 our discussion focused on how the state's meager 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 below, while the guards were scared that he would die from the cold or by falling off his perch. Eventually, he came down by himself and became part of the prison's lore.

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 makes prisoners so desperate they try to flee, how they are treated when they were caught, how close they get 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 an act of attention seeking. The officers tend to have a pretty shallow understanding of prisoners' behavior; they receive a minimal amount of training and any instructional sessions they get while on the job are organized sporadically by NGOs. There are also rumors that—as with many other professions in Bosnia's public sector—you can buy a position as a prison guard. I don't expect every 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 expertise was 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.

In addition to 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, especially in Zenica, where the authorities are slow to deal with issues raised by inmates.

We met a number of prisoners 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 friend who could write. His family had escaped war by moving to Germany, the letter said, but his alcoholic father was never there—when he was, he'd spend all his time yelling or crying. The inmate's mother eventually abandoned the family, leaving him to care for his younger siblings. When his father died, the man promised his brothers and sisters they would never go hungry; he got himself a prison sentence 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 qualify as rape because 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 of 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

If You Build Her, You Will Come

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