The equal treatment of prisoners is a key principle of the Council of Europe and other international organisations dealing with penal institutions across the world. In Georgia, prison reforms have been central to political projects and public discourse focusing on the ‘Europeanisation’ of the country. President Saak’ashvili’s zero-tolerance approach to crime and corruption led to a dramatic increase of the prison population in the 2000s. Evidence of severe human rights violations imposed on inmates contributed to a government change in 2012, which was followed by a mass amnesty in 2013. Since then, the political authorities have emphasised their commitment to improving prison standards. However, the condition of ethnic minority prisoners has received little attention. According to the prison authorities, many social workers and inmates themselves, ethnicity is not a salient feature in Georgian prison life.
Ethnic discrimination in prison arguably reflects wider attitudes towards diversity in society, politics and culture. Research on the topic focuses largely on the overrepresentation of African Americans in US prisons, setting a frame to analyse the condition of ethnic minority inmates more generally. However, this racialised approach treats ethnicity as immutable and self-evident, overlooking people’s multiple understandings of ethnic identity and the ways in which these understandings shape everyday power relations. Beyond blatant ethno-racial inequity there are less visible dynamics of exclusion which connect ethnicity to class, gender and age, as well as to historical and geographical contingencies. A nuanced perspective on ethnicity delves more deeply into the conditions of ethnic minority prisoners in Georgia.
Ethnic minorities may suffer cultural challenges and isolation in more subtle ways than outright discrimination
A 2020 report from Penal Reform International notes that inmates who are not from ethnic minorities struggle to mention specific difficulties faced by these groups, which have a lower visibility compared with other prisoners (LGBTQI people are particularly stigmatised). The same report, however, suggests that ethnic minorities may suffer cultural challenges and isolation in more subtle ways than outright discrimination. Prison administrations and NGOs agree that the main issue faced by foreign nationals and ethnic minority prisoners is language barriers, which prevent non-Georgian speakers from communicating with other prisoners and staff, understanding their rights and duties, and accessing services from social workers and psychologists. Religious differences can be a source of tension. Non-Orthodox prisoners do not have dedicated spaces for rituals, which are often organised in cells shared with people from other faiths. Pressure from Orthodox prisoners on other inmates to follow their rituals has also been reported.
Interethnic relations, nevertheless, are not considered problematic in Georgian prisons. However, the impact that less-observable dynamics have on ethnic minority prisoners is barely detected from outside. For example, while inmates with a network of family and friends in the prison’s vicinity rely on psychological and material support from outside - visits, parcels, money transfers - foreign and ethnic minority prisoners can count less on these survival strategies. Language and cultural barriers also prevent these inmates from interacting with the informal hierarchies of prisoners which de facto manage prison life in facilities where the administration struggles to keep control. Some NGOs and prison staff welcome this lack of communication as shielding non-Georgian speakers from the influence of criminal subcultures. Still, barriers to integration within either formal or informal prison life dynamics marginalise these inmates, burdening their emotional, social and material condition further.
Costanza Curro works as a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Gulag Echoes Project at the Aleksanteri Institute.