No. XIII (1986)

The prison system of Poland – main trends of development

Teodor Szymanowski
University of Warsaw

Published 1986-10-23


  • penitentiary system,
  • penology,
  • penitentiary,
  • criminal law,
  • resocialization,
  • juvenile repeat offenders

How to Cite

Szymanowski, T. (1986). The prison system of Poland – main trends of development. Archives of Criminology, (XIII), 173–221.


 I. The paper has been based on literature, on empirical data included in studies and reports in particular. The basic factors that determine the development and the present state of the prison system in the Polish. People's Republic have been indicated. The aim has been to consider the desirable directions of further transformations of the prison system which would guarantee its development according to the principles of humanism and the rule of law. This is important also because amendments are presently discussed' i.a. of the Code of Execution of Penalties.

 II. Among the important factors that have determined the hitherto development of the prison system in the Polish People's Republic, the following have been mentioned.

        1.Legal provisions in force, issued by authorities of different levels, and international documents which influence them to some degree. Attention has been drawn to the incoherence of legal provisions scattered in legal acts of various importance and the society's unacquaintance with them due to their not being published.

  1. Immediate tasks the authorities impose upon the machine of execution of penalty. Such activites are aimed at correcting the prison system and frequently have harmful effects (e.g. closing of secondary schools in the early seventies).
  2. Traditions of the prison system and the hitherto existing practice, particularly the one developed after World War II when a new political system was introduced in Poland. The traditions are both good and bad. Among the favourable ones, the estimation of the importance of education in the treatment of offenders can for instance be mentioned, among the bad ones-e.g. the tendency to use disciplinary methods of treatment or a certain isolation -of the prison system from the society.

            4.Experiences of other countries, scientific views and conclusions from scientific research. The above-mentioned factors are  treated in a selective way, i.e. some experiences are chosen for practical application according to the penal policy fulfilled at the moment.

III. Among the factors that characterize the present state of the prison system, the following should be mentioned:

  1. During the last thirty years, the average yearly number of prisoners was about 90 thousand. The number of the imprisoned persons in Poland I very large as compared with the respective numbers in other countries (if those where such data are published are taken into account). At the same time, it should also be mentioned that the numbers of prisoners in the postwar period were by 50% larger on the average as compared with those before 1939, and that there is overpopulation in prisons as a rule, i.e. the number of inmates is larger than tire prison capacity. This situation is the result of the penal policy which is too repressive according to scientists and which leads to sentencing a considerable part of offenders to long prison terms.

Among the basic categories of prisoners in the Polish People's Republic, the following should be mentioned: first offenders (over 40% of the total number of prisoners on the average); recidivists (somewhat of the total number of prisoners on the average); recidivist (somewhat less than 40% on the average); young adults aged  under 20 (the group which has recently diminished: less than 10% of the total number of prisoners); women (less than 3%). It should also be mentioned that about 27% of all persons deprived of liberty in the recent years have been those remanded in custody. As regards other categories of prisoners, we lack precise, methodical information due to the lick of properly developed penitentiary diagnostics (this concerns e.g. prisoners-alcoholics, those with mental disorders etc.). However, there are estimations of the numbers of prisoners of these categories to be found in research studies.

  1. Moreover, also the material and organizational conditions in which the prison system functions are by no means good. Only a few prisons were built after the war. Many are old buildings, and some date from as long ago as the 18th century. They need repairs and modernization. In the country's present economic situation, development of the prison building cannot possibly be postulated. Irrespective of the lack of space in prisons, there are also other difficulties in providing the proper living conditions for the inmates.

As far as the adequate basis for organization of the prisoners, leisure time is concerned, the state of prison libraries, and the universal radiophonic installations are favourable in comparison with the existing difficulties (lack of rooms and proper equipment).

Also the prison. staff is an important element of the penitentiary system. The level of education of the staff keeps increasing. However the proportion of prisoners per one staff member is much less favourable than in many West-European countries.

  1. The basic means of penitentiary treatment in the Polish People’s Republic are: employment, education and cultural activities.

For many years now, there has been nearly full employment of prisoners in Poland universal: the index of employment amounted to over 90% in the seventies and over 80% in the eighties. Among those not working, only a slight percentage were unemployed due to a lack of work. The reasons for being out of work were most frequently the so-called justified reasons such as e.g. poor health, awaiting transfer, etc. Among the employed prisoners, a considerable part were working in the conditions of freedom, outside prisons (in some years, there were over 45% of those who worked in these conditions). At the same time, the vast majority of them were employed against payment (over 8o%), though their wages were lower as a rule than those earned by outside workers in analogous professions. The weak points of the prisoners' The weak employment were: excessive trend towards its economization (i.e. gaining profits even at the cost of the resocializing treatment), and its insufficient use for the prisoners' better professional training and social readaptation.

A considerable number of prisoners learn in elementary schools and in elementary vocational schools. Besides, a small number of prisoners learn 'in -secondary vocational schools and at various courses which, however, do not secure a certificate of a qualified worker as a rule. The results of the prisoners' education are most favourable if measured both by the marks at school and by the adjustment to living in the freedom conditions after release. All the studies carried out in Poland which took this problem into account show that the higher the education the prisoners have achieved, the less frequent their relapse into crime. However, the majority of prisoners who have had no profession fail to learn one during their prison sentence.

The organization of the prisoners' leisure time has many faults: aside from reading books which are easily accessible, other forms were underdeveloped during the recent dozen or more years as compared with the needs, or revealed regress as compared with the sixties.

IV. In the years 1980--1981, new factors emerged which favourably influenced the development of the prison system in Poland. Among them, the most marked trend towards a prison reform should be mentioned which was initiated by independent social movements, scientific centres and the prisoners them - selves (the surge of group protests and riots which on certain days inc1uded tens of thousands of inmates).

In 1981, prison reform was started, among other things through the introduction of amendments into the so-called temporary prison rules (the most repressive provisions removed, such as those concerning the so-called fasting penalty or the absolute strict regime for recidivists), and through the admission by means of a separate legal act of universal accessibility of religious practices, including the admittance of chaplains into prisons. At the same time, the functioning of two associations was legalized the activity of which was to consist in coming to the prisoners' and their families' asistance. The associations started operating in l98l; however, they were suspended after the introduction of the martial law and then dissolved. At the same time, the campaign for social aid to prisoners convicted for acts committed or noncriminal motives was organized within the framework of charitable ministry of the Catholic Church. The problem of the prison reform is still a live issue in the Polish People's Republic; moreover, the reform is indispensable. However, its continuation will depend on the future general trends of the State’s policy.

 V. In the present article, postulates have also been formulated concerning the future amendments of the Code of Execution of Penalties. Here the most important of them:

       1. The  prisoners  rights and duties should be defined precisely and included in a statute instead of in                    statutory  instruments, thus making their informal changes impossible.

  1. It is necessary to introduce a separate status of offenders convicted for acts committed for ideological motives.
  2. It is indispensable to define in the legal provisions the minimum and untraversable standards of the prisoners material existence, and the index of the maximum capacity of prisons.
  3. It is desirable to abandon the formal classification of prisoners and the so-called regimes of execution of penalty the aim of which is first and foremost repression.
  4. Also the expansion of resocializing measures is important, as well as increase of the educational character of such penitentiary measures as e.g. employment.
  5. In order to give deprivation of liberty a more prosocial character, it is necessary to legalize and render possible the functioning of independent associations assisting the prisoners and their families.


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