Dire overcrowding, use of force in Bulgaria jails: rights group

Drastic overcrowding, humiliating conditions and excessive use of force by prison wardens are part of daily life in Bulgaria's jails, a rights group said Tuesday.

Compounding the problem, people without means have in some cases admitted to committing minor crimes in the European Union's poorest country just to spend the cold winter in jail.

"To a great extent the prisons played the role of shelters for poverty-stricken people," the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee rights group said in a report, adding nearly 9,500 people were imprisoned at the end of 2012.

Over half of all prisoners last year were poorly educated and with a low social status, serving sentences for minor crimes such as thefts and burglaries, the report said.

It added that Bulgaria's 36 jails remained drastically overcrowded with prisoners in some institutions given on average less than one square metre (10 square feet) of living space in the dorms.

Many also did not have a bed but slept on the floor and used a bucket instead of proper toilets.

Conditions in the 42 detention centres -- where people were held pending trial -- were even worse, with most of them lacking windows and cells in four institutions located underground.

Inmates in 18 detention centres were given no opportunities to go out for walks and remained locked indoors for months, the report said.

The Helsinki Committee also found an "alarming" rise in complaints about the unlawful use of force by prison wardens, with beatings reported in at least five jails and one prison psychiatric ward.

"Repeated imprisonment was not used by the magistrates as a reform measure but as a way to isolate from society those who are dangerous by giving them the bare minimum for survival behind bars," the report found.

Successive Bulgarian governments have long acknowledged the need to build new prisons and improve conditions in the existing ones, but a constant shortage of funds has forced them to repeatedly postpone their plans.