The most severe sentence that criminals can receive in the Czech Republic is life imprisonment. In practice, the courts award it mainly for brutal murders. There are currently 47 people serving time in Czech prisons, including three women. The last such judgment was handed down by a court in Brno in April this year. “It is important that the prisoner does not lose contact with the world,” says Václav Jiřička, head psychologist of the Prison Service, in an interview for Aktuálně.cz.
What happens to the psyche of a person who is sentenced to life imprisonment?
It is definitely a big intervention in the psyche and thinking about the meaning of life. First there is a shock, in which reality is rejected. Then comes a period of denial, anger and aggression. Depression also occurs in some people. Only then does the convict begin to process the whole situation. This is a process that takes several weeks, if not months.
How can a psychologist help a convict at this stage?
First, we focus in detail on the risk of suicidal behavior, because the convict very often begins to think that he no longer wants to live under such conditions.
Are prisoners motivated to reform when they are sentenced to life?
Previously, prisons strictly isolated lifers from convicts for some time, but today these groups are already intermingling to a certain extent. We have found that it is important for a person not to lose contact with the world, because even this can lead them to make progress in their view of criminal activity and their current lifestyle. We motivate the convict in such a way that the more the risks he poses are reduced, the more options we open up to him within the framework of the sentence. Starting from job title to joint activities such as sports.
What can a lifer in prison actually do?
All activities should give the prisoner the feeling that he still has life in his hands in a certain way. Only then can he accept responsibility for the crime committed. In addition to regime duties, they must also carry out work, educational, hobby and special educational activities. For example, therapy is part of the special educational program. Furthermore, the prisoner can educate himself in areas that interest him, for example, write a diary or play sports. For example, a typical prison sport is netball.
Is therapy mandatory in prison?
The public may be surprised to learn that therapies are voluntary. The prisoner must be interested in her himself, which people accept with skepticism. I hear the opinion that when someone is convicted, they have an obligation to undergo such a form of treatment. However, it doesn’t work that way. Imagine that someone tells you that you have to learn Vietnamese, but you don’t want to. Even if someone will force you as much as possible, you will not learn the language without your own will and motivation. It’s the same with therapy.
However, if the prisoner is interested, how does such a session take place?
People often don’t know how to work with emotions at all, they can’t even name them. They don’t know, for example, what they are currently experiencing. Then they can’t perceive others correctly either. The convict usually talks about himself and his life at the beginning. In the next phase, he is already able to analyze what kind of life he led and what effect it had on what he committed. A crime is only the tip of the iceberg and the result of previous behavior, so you need to put things in context. Only then do prisoners learn how to influence their behavior and change ingrained patterns. Sessions take place once, sometimes more than once a week. They can last several years.
Is this an individual matter?
Few of us are willing to admit a mistake to ourselves, while we see it immediately in another. It’s the same with prisoners. That is why our goal is for therapies to take place primarily in groups. Convicts share stories with each other and point out where they went wrong, give each other feedback. It is a much more effective method than individual therapy.
What topics do life-sentenced prisoners open themselves?
From the beginning, statements often revolve around feelings of helplessness and injustice. Prisoners describe themselves as victims. They blame the environment in which they grew up, the people they interacted with, the state authorities or the court itself, which they say has unfairly convicted them. This changes over the course of the sentence and the goal of therapy is for the person to gain insight and accept responsibility for their actions.
What is the role of the family and loved ones of life-sentenced prisoners?
Of course, the prisoner is entitled to visits, but very often we encounter a scenario where relatives show an effort to contact, especially at the beginning, while the interest declines over time. Sometimes the family stops coming and people from wider circles show up. Contact with loved ones is definitely an important factor for psychological health and the preservation of social relationships, and that is why we support it, but the prison service cannot influence what feelings the other party will have towards the convict.
Twenty years is the minimum period after which a life sentence prisoner can be paroled. It is necessary to prove that the prisoner has really changed behind bars. Who decides that?
The team that works with the convict makes an assessment, which the director of the prison sends to the court. The prison service is very good at judging who is a danger to society and who is not. However, the court has the main say. He usually also requests expert opinions from other independent psychiatrists and psychologists who have nothing to do with the prison service. And once again they explore risks and dangers together.
So what personality change must take place?
There is no clear answer to that. The question is actually whether there should be any personality change at all and whether it is humanly possible to change so massively. The vast majority of those sentenced to life are people who have committed brutal murders. I dare say that the vast majority of them show personality disorders, most often they have a dissocial disorder. A person with such a diagnosis is unable to experience a sense of guilt, is indifferent and ruthless towards others. Such a disorder is generally assumed to be untreatable because it carries with it permanently ingrained patterns of behavior.
Does this mean that there is no help for a person with such a diagnosis?
Although the theory assumes that personality disorder cannot be influenced much, long-term prison programs tend to be quite successful. The goal is not to change personality, but attitudes and behavior. We know how to train stressful situations and rational thinking with prisoners. A convict who has not received a life sentence, but has committed some violence, has a chance to change his behavior towards others so that we can possibly issue him with a clear conscience a positive evaluation for his application for parole.
A selection of life sentences handed down in the past five years
March 30, 2018 – The Supreme Court upheld life sentences for the mixers of the methanol-contaminated mixture, Tomáš Křepel from Zlín and Slovak Rudolf Fian. They committed public endangerment. The final judgment mentions at least 117 people poisoned by the mixture they produced, of whom at least 38 died. October 16, 2018 – The court in Hradec Králové imposed a life sentence on Jaroslav Janák and his ex-wife Petra. He punished them for the robbery murder of a man near Lázní Bělohrad in Jičínsk, for the preparation or attempted murders of three other people and for illegal arming. Their accomplice received eight years in prison. In 2021, the Constitutional Court reduced the Janák couple’s sentences to 30 and 28 years. April 12, 2021 – The Regional Court in Hradec Králové sentenced Karel Šťovíček to life imprisonment for double murder. In the summer of 2020, Šťovíček strangled two women in Semila. November 30, 2021 – The regional court in Ostrava confirmed the life sentence for the arsonist from Bohumín in Karvinska for the murder of 11 people. December 9, 2021 – For the double murder of a couple from Přerov in 2009, whose bodies have not yet been found, the Olomouc High Court imposed a life sentence on forty-six-year-old Pavlo Nárožný. The Ostrava Regional Court initially imposed an exceptional summary sentence of 25 years in prison on the man. The defendant denied guilt throughout the ten-year trial and requested acquittal. In January of this year, the Supreme Court also confirmed the sentence. September 5, 2022 – The court sentenced sixty-seven-year-old Jiří Dvořák to life in prison for shooting a female employee at the labor office last year, pouring acid on his former colleague, and planting a firearm on the landlady of his apartment. April 5, 2023 – The Regional Court in Brno imposed a life sentence for last year’s triple murder in Kostelec na Hané in Prostějovsk and extortion. The then twenty-nine-year-old man murdered his brother, sister and father. The man confessed to the crime, saying that hatred had won.
Czech courts have only once in history proceeded with conditional release from life imprisonment. In 2018, František Müller, who was sentenced to life imprisonment by a German court for participating in an attempted robbery murder in 1995, was released after 20 years. He was an exception among Czech life sentences because he himself did not kill anyone. Is there anyone currently in prison with a chance for a similar scenario?
The group of lifers is not that big. So my colleagues and I are constantly monitoring how they are doing. Purely statistically, it will happen again one day. I don’t know if it will be in a year or twenty years, but such a scenario will definitely occur.
What is the state of Czech prisons?
If we are talking about a comparison with developed countries, the Czech Republic has one of the highest shares of imprisoned persons per population. And this in itself prevents more effective treatment of prisoners. In our country, people are imprisoned for crimes that do not go to prison in other countries, or people receive longer sentences, which is one of the reasons for overcrowded prisons. And the prison service has to take care of them all. We lack cells where he could be sentenced alone or at most in pairs. Life convicts have such a privilege here.
In other cases, how many people are there in the cell?
Four, six, or maybe eight or more. We are not talking about cells, but bedrooms. In such conditions, we can appear as professional as possible to the prisoner, but when the prisoner is under the constant influence of other fellow prisoners, from whom he learns bad habits, it is complicated. I would like to see prisons where people have more space to think about themselves and spend less time in a cell with other prisoners. It would certainly help us if we didn’t have to work with the masses of convicts and could focus primarily on those high-risk, more dangerous cases for society.
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