NIK about the security of inmates

The Minister of Justice, the Director General of the Prison Service and heads of the audited prisons and detention centres effectively limited threats to the personal security of inmates. The Minister initiated legislative changes, the Director General ordered the monitoring of cells, use of coercive measures and suicide prevention. According to NIK cells are not overcrowded but they are filled to the full - up to 17 persons are placed in a single cell. NIK says it is very difficult to provide real support to inmates considering the number of subjects in educational groups (up to 200 inmates), also groups under the care of one psychologist. Moreover, the limits are often exceeded. A problem is a growing number of vacancies, particularly in security divisions and thus increasing workload of prison officers, also after hours.

Imprisonment is one of the forms of isolation which affect human rights and freedoms to a biggest extent. Isolation entails a whole spectrum of negative consequences, including the ones threatening the personal security of inmates. From the moment an inmate enters a prison facility, the director of a detention centre or a prison takes on the responsibility for this person’s health and life. Most inmates spend 24 hours a day in a prison facility. As for factors posing a threat to the security of inmates, this is first of all the prison subculture, adoption of norms other than at large, activities and negligence of the prison administration, activities of the criminal environment and overcrowding of prison facilities. Imprisonment has an adverse impact on the psyche of most inmates. It may result in auto-aggression and suicidal thoughts. Even ordinary day-to-day situations may spark aggression in inmates. The legal order guarantees inmates the provision of humanitarian living conditions, respect for dignity, access to medical- and religious care. Humanitarian treatment of inmates is also vital, as well as ensuring order and security in prison facilities. It needs to be emphasised, though, that even the most intricate system will not provide for (also in legal terms) all possible incidents and reactions. Each and every year there are situations where the personal security of inmates in prison facilities is affected. The most typical examples include fights, batteries, cases of abusing inmates as well as suicides and suicide attempts. It also happens quite often that inmates attack Prison Service officers. In 2017 the total of 3608 incidents of this kind were reported, in 2018 there were 2637 incidents and in 2019 their number went down a bit: 2592 incidents were reported.

The NIK audit covered the years 2017-2019 and the following entities: the Ministry of Justice, the Central Management of the Prison Service and 8 prison entities.

Infrastructure of prison facilities

NIK has made an inspection of  84 residential cells (including 36 monitored ones) and 27 high-security cells (an instrument of coercion). The inspection was to show if the cells met the legal requirements and whether their condition did not pose any threat to the security of inmates. No significant irregularities were found in residential cells. They were in good technical condition.

Three high-security cells failed to meet the requirements defined in the ordinance of the Minister of Justice. The warden call system did not work in one cell (it was repaired in the course of the NIK audit), in two others plaster and paint were coming off the walls. Thus, they did not meet the requirement to furnish the cell in a way preventing the inmate from self-mutilation.

Monitored cells

One of the biggest challenges for the Prison Service in terms of security are suicides in monitored residential cells. That is where persons with suicidal tendencies are often placed to ensure permanent observation of their behaviour and thus increase the security level. The factors that make it difficult to identify that life-threatening situation and prevent a suicide in a monitored cell include: obsolete or inoperative cameras (e.g. producing poor-quality image at night) or watching images from too many cameras by a single prison officer.

In 2 of 36 monitored cells covered by the NIK inspection there were the so-called dead zones. Some part. of cells could not be seen in images produced by cameras.

No limit on the number of images from monitored cells to be watched by one police officer

From the viewpoint of security one of the most serious issues is to monitor places where inmates are staying. Old-type, analogue cameras definitely have to be replaced with IP cameras. Dead zones are an issue, as well as objects in a cell which block the inmate. Work in this position is tiresome and requires high concentration and alertness because inmates are often good at camouflaging their suicide attempts. Therefore, one prison officer cannot watch too many images from cells, especially when he or she also watches passageways inside the building or areas outside the facility. Currently, neither the provisions of law nor any of the internal acts issued by the Director General of the Prison Service specify the limit on the number of images from cameras installed in cells, to be watched simultaneously by one prison officer at the monitoring position in a prison facility.

In 2018, the Director General of the Prison Service issued guidelines which said that a single monitoring officer can watch the maximum of 21 camera images from 7 residential cells. Though, the costs of adapting prison facilities to specific requirements exceeded the financial capacity of the Prison Service. Besides, the Director General did not apply to the Minister for additional funds for that purpose. Therefore, the guidelines were withdrawn even before they became effective. Only one of the facilities audited by NIK met that requirement.

Monitoring position in the Detention Centre in Wejherowo. Source: NIK’s audit materials.
Monitoring position in the Detention Centre in Wejherowo. Source: NIK’s audit materials


On 31 December 2018 there were 176 prison facilities, including 81 prisons, 39 detention centres and 52 external blocks. They could contain a bit more than 80 thousand persons. The number of inmates (convicted and detained) was about 72 thousand. In compliance with the law the minimum space in a residential cell per one inmate is 3 m2. In exceptional cases in can be not less than 2 m2. In the audited period, the cell blocks were not overcrowded (the occupancy rate was about 90%).

The domestic provisions do not provide for the maximum capacity of residential cells. The guidelines of the Director General of the Prison Service aimed at building residential cells in closed prisons for not more than 4 persons and in half-open prisons for not more than 6 persons. However, as of 21 November 2019, in closed prisons in 3457 cells designed for 5 or more persons there were 18222 prisoners in total and in half-open prisons in 1232 in cells designed for 7 or more persons there were 9696 inmates. The Central Management of the Prison Service did not analyse dependence between the cell capacity and the effectiveness of providing personal security to inmates. It was also not verified whether the number of incidents depended on the capacity of prison cells.

Dormitory in the Detention Centre in Katowice. Source: NIK’s audit materials.
		Dormitory in the Detention Centre in Katowice. Source: NIK’s audit materials

NIK has underlined an urgent need to take actions - in line with the Ombudsman’s recommendations - to liquidate cells bigger than for 10 persons. Such cells were in place in closed cell blocks in two prison facilities audited by NIK: the Prison in Racibórz (dormitory for 11, 12 and 17 persons) and the Detention Centre in Katowice (dormitory for 12 and 14 persons).


The key incidents related to the security of inmates in the Prison Service include: abuse of an inmate, rape, suicide attempt, suicide, fight or battery.

The following were identified in the Prison Service: 3608 incidents in 2017, 2637 incidents in 2018, 2594 incidents in 2019. They included: 25 inmates’ suicides and 186 suicide attempts in 2017, 25 inmates’ suicides and 168 suicide attempts in 2018, 23 inmates’ suicides and 173 suicide attempts in 2019.

Extraordinary incidents in Prison Service. Attack on prison officer - in 2017: 112, in 2018: 148, in 2019: 139; Rape of inmate - in 2017: 2, in 2018: 1, in 2019: 2; Abuse of inmate: in 2017: 41, in 2018: 41, in 2019: 32; Fight or battery - in 2017: 1102, in 2018: 127, in 2019: 132; Suicide of inmate - in 2017: 25, in 2018: 25, in 2019: 23; Suicide attempt - in 2017: 186, in 2018: 168, in 2019: 173; Death of inmate - in 2017: 111, in 2018: 169, in 2019: 135. Source: NIK’s analysis based on audit results

To minimise the risk of security breaches, the Director General of the Prison Service took measures to individualise impact on inmates. NIK stands in a position, though, that the impact was of limited scope. It was particularly difficult to secure inmates who were most threatened with aggression by fellow inmates, e.g. persons who committed or were suspected of committing paedophilia or persons above 60 years of age. The Director General of the Prison Service established procedures in case of incidents related to the breach of inmates’ security, such as fights, batteries, rapes, as well as suicides and suicide attempts.

Fights and batteries

From 2018 to 2019, the number of fights and batteries went down considerably which resulted from a change of internal provisions by the Director General of the Prison Service. Since January 2018, only the fights and batteries which caused disturbance of the functioning of a bodily organ or health disorder lasting longer than 7 days were qualified as incidents. Following the new qualification, 1102 fights and batteries were qualified as incidents in 2017, in 2018 it was 127 (about 88.5% less) and in 2019 (until 30 November) it was only 117. On the other hand, there were 1017 fights or batteries in 2018 and 1138 such occurrences in 2019 that were not qualified as incidents. The NIK auditors verified procedures applied by the prison administration with regard to 91 fights and batteries in 2018 and 1138 in 2019 that were not qualified as incidents. NIK did not find any irregularities in terms of qualifying those occurrences.

Inmates’ suicides

As many as 25 suicides were reported in the prison facilities in 2017, 25 in 2018 and 23 in 2019. With regard to ineffective suicide attempts the Prison Service uses two terms: ”suicide attempt” and ”supposed suicide attempt”. In the audited period the data were not consistent.

A supposed suicide attempt is a situation where an inmate inflicted self-harm which resembled a suicide attempt but it could be a sham of demonstrative nature (e.g. to exercise pressure on the prison administration) without the real intention to take one’s life.

A suicide attempt is an incident verified by the prison administration in the course of explanatory proceedings as a real (ineffective) suicide attempt.

Suicides and suicide attempts. Suicides - in 2017: 25, in 2018: 25, in 2019: 23; Suicide attempts - in 2017: 186, in 2018: 168, in 2019: 173; Supposed suicide attempts: in 2017: 223, in 2018: 208, in 2019: 198. Source: NIK’s analysis based on audit results

The very fact of being placed in a prison facility is a significant factor increasing the risk of suicide attempts. To prevent such acts the Director General of the Prison Service issued guidelines to prevent prison suicide. It said that the responsibility for suicide prevention lies within all police officers and all prison facility services. Each prison facility officer and employee should pay attention to the  behaviours of inmates as well as other signals and information, which can point to a suicide threat.

The guidelines define a procedure in case an inmate is suspected of suicidal tendencies. In such a case the prison educator registers a suicide threat card for the inmate and refers him or her to a psychologist who prepares a psychological opinion about the inmate. The opinion says whether or not the inmate should be provided with intensified preventive measures due to a higher suicide risk. The inmates, who previously had a suicide attempt or with whom the suicide risk is high, are not placed in a single cell, unless this is a monitored cell.

Though, regardless of the guidelines developed by the Director General and trainings for prison officers in identifying behaviours pointing to the suicide possibility, it is not very likely that any procedure will reduce the suicide risk among prisoners to zero. This is also emphasised by the greatest Polish authorities in psychiatry. That is why, a detailed analysis of each suicide or suicide attempt is vital to streamline the effective procedures, to limit the risk of a similar incident.

The Director General of the Prison Service did not conduct any system analysis of factors which impacted suicidal tendencies in the prison facilities from 2014 to 2018.

Standards of educational groups and groups under psychological care

The audit showed that in 6 of 8 audited prison facilities the limits of inmates in educational groups were exceeded. Educators worked with groups of up to 104 convicted, penalised and detained persons, as to whom the imprisonment law is applied. In 3 of 8 prison facilities audited by NIK, the limit of 200 inmates per one psychologist was exceeded.

Vacancies in the positions of the Prison Service officers and after-hours

From 2017 to 2019, the headcount in the Prison Service (on a per FTE basis) was: 29 313 officers as of the end of 2017, 29 165 officers as of the end of 2018 and 28 588 officers as of 30 September 2019.

As of 30 September 2019, in all the 8 prison facilities audited by NIK there were vacancies in the security division and in two of them that number increased systematically year by year. It should be noted that the number of vacancies went up despite the pay rise and the possibility (starting July 2019) of getting compensation for working overtime.

Interestingly enough, it happened that some officers resigned only after a few days of service. This is a problem which the Prison Service Management has been familiar with for years. One of the reasons is the fact that candidates are not aware of what the service reality looks like, e.g. how stressful a contact with highly-demoralised inmates can be. Also, they do not realise that the newly hired officers are under permanent supervision by their superiors.

One of the consequences of the big number of vacancies is a huge amount of overtime made by all officers employed in the Prison Service.

According to NIK, the scale of overtime made by officers in the Prison Service security division who perform activities related to the inmates’ security (e.g. cell inspections and searching of inmates, interventions using instruments of coercion), has an adverse effect on their mental and physical condition. It also increases the risk of the officers’ exhaustion and professional burnout.

In 8 prison facilities audited by NIK from 1 January 2017 to 30 September 2019, the officers of the security and penitentiary divisions had the total of nearly 410.5 thousand net after-hours.

Activities of the Ministry of Justice

The Minister of Justice initiated law changes to improve security of inmates, he conducted ad hoc audits and his representatives participated in periodic briefings of the Prison Service Management.

The Minister did not fully use the measures of supervision and control of the Prison Service.

He focused mainly on ad hoc audits which dealt with current events and aimed above all at clarifying circumstances of inmates’ deaths and suicides, scrutinising press releases that indicated irregularities in the activities of prison facilities and verifying filed complaints. No analyses or planned audits relating to the inmates’ security were conducted.

Activities of the Director General of the Prison Service

The Director General issued internal legal acts (e.g. guidelines on preventing prison suicides) and gave instructions to the directors of prison facilities concerning the security of inmates (e.g. about the cell monitoring). Representatives of the Central Management of the Prison Service carried out controls and spot checks in the prison facilities. In justified cases the Director General also took over explanatory proceedings concerning incidents.

The Director General of the Prison Service knew about the scale of incidents related to the security of inmates, however the scope of analyses about their causes was insufficient, particularly in case of groups particularly threatened with aggression on part of fellow inmates.  NIK stands in a position that it is hard to provide real individual support to inmates, when the limits on the number of inmates in educational groups and groups under psychological (even up to 200 persons) are exceeded.


NIK has made the following recommendations:

To the Minister of Justice to:

  • undertake an active role in ensuring the personal security of inmates, among others by incorporating plans to control the inmates’ security issues in ministerial plans and making relevant analyses;
  • start active cooperation with the Prison Policy Council.

To the General Director of the Prison Service to:

  • urgently liquidate residential cells designed for 10 or more inmates in closed cell blocks;
  • develop a good, feasible plan to reorganise the Prison Service infrastructure to make sure that inmates will not be placed in dormitories (larger than for 4 persons in closed cell blocks and larger than for 6 persons in half-open cell blocks);
  • standardise the number and type of cameras in monitored cells and organise the monitoring position in the prison facilities;
  • intensify measures to increase employment of the Prison Service officers and limit their overtime.

Article informations

Date of creation:
15 October 2020 00:39
Date of publication:
15 October 2020 00:39
Published by:
Marta Połczyńska
Date of last change:
23 October 2020 14:11
Last modified by:
Andrzej Gaładyk
A view from a prison cell window through the bars on a fence and a building © Wojciech Bartoń/NIK

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