One cell, 50 inmates in Romania, complains S'pore prisoner

Conditions in overcrowded Romanian prisons are improving, after a Singaporean jailed there complained all the way to the European Human Rights Court.

Mr Goh Yong Seng was sentenced to 15 years' jail in 2001 for blackmail and robbery, and was held at four different prisons in the capital Bucharest over the following years.

He complained when he could not bear being squeezed into cells with numerous inmates, and having to share a bed with other men, including at least one who was "covered in wounds".

In June 2011, the court based in Strasbourg, France, found his claims of overcrowding justified and ordered the Romanian government to pay him 16,000 euros (S$27,000) in compensation.

Mr Goh was released last year for good behaviour. Now 55, he is on parole for the remaining four years of his sentence and is living in Romania. He could not be reached for comments.

His case surfaced in the course of checks by The Sunday Times on Singaporeans who are jailed abroad. Romanian officials said there are no other Singaporeans in prisons there.

A prison official in Bucharest told The Sunday Times via e-mail that since the European court's findings, steps have been taken to improve conditions to meet European standards of detention.

These include, among other measures, expanding capacity within prisons as well as developing new facilities through public- private partnerships.

The country has added 1,787 accommodation places for inmates since last year, and another 912 are coming up, he said via e-mail.

It is understood that Mr Goh had been living in Romania and was well known in the Chinese community there for helping people obtain residence permit extensions and recovering debts when he was arrested.

He was given the maximum 15-year sentence partly because of his violent attitude during his trial - he threatened the victims in Mandarin while they testified. He also had a record, having been jailed in 1996 for robbery.

He started serving his sentence in March 2001 at Jilava Prison. He complained that it was unbearable there when the weather was hot.

There were also 40 to 50 inmates in one cell, with two to three men sharing a bed. The court noted that he had to share a bed with a man who was covered in wounds.

In July that year, he was moved to Rahova Prison, where cells measuring 3m by 6m and meant for 10 men, housed 12 to 14 inmates.

It was while he was at this prison that he first complained in a letter to the European court about prison conditions in April 2003. He repeated and detailed his complaints in three subsequent letters between 2005 and 2009 about the three prisons, according to the court's judgment grounds.

In January 2009, he found himself at Margenini Prison, where he shared a 48 sq m cell with 27 others.

At first, the Romanian authorities disputed Mr Goh's claims.

But the European court said the issue was not the size of the cells, but the number of men held in them and the living space they had.

It said that even based on the Romanian government's occupancy rates, Mr Goh's personal space consistently fell short of the 3 sq m standard expected by the court.

At Jilava, he had less than 1 sq m of personal space. At Rahova, where he spent 71/2 years, he had around 2.9 sq m and, in Margenini, less than 2 sq m. These figures were even smaller if the space for toilets and furniture was taken into account.

The court said Mr Goh's lack of personal space was made worse by poor hygiene conditions, though it made clear that there had been no intention by the Romanian authorities to humiliate or debase him.

The court noted that prisoners do not lose the protection of their rights under the European Convention.

"On the contrary, people in custody are in a vulnerable position and the authorities are under a duty to protect them... the State must ensure that a person is detained in conditions which are compatible with respect for his human dignity," it said in its judgment grounds.

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