Monday 30 April 2012

Archive article - Polish Drunk Tanks

Originally published by the now-defunct WiK English Edition, part of Poland’s reputed Wprost publishing house, in June 2007

Have Another One…

Being locked up with seven strangers for 24 hours while wearing only a smock is unlikely to be anybody’s idea of fun, particularly after a night out, but that fate, even in the 21st century, still lies in wait for the unlucky soul who finds him or herself pie-eyed and senseless on any given Polish street, particularly in the early hours of the morning.

The ‘Izba Wytrzeźwień’ (IW) or ‘drunk tank’ institution, established in 1982 during the Communist period, has proven to be a resilient beast, despite all the changes of the past decade or so. The authorities at the time felt that the rampant drunkenness that often characterised everyday life meant that the inebriated needed to be given their own special place of incarceration, on the grounds that they were deemed to be either “a threat to themselves or others”, or so the law stated. Yet the current, fervently anti-Communist government, has shown no urgent signs of wanting to rid the nation of a legacy that frequently contravenes European Union laws on human rights. Inmates, for instance, are usually denied contact with close family during their time inside, leading to 24 hours of deep agony for spouses and children who invariably have to wait that whole time for a sign of life from the phone or a sudden key in the door.

The present policy, if there is one, is to let the institution die of natural, if extremely painful causes. With their own anti-Communist credentials to protect, the government is not about to build any new IWs, though another reason for the blind eye is that the institution’s existence is tantamount to throwing money away. Heavily staffed, often with burly and uncompromising security guards and recently equipped with cameras in a number of locations, the policy of charging the ‘guests’ - as IW directors like to call their inmates – over PLN 200 a stay is meaningless, as the mostly homeless people who sleep there can only dream of such amounts and never pay them. One IW in the town of Konin, which only has around 80,000 inhabitants, found that it had lost PLN 56,000 in non-payment of IW fines in the past year.

Helpless drunkenness on the city streets still remains a fact of life in Poland. A common enough sight in Warsaw is two policemen standing near a dishevelled-looking man, a resigned expression fixed on his face, while one of the officers checks his documents and the other mouths into his walkie-talkie. Sure enough, after some minutes, the man will be led into the back of a police van and out of it at the other end into the capital’s infamous IW on ul. Kolska, more commonly known as just ‘Kolska’.

But do not think that only those at the bottom of the ladder are susceptible to an enforced sojourn in ‘Kolska’. When ‘checking-out’ time comes at around 7am, that period when most ‘guests’ are deemed to have served their micro-sentence, the presence of suits and ties, though sporadic in among the patched up clothes and petrol breath, is not uncommon. And, of all of those standing there the besuited will be itching to tell their stories, though they will also, perhaps, be contemplating an early flight home.

There are two sides to the civil liberties argument and IW professionals, along with their colleagues in other parts of the the medical profession, are wont  to put one of those quite forcefully. The question is this: if we don’t put the chronically drunk in IWs, then where?

Increasingly, because IWs are not being modernised, it is your local hospital that is having to deal with the bleary-eyed flotsam and jetsam that often pours out onto the streets when night falls. In some towns, there aren’t any IWs for miles and even when there are, they fill up quickly, meaning that it is doctors and nurses which have deal with the often violent abuse, as well as helplessness, that drunks usually demand that others manage.

“There was no money to run the Izby Wytrzezwien’ so we had to close it down,” said Jaroslaw Zienkiewicz, secretary of the magistrates office in Sieradz, in central Poland. “Ever since then, anyone found in the streets has had to recover in the hospital accident ward.”

The upshot is that a place which was formerly used to deal with victims of such events as car-crashes and other life-threatening events is now being overtaken by those who have just had one too many.

“The ward looks just like Izba Wytrzezwien,” said Dariusz Kaldonski, the Sieradz hospital director. “The drunks lie on mattresses because otherwise they would fall off the beds. The doctors and nurses are looking after them and running basic check-ups. They get immediate treatment if anything is wrong, whereas others have to wait half a year for that type of care. But most just sleep and after a few hours they disappear without a word.”

In his view, the hospitals are in danger of being crippled by the deluge of dipsomaniacs.

"The national health fund does not pay for the drunks who end up in accident wards and if they need medical treatment, the hospital can run-up enormous costs," he says.

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