Throughout my Ph.D. I was often asked the question what was so interesting about the Polish context of punishment and justice that made me look at the Polish case in my doctoral thesis. Apart from the most obvious answer, which is that as a Polish national I have always nourished an interest in my homeland, the Polish penal context offers a unique opportunity for criminological explorations.
Polish society is of peasant origins, high religiosity and significant influence of the Catholic Church. Most Polish people still remember the time of socialism as well as post-1989 turbulent years of transformation, which involved mass privatisation and the sudden switch to a free market.
Poland was under the influence of the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) for 44 years, and one of the most distinctive ‘products’ of that influence on Polish society was the Sovietization of the Polish criminal law and the criminal justice system. Both became a key apparatus of economic and political repression. This experience has left a lasting impression not only on the legislative system and the administration of justice, but also on people’s perceptions of punishment and justice.
Post-1989 was a time when the shape and condition of the Polish penal landscape also went through a transformation. The end of communism in Poland marked the beginning of numerous debates about the nature of criminal justice policy and penal law. First, in 1989, a moratorium on death penalty executions was introduced and, in 1998, the death penalty was finally abolished. The enactment of the 1997 Penal Code signified the emergence of the modern criminal justice system.
After the collapse of the socialist regime in Poland, along with multiple and simultaneous transformations consisting of political, economic and social developments, the Polish government concentrated on being perceived as a sovereign country by joining international organizations and implementing recommended legal standards, something that has become a frequently recognised development in the Polish scholarly literature. Furthermore, since the beginning of the 1990s many post-socialist countries have received policy-related advice and assistance from abroad. All the attempts undertaken at the time to change the Polish socio-political and economic landscape could be defined as the process that aimed to ‘chase the West’ (dogonić zachód) – the term that frequently appears in public and private conversations in Poland.
However, the new post-socialist penal justice arrangements were implemented in Poland at a difficult time. Growing fear of crime, the sudden increase in recorded crime rates, new types of crime (e.g. serious organised crime), the decriminalisation of politically motivated crimes, but also the criminalisation of behaviour that previously had not been punishable by law, an amended repertoire of penal sanctions, new forms of political populism, considerable police reorganisation, and a high imprisonment rate – these are the key features of the transformation period with regard to punishment and justice.
Given this complex past, what is of most interest to me is what Polish people’s reactions to crime are like, how they would like to punish those who commit crimes, whether they have any confidence in the police and justice institutions. In my academic thinking, I align myself with Józef Tischner’s writings, and consider Polish people as Homo post-Sovieticus. Tischner claimed that the euphoric attitudes that accompanied the process of transformation did not acknowledge the confused post-1989 state of the ‘Soviet people’. Homo Sovieticus people who were suddenly confronted with democratic values and the operation of the free market were defined by Tischner as the ‘orphans’ of the previous regime. The post-1989 transformations brought the actual inequality, the perception of deprivation and of losing the race, which formed so-called Homo post-Sovieticus. Tischner defined Homo post-Sovieticus as nostalgic-ridden citizens who might see the free market as a place to earn money but still turn to the State for social security. The functioning of Homo Sovieticus outside the socialist system made people develop strong sense of entitlement, perceive someone’s prosperity as personal harm, and claim financial restitution for their unprivileged status.
Moreover, criminologists believe that punishment is deeply embedded in the specificity of the environment that produces it – therefore while discussing the Polish penality it is important to emphasise the role of religion. Undoubtedly, one of the most distinguishing features of Polish society is the role and contribution of the Catholic Church – hence one would expect that the Catholic environment in which punishments in Poland are administered would be more accommodating towards dialogue and forgiveness – something that lies at the heart of restorative justice.
So, when I am now asked about why I decided to have a closer look at the Polish case, I say that it is an interesting example of society that experienced socialism and post-1989 transformations – the consequences of which are found in how Polish people construct and articulate their responses to crime. Criminology is still fairly dominated by case studies from Anglo-Saxon societies. While acknowledging the great value of this research tradition, my hope is that criminology will be consistently enriched by ‘penal stories’ from other countries, and Poland will be among them.
Tischner, T. (1990) Myśli wyszukane. Tygodnik Powszechny. Available at http://www.tygodnik.com.pl/ludzie/tischner/mysli.html
‘Danton’ 1991 by Wiesław Walkuski, renowned Polish poster designer