Last of ‘drunk tanks’ in Poland look set to close

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ONE of the most enduring legacies of communist Poland, the drunk tank where the deeply inebriated are detained until sober, is under threat owing to a financial crisis sweeping through local governments.

The number of tanks – or “sobering centres” to use the more official phrase – has almost halved since 1994, dropping from 64 to just 34, and with many local governments in Poland in debt that number is expected to decline further.

“The financial situation of local government is now so severe that more and more of them are deciding to close the tanks,” said Ewa Dawidziuk, from the Polish ombudsman’s office.

Since their introduction in 1982 by a communist government determined to rid the streets of the comatose drunks, the tanks have garnered a grim reputation for the harsh treatment of people who have far less right than those arrested for committing a crime.

“My experience at the hands of the drunk tank in Warsaw was as bizarre as it was brutal, made worse by the fact that I was the worse for wear,” one former “inmate”, who asked not be identified, told The Scotsman.

“First, I was forcibly stripped and then a smock was put over my head. I ended up in a cell with up to seven other ‘inmates’, most of whom looked as if they spent their time on the streets. A nurse would come in occasionally to check the pulses of some to see if they were still alive.”

The tanks’ reputation for hard treatment has been further enhanced by the right of their workers to drug people against their will and strap them to a bed if they resist or rebel against their incarceration.

Such treatment has led to protests by human rights groups in Poland about the alleged degrading behaviour meted out in the tanks, and in 2009 a Polish woman was awarded damages by the European Court of Human Rights after she was strapped to a bed for ten hours.

But despite this, the demise of the drunk tanks has sparked concern in some circles. Although the mass drunken scenes that blight British towns are rarely seen in Poland, the sight of severely inebriated people is common, and is often linked to poverty and homelessness. Without the tanks, the drunks will have to be taken somewhere else.

“An effect of their closure has been to shift responsibility for drunks to the police,” said Ms Dawidziuk. “But they lack the manpower and resources to deal with drunks, and don’t have the medical facilities provided at the centres.”

Poland’s cash-strapped hospitals have also seen a surge in drunk intakes since the tanks started closing. The main hospital in the central town of Kielce now receives between 140 and 160 drunks a month, but in the days when the town’s drunk tank was operating it had no more than a dozen.

Russia, orginator of the drunk tank, annouced in 2011 that it was closing its last “trezvyak” – sobering joints – as part of police reforms. Their role was to be passed on to medical authorities.