Prisoners in Vratsa have begun to use real toilets instead of the usual chamber pots as part of the campaign to improve conditions in Bulgaria's jails.
"No other Bulgarian prison has undergone such renovation for 25 years," the prison directorate's deputy chief Emil Madzharov commented after walls were recently repainted and bathrooms were installed.
But in this prison in western Bulgaria, built in 1914, four inmates are still forced to share one tiny cell and European standards remain out of reach.
According to prison directorate chief Petar Vasilev, no prison has been built in Bulgaria for about 80 years.
This is "not normal" for a European country, he noted.
Each prisoner in Bulgaria has an average 2.75 square metres (29.6 square feet) of cell space, far below the EU-required six square metres, justice ministry data shows.
A newly adopted law plans to provide an average four square metres per inmate by 2012.
Conditions in Bulgarian prisons "are probably the worst" in the whole European Union, Vasilev told AFP.
"We cannot say that we belong to the European family, with prisons where buckets are used instead of toilets or where living conditions pose risks rather than guarantee the physical and mental health of the prisoners."
Jails are the scene of regular protests by inmates who "climb roofs, refuse food or hurt themselves" to demand better living standards, said Vasilev.
Now, a Bulgarian-British project in Vratsa and other prisons hopes to limit the spread of protests and halt growing drug abuse among inmates -- the number of addicts has tripled in three years -- by improving conditions.
However, authorities admit overcrowding, protests and abuse will persist until a new prison is built. And plans have been delayed for lack of funding.
There are currently 12 prisons in Bulgaria, compared to 30 when the communist regime took over in 1944.
The rest were shut as the authorities "planned to stamp out crime in five or ten years and turned the prisons into factories," Vasilev explained.
The number of prisoners surged however after the fall of communism in 1989, reaching a peak of 12,000 inmates in 2005.
The figure has been brought down since then, thanks to a probation system introduced two years ago to unload prisoners with a good record and a sentence of less than three years.
"Without probation, the number of prisoners would have reached 18,000 to 20,000 by now," Vasilev said.
Under prison laws, inmates can cut their jail term short by working as cooks or carpenters, as two days of work count for three without work.
But only 25 to 30 percent of inmates can now benefit from the scheme because of the economic crisis, compared to 95 percent during communism, according to officials.
The new prison laws meanwhile plan to provide every inmate with "sensible" occupation such as work, study and sport for at least four hours a day.
Overcrowding and general conditions are even worse in police detention facilities, authorities admit, and Bulgaria was forced to shut some of them, following a series of rulings by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
This has not helped much, the Bulgarian branch of the Helsinki Committee, a human rights organisation, said in its annual report, noting that conditions in detention facilities in 2009 were as "inhumane and humiliating" as ever.
People under arrest can spend months without access to fresh air and daylight, while only nine out of a total 43 facilities had separate toilets.
The rest had one toilet per floor during the day and distributed buckets to detainees during the night, the report said.