How are Russian prisons

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Imprisonment can mean death in Russia

Conditions are terrible in Russian prisons and penal camps

The number of penal camps in Russia decreased after Stalin's death. But the living conditions of the prisoners have rather deteriorated since the economic crisis made it impossible for the camp management to generate the money to care for the prisoners. Many camp inmates starve or become infected with tuberculosis. Conditions in the prisons are even worse. The overcrowding there is tantamount to torture, and it hits prisoners on remand who have been innocent in prison for years.

by Alissa Turowa

My grandmother Alissa Tille was imprisoned as a 17-year-old revolutionary in Butirskaya prison outside Moscow during the reign of the last tsar (1894-1917). She went on a hunger strike there because an elderly guard had spoken to her. The guard was later forced to apologize to her. Today, however, the guards in this prison do not apologize. They don't care about hunger strikes, especially since the usual diet in Russian prisons differs only slightly from starvation.

Like many Russian prisons, Butirskaya Prison dates back to the days of the Tsars. Tsarina Catherine II had it built by the famous architect Kazakov, who specialized in the construction of palaces for the tsars and the nobility. The prison at that time reflected the most progressive developments of the time. There were no sewage systems in prisons, but neither were there any in the palaces. Today the Butirskaya Prison is practically in the center of Moscow. Detention Center No. 2 is now housed in his building. After the October Revolution, the new government demolished the walls around the building and reduced the size of the area; then she shamefully had high new buildings built around the prison so that it could not be seen from the street.

The Bolsheviks did not build prisons. Firstly, this would have contradicted the ideology of the new society, for which one would rather build pioneering and cultural palaces. Second, the useless incarceration in prisons was replaced at an early stage by "fruitful, ennobling work" in camps - building gigantic canals and cutting wood. The living conditions of the zeki - that is the bureaucratic abbreviation of the word ZaKljuchennij, prisoner - from this period cannot be better described than in the reports of the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

In 1953, after Stalin's death, Beria, who sought to take Stalin's place, granted an extensive amnesty. Numerous criminals who had been brutalized as a result of the treatment in the camps now roamed Russia. They even took entire cities under their control and plundered them. Many of them then had to be returned to the camps. Nevertheless, the number of camps has been reduced significantly overall.

The principles of life in the camps, however, have remained the same. At that time a warehouse was a company with a production plan; the camp administration had to make sure that it was fulfilled and, if possible, over-fulfilled. The camps lived on the income from their own production. Today, however, since Russian industry has collapsed, the warehouses no longer receive any orders and only exist on the basis of meager state funding. The camps are officially called Reform Colonies today; those for minors are called educational colonies. Criminals from 16 to 18 years of age sit there, in the case of serious crimes from 14 years of age. Unfortunately, the "upbringing" there tends to lead to minors coming out as habitual criminals. All the more so since they are transferred to colonies for adults at the age of 18.

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There are also special camps for police officers, senior officials and the like. These camps were set up not only to give these officers special conditions, but also because they would certainly be killed by fellow inmates in a normal camp. There are also special camps for foreigners who come from "developing countries" (such as Russia itself). The living conditions in these camps are not much better than those for Russian "natives". The work there consists of cutting wooden chess pieces; the earnings are about 4 rubles per day. After deducting room and board, there are 22 kopecks left for shopping in the prison shop - that makes 6.6 rubles or around fifty pfennigs a month.

Because of these living conditions in the camps for both adults and young people, there are frequent hunger riots. In addition, even the employees of the camps, i.e. the guards, sometimes go on strike or hunger strike because they no longer have any food for the inmates. And even they often wait months for their wages.

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There are also special camps for people suffering from tuberculosis and HIV infection. The situation of the sick imprisoned there is simply unimaginable for a Western European. In camp No. 10 for tuberculosis sufferers, for example, sick prisoners sleep in twos in one bunk, although the beds, if they exist, are actually only intended for one (normally there are only multi-storey wooden plank beds in which several people are close together crowded sleep). The narrowness leads to a lack of air. The tuberculosis sufferers therefore have to get fresh air by stepping to a tilting window one after the other.

Since the state owed the camps 13 billion rubles at the end of 1995, according to the newspaper Izvestija, these conditions are not surprising. I don't think the debt has decreased much since then. When it comes to deciding which debts to pay off first - those with foreign banks, wage debts with teachers, or those with health care - those with foreign banks are of course given priority. The war in Chechnya is considered to be the second most important. And while public hospitals are poorly funded, prison hospitals, including those for tuberculosis sufferers, lack medicines, X-ray films and even bandages.

The incidence of tuberculosis rose by leaps and bounds during the "democratic revolution" in Russia; This is in large part due to those released from camps and prisons who are spreading the infection across the country. The incidence of tuberculosis in camps is 40 times higher than the national average, and the death rate from tuberculosis in the camps is 17 times higher than the national average.

In the era of Gorbachev, the so-called LTP, labor and rehab centers, were introduced. They were not intended for criminals, but for people who were addicted to alcohol and who therefore "required" treatment. Basically, these were the same prisons with the same barbed wire, the same guards, and the same forced labor. There was, however, a significant difference: One was brought to these institutions for "treatment" and therefore without trial and without a specific period for release - that is, "until recovery". It was the same as in the case of the notorious psychiatric hospitals: people were brought there at the request of neighbors, family members or the "public".

In the LTP, people who wanted to continued to drink as before. This was possible because, firstly, unlike the camps, the LTPs did not have their own production facilities, but instead the alcoholics were loaned out under guard to work on companies and construction sites, where vodka could be easily obtained. Second, with the increasing general corruption, the guards could be lubricated so that vodka was easy to get in this way too. When good, qualified workers in these institutions became really "dry", that is, they stopped drinking permanently and were released, attempts were made to extend their prison term by encouraging them to drink on the last day.

However, an institution of this type was built in Moscow, in which the living conditions were slightly better than in the other LTPs. After the LTP was abolished, this facility was converted into Women's Detention Center No. 6. This is still the most civilized remand prison in Moscow; prison conditions are much better there than in other prisons. According to the law, imprisonment in prison is considered a heavier sentence than imprisonment in camp. Vladimirskaya Prison is considered the strictest penal institution.

What are the conditions of detention in normal prisons, especially in remand prisons? In so-called SISO - short for Sledstvennij ISOlator, Remand prison - people are being held who are waiting for their trial and are still considered innocent from a legal point of view. Article 49 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation reads: "Anyone suspected of a crime is presumed innocent until proven guilty according to the provisions of federal law and established by a court judgment that has entered into force." Indeed, there are many innocent prisoners among those detained on a blatant charge. And then they do not sit in the SISO for days, but for years.

In SISOs, inmates are held under conditions equivalent to torture. And that's not an exaggeration. A. Volkov, the former head of SISO No. 2 - that is the Butirskaya prison, where my grandmother was once imprisoned - described the situation on "Open Radio" in September 1994. And you shouldn't think that the situation has improved since then; Like the general economic situation in Russia, the situation in the prisons has also deteriorated in connection with it.

The main problem facing all SISOs in Russia is extreme overcrowding. According to Volkov, there was an average of 0.75 square meters per person in Butirskaya Prison. The prisoners there hardly have any space to stand. You have to sleep in three shifts, the remaining 16 hours you have to stand like in a crowded bus. Hundreds and more people are crammed into the cells.

The cells of the Butirskaya prison were shown on television in the summer: half-naked people stand close together in the insane heat and infect each other with all sorts of skin diseases. From April onwards, it is not possible to light a match in the cells because it cannot burn due to a lack of oxygen. For those with heart disease, asthmatics or simply weak people, staying in this atmosphere is synonymous with death. Some weakened prisoners on remand are ready to confess a crime they have not committed in order to get out of this death chamber as quickly as possible into a camp where you can work outside and get some fresh air. Some inmates are covered with ulcers that cannot heal under these conditions. In addition, there are no ointments for their treatment. There are hardly any pharmaceuticals at all, and if they do, they come from the stocks of humanitarian organizations and have expired.

The Butirskaya Prison special cell for mentally ill offenders was shown on television once. It was an equally huge, overcrowded cell, crammed into both the genuinely mentally ill and murderers simulating a mental illness to avoid punishment.

Those on watch, who are only slightly better off financially than the prisoners, are bribed. As Volkov himself said, an inmate has to pay for the guard to take him to the doctor. The prison provides one newspaper per cell - for a hundred people. Sometimes the inmates' relatives bring them televisions. Sometimes they also give prisoners packages of food, but this is not allowed more than once a month. To get the food you also have to wait in a huge queue, where you have to queue from 5 a.m., sometimes even earlier.

The inmates live on these food parcels and the food from the store, a tiny shop inside the prison - but only those who have relatives and money. I cannot imagine how one can survive at all with the food ration given out, which is officially calculated with the sum of 1 ruble. The main food is the so-called balanda, a thin soup made from boiled grain. The bread cannot be eaten: if you cut it, you will find small, hard crumbs under the crust instead of bread crumb. A former inmate told me that during his almost two years incarceration in SISO, he only got meat 15 to 20 times, and then in the quality of waste and in tiny quantities. And that although meat or fish is officially included in the prisoner's ration of SISO, which is submitted to the state examination bodies every day. The prisoners never get tea.

The inmates who have not yet been convicted are not allowed to meet with relatives more than twice a month, at the discretion of the examining magistrate. To get permission to meet, the unfortunate relatives have to queue up at night. They are also exposed to insults and humiliations during this time. However, you can also buy a seat in line - you just have to have the money.

According to my clients, you can buy anything in prison: vodka, drugs, cigarettes. At the same time, however, prisoners are not allowed to have any money with them. However, people who had money before they were arrested also have money in prison. A more or less decent cell that is not as crowded as the usual one is called spec; to be incarcerated there, you have to pay $ 100 a month. Once upon a time, when funding went down and the delivery failed, gangs of criminals from outside brought the food to the prison. The criminal world is so intertwined with politics that it is sometimes difficult to determine where the power of the state begins and that of the mafia ends.

SISO No. 1, which is named Matrosskaya Tishina after the name of the street where it is located and which, like Butirka Prison, has a bad reputation, has about 5,000 people. According to estimates by my clients, they come in a general cell, a so-called one obschak, on an inmate 0.2 square meter area. 128 to 130 people are "held" in a cell with 28 beds. Lice, bed bugs, scabies and a lack of air are commonplace; as well as pus ulcers that do not heal for so long that sometimes - as in the case of one of my clients - the leg muscle rots through. The inmates sleep in four shifts next to and on top of each other on the beds, two or three of which are always joined together, and under the bunks. The rest of the time they stand next to each other, tightly packed, breathing in each other's vapors, infecting each other with all conceivable diseases, hating each other and the whole world. A normal person cannot even imagine all of this.

Even in Matroskaya Tishina's hospital, two people sleep in beds, sometimes even in shifts. It is extremely difficult to get to the doctor and even more difficult to be transferred to the hospital. You don't just have to be sick, you have to be disabled or in such a state of illness that you can no longer stand on your feet. If someone feels bad, requests to those on watch to see a doctor are never fulfilled the first time. Doctors respond to a request from the lawyer for practically everyone, even for very serious illnesses: The prisoner "can be held under the conditions of the remand prison". I once had a client at the age of 22 who, as an asthmatic, had the legal status of "disabled from childhood" and who could not do without an inhaler. With regard to him, too, the doctors replied that he "can be held" in prison.

According to estimates by the inmates of Matrosskaya Tishina, around 600 people infected with HIV are being held in the prison. They are put together with the others, and God grace them when the other zeki find out about their infection. Then there is a possibility that they will kill the sick. There are currently more than a thousand tuberculosis sufferers there. Of course, there aren't enough separate cells for them either.

The relationships between the inmates are exactly the same as in the times of Solzhenitsyn. Manage the inner workings of prisons, camps and remand prisons pahani and avtoriteti - Prisoners who are surrounded by their "court". The mass of ordinary people will be pussies called. Stand at the lowest level of prison society maschki and petuchi - Men who are forced to commit homosexual acts. The life of one petuch starts with the first rape. Who once to petuch has become is compelled to serve every desire. He is not allowed to defend himself.

It is important to mention another special type of camp, the filtration camp. They exist in places where acts of war are taking place - for example in Chechnya. Anyone can be put there without their rights or life being guaranteed. Nobody knows what is going on there. According to some information, all inmates are beaten at will there, some are simply killed. One can no longer talk about normal living conditions and nutrition here.

After the shelling of the White House, the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, in 1992 relatives of people who were in danger of falling into the clutches of the state have asked the human rights activist Kovalev, who is also known in the West, for protection. Kovalev, who supported Yeltsin at the time and was chairman of the Duma Commission for Human Rights, only replied derogatory: "I do not defend common criminals!" But it should be defended because a criminal is also a human being. He deserves punishment, but not medieval torture that can either kill him or turn him into a brutal, wild animal.

from: the overview 01/2000, page 33


Alissa Turowa:

Alissa Turowa is a lawyer and criminal defense attorney in Moscow.