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#16 - JRL 7216
RFE/RL (Un)Civil Societies
Vol. 4, No. 14, 9 June 2003
"RFE/RL (Un)Civil Societies" is prepared by Catherine Fitzpatrick on the basis of reports by RFE/RL broadcast services and other sources.

MONITORS ISSUE UNPRECEDENTED PRISON REPORT. Independent Russian human rights monitors have released a report this month on prison conditions, "Situation of Prisoners in Contemporary Russia," which is the first of its kind. The Moscow Helsinki Group, now in its 27th year, has coordinated a large-scale effort to provide the first domestic nationwide snapshot of their country's prisons and labor camps. In an unprecedented effort of government and civic cooperation, the Justice Ministry's Main Department of Corrections, the Gulag's successor known today by the Russian acronym GUIN (literally "Main Department of Execution of Sentences"), cooperated in permitting the monitors to enter 117 detention facilities to examine conditions firsthand. The monitors also interviewed former inmates and prisoners' families. The NGOs inspected pretrial facilities as well as penal colonies and prisons. (The full text of the report is soon to be made available in electronic form at the group's English-language website at http://www.mhg.ru/english.)

"The fact that in the months of October-November 2002, human rights activists managed to penetrate such a large part of the penitentiary institutions in the Russian Federation has become a high-profile public campaign in itself," the group's leaders commented in their introduction to the report.

While the report's findings are grim and indicate deteriorating conditions in prisons, the study also provides a window on several indisputably positive developments in Russia today. On the one hand, the Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG) -- a human rights committee forced to disband for several years in 1982 when most of its members were imprisoned -- has had remarkable success in establishing a network of monitors in 83 of Russia's 89 regions, who are now able to function more or less freely. More notably, the prison system itself has now become far more open compared to the days of the Soviet Gulag, when outsiders were allowed inside for visits only for carefully orchestrated "Potemkin Village" tours designed to distract from its horrors. Top Justice Ministry officials from the Department of Corrections cooperated with the Moscow Helsinki Group and allowed their monitors to come in to inspect 41 pretrial-detention facilities, known by the acronym SIZO in Russian, where most incidents of torture have been reported, and 74 colonies, or forced-labor camps, as well as two prisons.

The 275-page report available in Russian and English is the kind of dense and complex tome that usually finds its way only to the shelves of specialists in international bodies, government officials, and local NGOs. Despite the arcane format, scattered throughout the report's pages is a subtle but sobering indictment of both the heirs of the Gulag and the international community for failing to pay sufficient attention to this area of urgently needed reform in Russia. In fact, the Justice Ministry's historic levels of openness appear to be a tacit cry for help. As the MHG concludes, "the living conditions of prisoners have become even more dire" since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The most obvious problem is the sheer enormity of numbers of prisoners going through this brutal system, in contrast with many industrialized nations of the world. Some 2 million people are employed in Russia in the vast system of pretrial lock-ups, prisons, colonies, camps, and inspectorates. Although China and other nations have record numbers of persons incarcerated, throughout the 1990s, Russia held first place in the world for total number of prisoners per capita -- an unenviable title only recently yielded to the United States, where numbers of prisoners relative to the total population have also soared in the last five years, particularly in relationship to antidrug campaigns. In Russia, currently, 877,000 men and women are behind bars, including 145,000 in pretrial detention. That figure constitutes 40 percent of the total prison population of Europe, says the MHG.

As they had constantly received complaints of abuses from all over the country, the NGOs decided to dedicate their latest report, funded by the European Commission, to the prison system. They roamed throughout Russia's vast territories seeing facilities from the Adygei Republic to Yaroslavl Oblast. The degree of openness and cooperation conceded to the prison rights activists suggests that Russian authorities themselves are desperate to find ways to fix the many problems of the sprawling Gulag, which takes a great toll on society, not only in removing people from productive work, but in the spread of tuberculosis and in the creation of more hardened criminals who do further damage to society once released. It is not just the absence of rights, the MHG says, but the "widespread practices of cruel and degrading treatment," involving both abuses by guards against inmates and by inmates against other inmates without interference from guards, as well as the failure to create a functioning system of rehabilitation and follow-up to make the stay in prison less traumatic and prevent rearrest.

While grim in many respects, the report is careful to accord praise to reformers within the system who appear to be attempting to meet the obligations imposed by Russia's accession to the Council of Europe. In 2000, Russia's Main Department of Corrections was transferred from the Interior Ministry to the Justice Ministry and some 100,000 prisoners were released. Still, such reforms have to be seen in light of a surge in arrests in 1993-96 following economic reforms. Theft accounts for 40 percent-50 percent of all offenses, and many of those convicted are economically disadvantaged, especially women. As an outcome of the decade's reforms, the government itself also appears to have less funds available for social services. Thus, the relaxing of some criminal legislation and the reductions of the population in recent years seem to be driven not only a drop in crime rates but a lack of funding. "The resources the government commanded were too limited to support the physical survival of the million prisoners, to say nothing about compliance with at least national regulations. Everything was in short supply, including food, medical services, sanitary and hygienic materials," writes prison expert Valerii Abramkin.

Although cooperative with the NGO inspectors, justice officials tended to focus on improvement in legislation and overall statistics, whereas the MHG tried to capture the human side by making personal interviews with prisoners and examining petitions from inmates -- information described as "unverified" by officials. In some instances, officials were unhappy with MHG's outspoken criticism over such issues as the notorious grills placed over prison windows that block fresh air and light. Ministry spokesmen say they have passed regulations to remove the grills and have begun to implement them, whereas the activists say that the signaling of good intent in the law is no substitute for full compliance when they have found so many actual instances of continued use of the grills.

The report is peppered with direct quotes of inmates who have suffered deprivations in the system, some reminiscent of the Gulag days. Just as in the Soviet era, the transfer of prisoners is an ordeal sometimes lasting many months as the convicts crisscross the country in trains and vans. They wait for long periods in poor, cramped conditions before being taken to the next way station in train cars still known as "stolypins" for Petr Stolypin, the tsarist minister who invented their use.

"A transport arrives. The inmates are convoyed out. The roll is called and everyone is at the double-quick. If you fail to reach the transport the convoy will beat you up or the dogs will bite you within an inch of your life. Those who are transferred for the first time suffer the most, the convoy will humiliate them to the utmost: either beat them up with the clubs or have the dogs bite them," one former prisoner said. Although more is known about such brutalities now that human rights groups can function, to remedy them requires official response, and the internal complaints system does not function due to deliberate official obstruction. "Nobody has any complaints because everybody believes it is no use," one desperate inmate commented.

The report's authors actually make rather modest recommendations, possibly sanguine about the ability of the cash-strapped and mismanaged bureaucracy to affect much change, especially given the unwillingness of parliament to pass significant changes such as alternative sentencing, and for the executive branch of government to invest more resources in the system. First, they call for regulations to ban inhumane treatment, i.e. lengthy confinement in inadequate facilities and such uncomfortable forms of restraint as the cuffing of hands behind the back and forcing prisoners to walk in a bent position. They also call for a statement of basic sanitary requirements including in transport vehicles and rail cars in an attempt to set benchmarks.

Among the gravest damages inflicted on society by the sprawling and abusive prison system is the spread of tuberculosis (TB). The NGO experts, citing their official contacts, say out of 250,000-300,000 prisoners release each year, 30,000 were infected with TB; of these, one out of four has the incurable, multiple drug-resistant form of TB, mainly due to food shortage and overcrowding, interrupted treatment, and lack of drugs. Currently, 84,000 within the system are said to be infected.

Ultimately, say the report's authors, maintaining such a large prison population "is a heavy burden for the state budget, curtails the resolution of many social problems, and contributes to the spreading of criminal customs and traditions among the population," says the report. It also spawns other problems once the prisoners leave the system. Their hope is that these factors will spur change.

A little-known statistic highlighted in the study is that almost a quarter of the entire homeless population of Russia is made up of former prisoners. Released convicts are given almost no social services and face discrimination in getting work and housing. There are at least 100,000 homeless living in Moscow alone, say the authors, citing media accounts; 356 died of exposure last winter. The problems begin, says the report, with the simple failure in many institutions across the land to issue the standard internal passport as the prisoner leaves. Without such identity papers, the former prisoner is ineligible for many services.

The authors' most important recommendation, which they believe will deter day-to-day abuses at the local level in particular, is to ensure public oversight -- the kind of inside view which they themselves have obtained by gaining entry at least for a time to the previously closed system. They say the Justice Ministry should pass regulations spelling out procedures for both local government bodies and public organizations to access prisons regularly, and even specify a formal system of accreditation for that purpose to overcome bureaucratic reluctance.

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