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TB, Aids rule in Russia's overflowing prisons
Viktoria Loginova | Moscow
July 23, 2003

Shoved into cells by the dozens, prisoners in Russia's jails are subject to incessant outbreaks of tuberculosis and Aids, according to a report handed to a Council of Europe envoy as he was to begin a tour of the country's prisons on Wednesday.

"In some regions, temporary detention centres and prisons are filled to 200 percent of their capacity," the Helsinki-Moscow rights group said in its report.

Michel Hunault, the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly prison rapporteur, was to start a tour of Russia's penitentiary system on Wednesday to see for himself the overcrowding and widespread disease.

Russia has been attempting to revamp its criminal code, introducing alternative sentencing for crimes, in a bid to cut down on overcrowding.

But with 600 prisoners for every 100 000 inhabitants, Russia has the world's second highest incarceration rate in the world -- lower only than that of the United States.

Detainees sleep on "two or three rows of bunk beds" in ramshackle buildings constructed decades ago and not renovated since, the Helsinski-Moscow report, funded by the European Commission, said.

A former inmate in the Siberian republic of Altai told researchers that in one incident inmates went on hunger strike to protest against poor conditions -- but to little avail.

The inmates "refused to eat, because it was cold in the fall and we had no glass in the windows and had to plug them with blankets."

"Then the administration bought some cellophane and covered the windows with that."

The intense overcrowding favours the spread of disease, especially tuberculosis.

More than 86 000 inmates of the 877 000-strong prison population -- around one in 10 -- are infected with the respiratory disease, according to figures released in January 2003.

Prisons lack adequate medicine and interruptions in tuberculosis treatment have given rise to a new, medicine-resistant form of the highly contagious disease.

Some 30% of ill inmates are infected with this resistant form of tuberculosis, the report said.

"Unfortunately, prison administrators do not recognise the fact that violations of sanitary norms are the cause of inmate illnesses," the report said.

"We had no shower in our camp. Inmates had sores and abscesses on their skin, because they had no way of washing themselves properly," a former inmate from Russia's southern republic of Tatarstan remembered.

Other inmates quoted in the report recalled water shortages and lack of soap, which left them unable to bathe for three weeks at a stretch. Others told of water of such poor quality that "it made the skin fall to pieces."

The group accused Russian prison authorities of discriminating against inmates infected with the HIV virus that causes Aids and keeping them "in exaggerated isolation."

According to official figures, some 37 200 Russian inmates are HIV-positive.

The report also cited food shortages, saying many prisoners were confined to a diet of flour and soy products while meat, vegetables and fruit were a rarity.

The report devotes an entire chapter to breakaway Chechnya, "where the penitentiary system works in a different manner" as federal forces continue their war against separatist rebels, launched in October 1999.

The chapter lists complaints by rights defenders who denounced "secret prisons" set up by Russians for Chechen separatists or "filtration camps" where inmates are "beaten and tortured."

The Helsinki-Moscow group's report was compiled in May with the help of local rights activists in Russia's 89 regions.

The group inspected 117 penitentiary establishments, including 74 work camps, where most Russian inmates serve out their terms, 41 preliminary detention centers and two prisons.

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