Report: Prison Conditions 'Hellish'

Overcrowding and disease in Russia's prisons has sunk to catastrophic depths as a result of a 30 percent increase in the prison population over the last two years, according to a report released Wednesday at a press conference by a newly formed Russian prisoners' rights group.


"The situation in Russia's prisons is absolutely disastrous, much, much worse than it was 10 years ago or even one year ago," said Valery Abramkin of the Committee for Urgent Assistance to Prisoners, a group of human rights activists and ex-convicts that was formed July 15.


"We are talking about a system which is bringing about mass death from disease, a true hell on earth where prisoners are now asking their neighbors to kill them to end their misery," he added.


According to the report "Crime, Criminal Policy and Prison Facilities in the Former Soviet Union," there are currently 1.3 million prisoners in the Russian correctional system, up from 1 million in 1994.


That gives Russia the highest rate of incarceration of any developed country, equal to about 2 percent of the adult male population. The United States comes a close second.


The situation is particularly acute for the 350,000 prisoners who are now in pre-trial detention centers, or CIZO, awaiting trial. In 1994, CIZOs held only 244,000 prisoners.


Yabloko Duma deputy Valery Borshov said the committee believes the prison population needed to be reduced to 300,000 in order to put an end to the "catastrophe."


The committee, whose members also include leader of human rights group Glasnost Sergei Grigoriyants and activist Yelena Bonner, was formed with the chief aim of providing emergency assistance to sick and dying prisoners.


Its first press conference came on the heels of its first aid delivery, a shipment of mineral water, green tea and medicines to the 28,000 inmates of prisons in the Moscow region.


Abramkin, a former political prisoner, said supplies like water can mean the difference between life and death, particularly in CIZOs like Moscow's Butyrka prison. He said the situation had worsened considerably since he did time under the Soviet regime.


"I sat in Butyrka in the 1980s, and I can say honestly that there was never, ever anything like the smell or lack of air that there is now there," he said. "Prisoners struggle just to retain consciousness and have heart attacks because of the smell and air deprivation alone. Without water and medicine, a high percentage of these prisoners are going to suffer and die."


Worse still, the committee said, overcrowding has caused a tuberculosis epidemic. According to the committee, more than 2,000 prisoners died of tuberculosis in 1995. That number is expected to rise by some 30 percent in 1996.


Abramkin added that prevention of further spread of tuberculosis, skin inflammations and other diseases will be next to impossible because of the sanitary conditions in CIZOs.


In Butyrka, 120 to 150 prisoners are packed in rooms designed for 30. Butyrka ex-convicts describe towels which move when hung on the wall because they are so infested with insects, and unbearable heat in unventilated rooms which reaches up to 50 degrees in summer. Constant perspiration so corrodes prisoners' skin that unless attended to by constant spongedowns, it peels off painlessly at the slightest touch.


Borshov said conditions at Russian prisons have become so awful that an unofficial ban on all visitors -- including journalists, international observers and human rights activists -- has been placed in effect.


"They're not letting anyone in anymore," he said. "Even for me, a Duma member, it isn't easy. We all have to make an effort to get in and show the world what is taking place there."


Borshov said the chief problem in Russian prisons wasn't lack of funds, but poor decision-making about whom to incarcerate. "The chief problem is that the system of letting people out on bail has been almost totally abandoned," he said. "People who were arrested for stealing a loaf of bread or a piece of kolbasa are in remand for years. The result is an absurdly overcrowded prison system, particularly in the remand centers.


"The problem is that bureaucratic reform efforts have achieved nothing except to expand those bureaucracies in charge of reform," he said. "When bureaucracies expand, they demand more prisoners to justify themselves. That's the key reason we have such a disaster on our hands."