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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Vague Prison Laws Fuel Inmate Abuse

What is worse: Getting beaten up or being restricted to a space of 62 square centimeters for months on end?


Inmates of investigation prisons can have both if they refuse to leave their overcrowded cells once a day for exercise in the yard, said Vladimir Ovchinnikov, the prosecutor supervising three such prisons in Moscow.


Legally, it is the prisoner's right to walk every day, but the 1969 instructions are so ambiguous the right can be interpreted as a duty and the security can use rubber truncheons to drive the prisoners out, Ovchinnikov explained.


"In such cases the use of force is allowed because the inmates must obey the administration's legitimate orders," he said.


Ovchinnikov was responding to criticism voiced by human rights activists and former prisoners, who said prison authorities abuse defendants.


Andrei Babushkin, the director of the Society of Benefactors of Penitentiary Institutions, said the new law on defendants in custody adopted by the State Duma last week provided for a range of new rights for prisoners.


But until it is approved by the Federation Council and endorsed by President Boris Yeltsin, the inmates cannot see a priest and supplies from outside are strictly limited.


Support from the outside is becoming crucial to the inmates of Butyrki prison. It is currently owed about 400 million rubles ($200,000), according to its governor Alexander Volkov, and the suppliers of bread, gas and electricity have threatened to cut their deliveries.


Public control, however, is not part of the new law, Babushkin complained, and that leaves opportunities for the administration to abuse its powers.


Ovchinnikov, who has been criticized for ignoring the more than 120 cells in Butyrki, said he has found no breaches by prison staff this year.


"There are violations, but only those caused by the overcrowding, like lack of medical help" said Ovchinnikov, adding that he visits Butyrki prison every other day to hear the prisoners' complaints and answer their legal questions.


"These prisons should be shut down because the sanitary conditions there are impossible," Ovchinnikov said. Women and minor offenders are held in more spacious cells where they may enjoy the standard two and half square meters per person approved by the ministry.


But most of the 14,000 defendants in Moscow's prisons are now squeezed at an average of 120 into cells built for 32, with effectively less living space than any of their predecessors since 1956 when the prisons were transferred from the Security Ministry to the police, Ovchinnikov said.