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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Living in Hell on Earth

The conditions are out of this world, like the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. It is hell; I simply do not know the words to express what I saw there." This is what Nigel Rodley, a Special Rapporteur to the United Nations' Commission on Human Rights, said of his impressions after visiting several jails in Moscow and St. Petersburg recently.

Now a passage from a letter written by a young man who spent time in Moscow's Butyrka Prison: "Several times I felt so bad -- both physically and mentally -- that I prayed to God to let me die. I know that the only thing waiting for a sinner like me is hell, but I somehow believe that that hell cannot be as terrible as this man-made one. God, after all, is merciful, unlike people."

"It is hell" -- it is certainly not by chance that two observers from such different backgrounds and experiences would choose these words to describe conditions in Russia's jails. I have one more passage from a letter from another inmate of Butyrka.

"In a cell built for 30 people, there are 90 and sometimes as many as 140. We sleep in three shifts. During the day there isn't even enough room for everyone to sit down. We even eat standing up. There aren't enough spoons and we have to just eat straight from the bowl. Everyone is scratching themselves. Some because they have rashes and some just as a nervous habit. After two or three months, everyone is covered with bloody sores."

During my six years in Soviet prisons, I lived through many horrors. I saw people suspended on iron hooks stuck under their ribs. I watched German shepherds eat living human flesh. I sat half-naked in a cell where the temperature never rose above freezing. In burning summer heat I rode with 30 prisoners in a railway car built for six.

But all of these trials were of limited duration: a few minutes, hours, days or weeks. Today's prisoners endure them for years. For years, people who have not even been to trial live in conditions that remind one of a Moscow trolleybus at rush hour, sitting in cells packed with sweaty blue bodies covered with rashes and scabs.

It is certain that conditions in normal jails were not this bad even under Stalin. Authorities now freely admit that conditions are inhuman, but the Main Prison Directorate says that it does not have the means to improve the situation. At first glance, it would seem that they are right. Crime is growing rapidly and with it the number of people arrested. But the number of places in jail does not change.

Communist doctrine held that crime was a vestige of capitalism. Although the government constantly built new concentration camps in isolated regions far from the press and foreign observers, it did not devote any resources to building or repairing jails in the country's main cities. As a result, 60 percent of Russia's jails are considered unfit for use and 26 of the country's 177 prisons are slated to be razed.

According to official figures, Russia's jails are designed to hold 153,000 prisoners. The official norm is for each prisoner to have at least 2.5 square meters of living space. Currently, according to average estimates, our jails house 240,000 prisoners. In major cities, prisoners live in just 0.5 to 0.8 square meters. Financing from the state budget is constantly held up. As a result, prisons are able to buy only 30 to 40 percent of the medicine that they need. Our prisons are racked by epidemics of tuberculosis, dysentery and skin diseases. A number of prisons are ravaged by hunger. Some regions report that 90 percent of prisoners are underweight.

Officials at the Interior Ministry assert that more money is needed to build prisons and to support prisoners. But the government, drowning in a sea of unsolved problems, seems unlikely to meet these demands any time soon.

However, human rights activists see the situation somewhat differently. While we certainly support increased funding for prisoners and for building and repairing prisons, we also see other ways of alleviating the crisis. Most important, we must stop arresting and holding so many prisoners when the law already allows for other means such as bail and parole. Our jails could be relieved of half their burden if we just released those who present no danger to society and many of those who are awaiting trial.

Another reason why our jails are overflowing is the long periods of time consumed by investigations and trials. The law allows police to hold prisoners for a virtually unlimited time during their trials. Moreover, police can hold people -- even those accused of insignificant crimes -- for half a year without trial.

We also consider it necessary to spend funds first of all to increase the number of investigators, since our current ones are incredibly overworked. We must also improve the court apparatus. Investing in these areas will bring a much speedier effect than building new prisons, since -- even if the money were found -- construction would take two or three years.

Finally, a number of non-governmental organizations are collecting funds to provide medicine, dishes, bedding and other necessities to prisoners in Russia's jails.

But all of these measures will only help alleviate the problem of overcrowding in our jails. The success of democratic reform in Russia is impossible until the gulag system -- which still preserves many features of the totalitarian state -- is dismantled. If some new dictator comes to power in Russia, the present penal system is ready to work even more effectively than Stalin's did. That, however, is a separate theme.

Valery Abramkin spent six years in prison for "anti-Soviet" activity and is the author of the book "How to Survive a Soviet Prison." He is currently the director of the Moscow Center for Prison Reform and an advisor to President Yeltsin's commission on human rights. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.