Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Thousands More Pour Into Crowded Prisons

A lot of people are making life difficult for the Justice Ministry these days. About 16,000 people, to be precise.

This is the number by which the Russian prison population increased in the first four months of the year, plugging more bodies into an already direly overcrowded system. With 1,030,000 prisoners, Russia already has the highest per capita level of any country.

The additional 16,000 prisoners, who would require about 10 new colonies to house properly, have arrived at a time when government officials are attempting to relieve some of the overcrowding with an amnesty that could free some 93,000 prisoners. Under the proposed amnesty, prisoners not guilty of grave crimes - especially women, veterans and the elderly - would be released.

At the same time, the prison administration is trying to limit the numbers flowing into the system - which have been growing since 1994 - by proposing changes to the criminal code. Limiting the amount of time a person can be held before trial and developing alternative sentences are among the 60 suggestions sent to parliament for approval.

But advocates of change say even the amnesty, which most considered a done deal a few months ago, could now be derailed by its opponents in the law-enforcement organs.

Indeed, the police have little incentive to change the current system, which encourages them to fill jails rather than empty them. Promotions are given based on the number of crimes solved and arrests made.

In order to produce these numbers, police have been known to use force to obtain confessions. Moscow city court judge Sergei Pashin said about four out of five defendants who come before him claim they have been tortured, and half of them have "objective signs" that they have been abused.

In the meantime, prison authorities have to grapple with higher numbers entering already overcrowded prisons. Alexander Zubkov, deputy head of the federal prison administration, blames the influx on the rising crime rate.

Human rights advocates, however, disagree over the reason for overcrowding in Russian prisons. It is not the result of a rising crime wave, they say, but of a flawed criminal justice system that metes out harsh sentences for crimes that don't warrant them and keeps defendants locked up awaiting trial often for years.

Andrei Babushkin, chairman of the Committee for Civil Rights, has plenty of horror stories about punishments that don't fit the crime. Speaking at a news conference in support of the amnesty last month, he told the story of Yury Krylov, a fourth-year student at the Plekhanov Academy, who assaulted a man when he was drunk.

"He got eight years for two punches and two rubles," Babushkin said.

"You can't say this is [connected to] an increase in crime alone," said Valery Sergeyev, regional director of Penal Reform International. "At all stages the criminal justice system works more and more poorly.

"The judges are afraid to give out alternative forms of punishment. They don't want to seem too liberal," Sergeyev said, adding that there are no structures to carry out alternative sentences. Community service is a possible punishment named in the criminal code, but there is no agency to oversee it, and Russia's high unemployment makes it difficult to carry out.

But the problem starts even before sentencing. The 16,000-person rise applies to both the prison colonies and the pre-trial detention centers, or SIZOs, which experienced a 9,000-person growth.

In SIZOs, where prisoners typically sleep in shifts and have less than a meter of personal space, the situation is particularly critical.

"It's like walking into a train compartment for four people and finding you're the fifth," said Vladimir Davydov, deputy head of the Saratov region's prison administration, whose SIZOs and men's prison colonies are all overcrowded. "Only you can sit out the ride and then get off. These people sit there for days, weeks and months."

Davydov was being conservative. It is not uncommon for people to await trial for five to seven years. And with tuberculosis inside the SIZOs at critical levels, a little time there can amount to a death sentence.

Liberal Duma Deputy Valery Borshchyov, a leading prison reform advocate, tells a story of visiting the Butyrskaya SIZO and meeting a young man who was accused of stealing 20 rubles. Borshchyov approached authorities and demanded the young man be let go. Borshchyov said a month later he found that nothing had been done, but it was too late: The young man had died in the SIZO of TB he contracted there.

Yulia Solovyova contributed to this report.