Escaping prison walls

Issue Number: 
Lyuba Pronina/The Russia Journal

The inmates of Moscow's notorious Butyrka pre-trial detention center sit packed in grimy, smelly holding cells. Random voices cry out to attract the attention of rushed-through visitors.

A single small, square window cut into the heavy metal door lets in the light of the individual cells. It also allows a visitor to get a fleeting glimpse of the world inside.

Inmates huddle together behind the doors. They are a mixture of bare legs and arms, tattooed bodies and closely shaven heads. Eyes peer out in idle curiosity. Belongings - primitive tableware, socks and underwear - are piled up, some hanging over inmates' heads on a string. Smoke, sweat and cheap food create an almost intolerable stench.

For two of Butyrka's 5,692 prisoners last week, this nightmare became a thing of the past. As part of this year's amnesty program - expected to free some 94,000 prisoners throughout Russia - 10 more will be released this week.

Forty more will follow in the next six months. No serious offenders will be among them. The amnesty will concentrate on not-so-dangerous juvenile delinquents, pregnant women and mothers, the disabled, elderly persons and sufferers of tuberculosis.

The State Duma (lower house of parliament) voted 400 to 0 on June 18 for the amnesty after a heated one-year debate. In Russia, however, such amnesty is not perceived as a way to give offenders a chance to start a new life, but rather as a means to relieve the country's overcrowded prisons.

To inform the public about the amnesty program, officials allowed a group of journalists to tour the Butyrka facility, a 200-year-old battered wreck.

On the exterior, paper cones on strings - or prison mail - hang out windows. The cones remain a popular means of communication between inmates, despite repeated staff warnings.

In the visitors' waiting room, stern, tired faces fill the area, family and friends hoping to see inmates or at least pass on a parcel or two.

In the inmates' area, a long, badly lit corridor lined with doors on both sides weaves up and down in a maze of misery.

The first hall in the investigation department is partitioned by a metal net. Behind it - black and windowless - are one-square-meter cabins. Inmates sometimes wait two hours before guards take them to the investigator's chamber around the corner.

The doors to the investigator's room are covered in leather, to "prevent sound from coming out," as a female officer on duty explained.


The nation's prisons have no trouble finding inmates. The number of solved police cases continues to rise. Privately, law enforcers admit that the larger the numbers, the more praise they get from the top.

That leads - many human rights monitors say - to torture that is unleashed to force confessions, whether true of false. The term used for this torture - when reported - is "abuse of power."

There are other options to imprisonment: house arrest, bail or community service. But courts in Russia prefer the behind-bars option.

"For an investigator, it is a lot easier to have even a petty offender close by, in a jail," says Alexander Zubkov, deputy head of the Central Directorate of Penal System (GUIN) in Russia.

Because of its preference for jail terms, Russia is at the top of any international table showing the number of prisoners. Out of a 146 million population, more than 1 million are locked up. One in four adult males have been through the system's grind, statistics show.

A recent exhibition organized by the Penal Reform International organization made public the stories of people being sentenced to years in jail for minor crimes: a single mother who stole a jug of milk for her children sentenced to six years : A boy in his young teens caught stealing a chicken and landing in jail :

In Moscow, six detention centers - designed for maximum 10,500 inmates - hold just under twice that number. The situation is the same at the national level, where detention centers are filled with 275,000 inmates, 100,000 more than capacity.

Convicts having to rough it in crammed cells - in 70 centimeters, not four meters of space as initially designed - must sleep in turns.

The situation is exacerbated by disease. Drug-resistant forms of tuberculosis and AIDS have spread in recent years as authorities cannot offer separate cells for those infected.

"I followed the case of a boy who spent two months in Butyrka and came out with a skin disease which doctors are unable to cure," said Nadezhda Markina, a lawyer.

According to figures released by Penal Reform International, the number of TB infections in prison is 58 times higher than outside. The death rate among those infected is 29 times higher.

Prison authorities feel uneasy discussing such issues. They say that 102 inmates died in Moscow's prisons in 1998. The death certificates record them as deaths "for various reasons."

Reform of the Russian prison system and the abolition of the death penalty is a priority for the European Council, of which Russia has been a member since 1996. Three years since its inception into the organization, not much has changed in Russia's penal system except for its transferral from the Interior to the Civil Justice Ministry.

In her recent visit to Butyrka, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson denounced the inhumane conditions faced by prisoners.

Prison authorities agree, but they say there is little they can do.

"We are the last link in the chain of law enforcing bodies," said Zubkov. "We do not decide anything. We simply take the prisoners in and deal with them. There are alternative measures that can be applied. Those above us prefer not to take advantage of them."

Zubkov added that the Federation Council (upper chamber of parliament) is currently considering a package of amendments designed to restructure Russia's penal system to eventually reduce the number of prisoners by at least 350,000.

As is it, 94,000 inmates will soon leave prisons under the amnesty program. But with the rate of new arrivals, it does not appear that crowded conditions in the nation's prisons will be alleviated anytime soon. In the past five months, the prison population has grown by another 42,000.