Russia's Pretrial Detention Centers Replace the Gulag as Sites of Horror

A tattered economy and broken-down legal system leave people who are presumed innocent languishing in torturous holding cells

INSIDE a dimly lit cell built for 35 men in Moscow's two-century-old Butyrka prison, some 85 detainees stand or sleep in shifts on the filthy floor.

The air is so thick it stings the eyes; a mixture of cigarette smoke, sweat, and unwashed bodies mingles with the stench of human excrement from the lone toilet in one corner, draped with a cloth for privacy.

''It's always stuffy and hot because there are so many of us. We get new people every day,'' says 20-year-old Yura, his pale face emerging from a hatch in the cell door where bowls of greasy cabbage soup and kasha (gruel), are shoved through each day. (In some Russian regions, 90 percent of prison inmates are reportedly underweight.)

Yura, who was scared to give his last name for fear of retribution from prison officials, came to Butyrka last year on charges of ''racketeering,'' or petty extortion, a crime increasingly fashionable in the new Russia. He could face an eight-year sentence in a penal colony -- if his trial gets off the ground.

''Three people have already died of TB since I've been here,'' Yura says, before a prison guard impatiently slams his only window to the outside world firmly shut.

Insects and vermin are common here, and medicines are so scarce that many health problems among prisoners often go untreated. Prison officials admit that the number of incidents of tuberculosis greatly exceeds the national average.

Butyrka has been dubbed the ''death factory'' by Russian human rights activists.

Prison reforms have changed the infamous camp system chronicled in Alexander Solzhenitsyn's ''Gulag Archipelago.'' But it is a bitter paradox that today the worst conditions are not in jails, but in pretrial detention centers such as Butyrka, where people who are presumed innocent under the law are sent to await trial.

''The conditions are out of this world, like the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch. It is hell,'' said Nigel Rodley, a special rapporteur to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, after recent visits to several facilities, including Butyrka, in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

If a society can be judged by the way it treats its prisoners, as Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, then Russia's judgment could be harsh indeed.

As a consequence of Russia's spiraling crime rate and its overburdened judicial system, more than 235,000 people -- men and women -- are currently housed in 178 pretrial detention centers, called isolators, or sizos in Russian.

In total, the country has almost 1 million people incarcerated, according to Interior Ministry statistics.

The law mandates that detention cannot last more than two months without trial, with special extensions up to 18 months possible in extreme cases.

But some detainees end up waiting in appalling conditions -- where people accused of murder and rape are thrown in the same cell with those accused of petty economic crimes which may no longer even be on the books -- for as long as six years while their trials drag on.

''Only torture can equal incarceration in such a facility,'' says Viktor Mironov, head of the Commission to Study Investigative Isolators in the State Duma, or lower house of parliament. ''But we received this horrible legacy from the Communist regime, and the state is doing all it can based on the finances we have.''

As a final irony, about 10 percent of detainees in such facilities, according to Butyrka chief warden Alexander Volkov, are eventually either acquitted or set free on technicalities -- without realistic financial compensation or even an apology to take back home.

And many return to their old lives only to learn they no longer have their former jobs or even their apartments waiting for them -- and branded with a stigma that can follow them the rest of their lives.

''The principle of the presumption of innocence, which is supposedly upheld in Russian law, should preclude people from undergoing such torture,'' says Rachel Denber, director of the Moscow Office of Human Rights Watch/Helsinki. ''Russians are proud of the fact they have incorporated presumption of innocence into the Russian criminal code, but not redressing these conditions simply makes a ridicule of it.''

If detainees are sentenced, they eventually are processed into the country's vast network of penal colonies, or labor camps, which are also filled to capacity, but where inmates are not locked in cells and freedom of movement is allowed inside barbed-wire confines.

Communist doctrine held that crime was a disease indigenous only to capitalist societies. As a result, the Soviet state devoted little money to building jails in major cities where most crimes are committed. Instead it built concentration camps in Siberia and other isolated regions removed from foreign eyes.

Interior Ministry officials freely admit that the conditions in sizos are inhuman. But they assert that overcrowding can be solved only if unpaid debts are collected from the state to build new prisons.

According to Valery Abramkin, director of the Moscow Center for Prison Reform and an adviser to President Boris Yeltsin's commission on human rights, 60 percent of Russia's jails are considered unfit for use and 26 of the country's sizos are slated to be razed.

In an effort to alleviate worsening conditions, last month the Duma adopted a parliamentary amnesty to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. The proposal, which has initial approval from Yeltsin, could affect 300,000 war veterans and others, including convicts accused of non-violent crimes and a limited number of people in detention or with suspended sentences.

But while such reforms are desperately needed, activists who welcome the amnesty fear it enables the authorities to relieve only temporarily some of the symptoms, without tackling the root of the problem.

The parliament earlier mandated that the majority of prisons can operate on self-financing systems much like commercial firms, and plans are under way to build two new jails in Moscow and Arkhangelsk.

But activists, who blame more than just the lack of facilities for the overcrowding, say such schemes may just help officials line their own pockets.

The real problems, they say, lie in prolonged investigations and delayed trials caused by a shrinking number of prosecuting investigators and overworked judges; the lack of jury trials, coupled with the overwhelming preponderance of communist-style ''people's judges;'' and antiquated laws that make few allowances for bail or parole.

They also criticize measures the state has taken to combat rising crime, including decrees issued by President Yeltsin that allow for arbitrary arrest and illegal search, seizure, and detention. Activists also argue that the rising crime rate has led officials to overlook heavy-handed practices during arrest and incarceration, and that the country's courts are timid in asserting their authority.

''Our legal system was built on communist concepts formulated in the 1930s, when we had an entirely different state,'' says Gennady Molchanov of the Society of Benefactors of Penitentiary Institutions, which provides free legal advice to inmates and their friends and families. ''Now we have a new government and a new generation growing up under different moral principles, and the old system just can't work anymore.''

Legal irregularities are common. The right to a pretrial attorney is often overlooked, and judges often sentence detainees without consulting the defense. Defendants found guilty regularly choose not to appeal because conditions in prison are preferable to detention centers for those awaiting trial.

Plummeting salaries have also pushed professional lawyers and police investigators into the private sector.

''Today 42 percent of all the people working as [prosecuting] investigators have no legal degrees,'' says Duma deputy Mironov, a former investigator himself.

''Instead of lawyers, they are using doctors, circus artists, teachers, and musicians as investigators,'' he says.

Reports of inmates being physically coerced into making confessions are not rare. Officially physical punishment is forbidden; instead inmates are put into isolation cells, which are often little more than dungeons where they can spend weeks or even months without human contact.

This would not come as a surprise to detainees at Butyrka, whose introduction to prison life begins at the boks, a concrete closet the size of a phone booth where they are forced to wait while all necessary documents are processed, a procedure which can take hours.

On a recent afternoon, two emaciated inmates evidently transferred to Butyrka from another prison struggled to emerge from such closets lugging bundles of clothing. One was covered in elaborate tattoos, considered both an art and a rite of passage in Russian prisons.

Once escorted to their cells by guards carrying rubber truncheons, the detainees entered what could be their home for years: a room described by one former inmate as a ''trolley car in rush hour.''

In some cells, the air is so thin it is impossible to light a match, and activists say inmates regularly collapse from a lack of oxygen or swollen legs from being forced to stand long hours.

Detainees sleep in shifts and pass eating utensils from hand to hand and mouth to mouth as there are not enough beds and spoons to go around. Five-minute showers are allowed once weekly, and the only exercise consists of a one-hour daily walk inside a small cage on the roof.

''You can compare conditions today only with Stalin's 1930s,'' says reformist Duma deputy Father Gleb Yakunin, who was a political prisoner in Moscow's elite Lefortovo prison from 1979 to 1985.

Built to accommodate 3,500 people by 18th-century standards, today more than 6,500 men and women are crammed within Butyrka's dilapidated walls, where no major renovation has been carried out for more than a century. Paint peels in sheets from the walls, lighting is dim or nonexistent, and plumbing faulty, at best.

International law dictates that prisoners be allotted a minimum of 2.5 square meters per person, but at Butyrka, which was once home to Mr. Solzhenitsyn, former Soviet secret police chief Felix Dzerzhinsky, and Adolf Hitler's personal pilot, they have a mere .075, according to warden Volkov.

''The most horrible problem is a lack of space. People simply do not have enough space to move. There is nowhere to stand, let alone sleep,'' he says. ''We don't give all the men mattresses because there is no room to put them in the cell.''

Visitors, letters, and telephone calls are forbidden, and while packages are allowed, often bribes are needed to ensure they reach their destination.

''This is an isolator,'' explains detainee Yura, whom a guard allowed to speak to a reporter although Butyrka administration forbids such contacts. ''That means we are supposed to be completely isolated from the outside world.''

In one cell, a man who believed himself to be Jesus Christ crossed himself repeatedly as a visitor looked through the hatch at him. Another man wearing only his underpants flexed his arm muscles, posing repeatedly for his cellmates who appeared oblivious to his antics. A guard confided that these men are mentally ill, and therefore locked in wards kept separate from the rest.

In another wing, women gather at the hatch begging a visitor to bring them medicine, blankets, soap, and disinfectants. ''We can't keep anything clean,'' bemoans Larisa Levashova, who has been awaiting trial eight months for her role as a lookout in an apartment burglary. By the time her case goes to court, so much time will have elapsed that the judge will have no choice but to free her, she says.

Tanya, who was afraid to give her last name, has awaited trial for six months for alleged drug trafficking. She says that in March she was beaten in the head and legs by two female guards after she ''yelled too loudly'' through her cell window, which is barred and shuttered to prevent anyone from looking in or out.

''They've decided that if we are here, our life is already over,'' she says, as other women leave the cell's lone TV set to crowd around the hatch. Inmates are allowed to bring televisions to Butyrka on the condition that they leave them behind if they are freed or transferred to another prison.

In its annual human rights report last February, the United States State Department cited findings by Russia's human rights commissioner, Sergei Kovalyov, that law enforcement officials ''beat and physically abused detainees.'' The report also condemned the rape of female detainees, who are usually frightened away from registering official complaints.

The report, which deemed many of Russia's prisons unfit for human habitation, said they have worsened in recent years. In some regions, prisoners went unfed for months at a time, existing purely on provisions bought by friends and relatives, it said.

It also said prison officials often target homosexual men for abuse, and that lesbians are treated as mentally ill and institutionalized against their will. The Society for Benefactors of Penitentiary Institutions estimates that 1,000 gay men in Moscow pretrial detention centers have not been formally charged with crimes.

While some Russian laws are relatively lenient -- minors ages 18 and under can receive a sentence no longer than 10 years regardless of the crime, and the death sentence is rare -- other laws are unusually harsh, the legacy of a rigid Soviet system which punished all dissent.

Sixteen-year-old Sergei Karpenko, for example, was sentenced in March to 6-1/2 years in a penal colony after completing a six-month stint in a pretrial detention center outside Moscow. His crime: fighting.

A small, frail boy who had never been in trouble with the law before, Sergei's forehead was a mass of bloody bruises caused by repeatedly banging his head against the wall of his cell. His wrists bore the marks of repeated suicide attempts, and he was dressed in the same threadbare cotton trousers and stained shirt he had been wearing when he was arrested.

''We can't afford to buy him clothes,'' explained a duty sergeant dressed in a crisp pea-green uniform paid for by the government.

Some activists predict that the state is sitting on a powder keg ready to explode if food, clothing, bedding, medicine, and toiletries are not provided.

In some prisons, inmates have already staged hunger strikes to protest conditions, and while breakouts are rare, guards have been forced to call dogs on prisoners in some jails to quell what may have blown into full-scale riots.

Prisons are ''a problem that Russia does not want to deal with. But if Russia wants the prestige of being a great power, then along with that privilege is the responsibility to its own citizens and before the world community to adhere to basic human rights standards,'' says Ms. Denber of Human Rights Watch/Helsinki.

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