Torture by Filth: Prison Reforms Which Never Took Place

October 8, 2013
RIA Novosti

Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova has gone on hunger strike to protest the conditions that she and other Russian prisoners face. While her lawyer has highlighted the fact that Nadya is being unfairly targeted because she is challenging the system, it is also evident that she has a larger profile, and so a louder voice, than many of her fellow prisoners.

Novaya Gazeta has published the results of an investigation into Russian prisons, which we have translated below. The conditions described are alarming, and the death rate in Russian prisons is extremely high as a result. According to this article, in 2012, 3,907 people died in Russian prisons. In contrast, 8,110 prisoners died in American jails over the course of eight years between 2000 and 2007, mostly due to suicide, and the suicide rate in jails is much higher than in prisons, though the death rate in jail is decreasing. The number of people in American jails is larger than the number of Russians who are in prison.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics, approximately 3200-3500 people die in American prisons each year, and that number is also decreasing. The U.S. prison population is three to four times larger than the Russian prison population. – Ed.

The letter of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova from the Mordovian labor camp colony in which the young woman describes the inhumane conditions of the life of the inmates has made conditions of detention in Russian colonies topic number one. The newspapers and television have begun to speak about the Mordovian camps as “the most terrible in the country.” But Mordovia is far the exception. All throughout Russia, people have been jailed in the same conditions as the women in Corrective Labor Colony No. 14.

The horrors of violence practiced in our prisons prevent society from seeing the picture of everyday life in these institutions which is intolerable in itself. The shameful sanitary and hygienic conditions, the lack of adequate medical care, the horrible quality of the food – all of this has long been equated to torture by the [UN] international convention.

They Say Reform is Underway

Four years have passed since Dmitry Medvedev declared the beginning of reforms in the Federal Penitentiary System. [The English term for prison systems such as “penitentiary” or “corrections system,” taken from their history involving religious reformers, do not capture the Russian term which is literally “Federal System for Fulfillment of Punishments”—Trans.] In reality, the reform began back in 2006, when the government allocated 73 billion rubles to the Federal Penitentiary System (FPS) for implementing reforms.

The chief goals of the reforms were the humanization of the system by the transfer  of convicts from colonies to prison detention, and also the improvement of conditions of detention in keeping with international standards.

Aleksandr Reymer, then director of FPS, plunged head first into reform. The first thing they did was begin to separate the first-time offenders from the recidivists;  and throughout the whole country, special rail cars began to roll carrying the convicts to new places to serve their terms. “Why spend enormous amounts of money on transferring prisoners, when you could have spent that money on repair of the facilities and improvement of the conditions of incarceration,” some officials timidly objected, but the director was implacable. Inspections and checks went on at all ends of the country. Reymer loved to pop up unexpectedly at some colony and call on the carpet the latest boss for the “unkempt” appearance of the facility. Undoubtedly, there was a result of all this zeal. The paint was refreshed on the facades of the buildings in the colonies, and the territory of the zone was enriched with all sorts of little flower beds, fountains, dolphins and gnomes so it would be “pleasing to the eye.” But on the rest, reform was sluggish.

Aleksandr Reymer was pronounced an unfit reformer and sent into retirement. “He’s a cop,” Reymer’s former subordinates said about him afterward. “What could he understand about prisons?”

Thus all the more unexpected was the candidacy of his successor, Gennady Kornienko, a Chekist [KGB agent], former head of the courier service, an agency even more remote from prisons. Reymer had been determined to get rapid results, and for better or worse, reform ground on, but under Kornienko, it ground to a halt; at least in the last year, nothing has been heard of any changes at all.

Eating Like Moose

Novaya Gazeta spoke with a dozen recently released male and female convicts, all of whom have served their sentences in various colonies and various regions, but on the whole their stories were similar: the awful food and unsanitary conditions force their individuality to be degraded even more than harsh beatings.

Sergei, a zek [prisoner] with a “career” of more than 10 years, over several terms, had grown used to prison and it was hard to surprise him. “In the last year, I was in No. 29 in Kemerovo. I was in the section with the strict conditions of incarceration. As far as I know, before people would stay in this colony for life, during the reforms of the system, they made a special regime, but the conditions remained the same.

“Six people were held in 12-meter-square cells. I was in solitary; the bed was bolted to the wall; if you folded it down, you could only stand on one leg. The small window on the outside was covered with an iron box, the so-called ‘eyelashes’; officially they were abolished back in the 1990s, but in practice there is no compliance even with this. Daylight barely penetrates such a window; in the cell itself there is a dull light bulb, it is virtually impossible to read, my vision was ruined within a year.

“Water dripped from the ceiling constantly over the bed in the corner, once a week there was always a flood. When there was an FPS or prosecutor’s inspection at the colony, we began to make a fuss, banging on the doors and shouting so the inspectors would come to us, but each time we heard only the sounds of their receding footsteps.

“It was always easy to tell when there was an inspection team coming to the camp. If there were pieces of sausage swimming in the soup, that was a true sign that ‘company’s coming.’

“The standard daily dish of our colony was bigus – grey, gooey, boiled sour cabbage which smelled rotten, and a damp, black mass which was called ‘bread.’ There was no meat or fish or white bread handed out in the entire year, although the standards require 90 grams of meat and 100 grams of fish every day. A separate subject were the potatoes, which were hauled into our colony in enormous tin cans already chopped into cubes. It was called ‘dry potato,’ and it tasted like cotton with potato flavoring; we were told that it was feed for moose, but it was fed to us.”

How do people survive in these kinds of conditions? In the men’s colonies it was easier. There was the so-called “warm-up” – food and necessities sent from the outside were put together into the “kitty” and then redistributed, particularly to those convicts who needed them the most. That sort of group solidarity enabled people to survive. In the women’s colonies, the level of mutual aid was much lower. “Everybody for themselves and the hell with your neighbor, as long as you yourself survive,” says Larisa, who was recently released from the women’s colony in the city of Ivanovo.

Wash-up Shortage

“Expired food isn’t the worst thing in the zone,” she says. “What destroys a person are the conditions of work and hygiene, or rather, their absence. In our colony, there a sewing factory was set up, we sew uniforms for the police. Everyone works, except for those who are already old ladies. The quota of the job is 170 items a day, and the boss could care less, for example, who was given leave or who was sick, i.e. that there were less people, because the quota for the whole brigade was no less. If someone alone didn’t fulfill their quota, the whole brigade was punished; there were 76 of us, and they could force us to go out in the yard, they could deprive us of the opportunity to buy food in the store – the punishment depended on the warden’s mood.

“Officially we worked 8 hours a day, but in practice on the average it was 16, and there was only one day off – Sunday, and then not everyone. The pay was 300-400 rubles a month, and often that was all you had.

“It is harder for women to serve their terms than men. The first-timers are still somehow supported from the outside. But the women who are already in for a second time or more as a rule are single, and have no one to help them. Therefore, many of them work to exhaustion, just to earn a kopeck

“If you work poorly, you are punished, if you work well, you are not allowed out on early release. ‘It’s too bad to lose ones like that,’ says the warden. Therefore the psychologist writes in your reference sheet, ‘Not prepared for life on the outside. Possible recidivist.’ That is enough for the judge to refuse you early release.

“Because of the poor unsanitary conditions, every other girl has foot fungus. Many of them don’t even treat it, they don’t have medications, and why bother, no sooner do you get rid of it than it comes back again. The most unbearable is the shortage of ‘wash-ups.’ Once a month, we are forced to buy ‘government hygiene packs’ – they cost 300 rubles, which is your whole wages. It is forced, because no one would buy it ordinarily – all that it contains is some toilet paper, two pieces of soap, and a tube of toothpaste – in very small sizes. The toilet paper barely lasts a week, the soap lasts a maximum of two washings – you launder one thing and then nothing is left of the piece. There is a shower once a week, for two brigades, which is 120 people in one day. There are 6 toilets and three outlets. In the shower and the wash room all the walls are green, covered with fungus.”

Inspections By Storm

“Inspection commissions often visit us,” recounts Larisa. “In our colony, their reception was carefully prepared. Everyone is taken around only in ‘special’ brigades, in the 9th and the 6th. There, it’s European style renovation, everything is clean, and the girls are trained what to say there and how to answer the questions properly. The rest of the prisoners are locked up for the whole time that the commission is walking around the colony. If they went into the 10th brigade, they’d see a different picture – there are also double-glazed windows, but they are smaller than the window frame, and there is a terrible draft through the cracks in the winter, it’s damp in the building and the walls are green with mold.”

By comparison with the starving 1990s, the general level of welfare in the Russia zones, and the minimum standard to survive in our country, has noticeably improved. And now in every zone there exists renovation of the barracks marked with a seal, and in every region there is one or even two model demonstration colonies – clean, orderly, with “European-style renovation,” where the FPS bosses happily take around human rights activists and journalists.

But there is another reality, where there hasn’t been any remodeling for decades, where the housing barracks are strapped with ropes from decay, as in Kirov Region, for example. To get permission for a visit to such a colony is a nearly impossible task. Zeks have their own unofficial “rating” of colonies; they aren’t persistent and change from year to year. For example, the colony in Vladimir Region, in terms of the living conditions is nearly the ideal; the most “sad” are in Kirov, Krasnodar and Kemerovo Regions.

Prosecutors’ Report

Human rights organizations are deluged with complaints about inhumane conditions in Russian prisons (more than 50% of the total number, in addition to complaints of torture and the lack of medical care) but to obtain even a prosecutor’s inspection for each of them is difficult.

If there is a chance to attract public attention to physical torture and at least somehow change the situation, and obtain a public response, it is virtually impossible to complain about the quality of the food, the slave-like work conditions or the lack of elementary hygiene.

In our country, it is considered that this is “trivial” – “they aren’t in a resort,” people say, so let them suffer. But the conditions surround the person for his entire sentence, 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. And “humiliation with living conditions” is an essential part of the Russian system of re-educating the convict.

“In half of the cases of physical force on the part of wardens in the colony, it is the consequence of complaints by the convicts about the conditions of incarceration,” says Valentin Bogdan, a staff member of the Prisoners’ Rights Defense Fund. “A person complains about the quality of the food, the damp, the filth, and in reply they start to pressure him, at first intimidate him, and then throw him in the punishment isolation cell. The zek continues to resist – and the wardens resist back. The only opportunity for protest is to cut your veins or do some other form of bodily harm, especially when the complaints don’t go outside the walls of the colony.”

Dmitry Chudin has served three years in the Colony No. 1 of the Republic of Karelia. He has not left the punishment cell for months at a time for systematic complaints. The colony wardens, engaging in “re-education,” pour a mixture of chlorine into his damp cell: “after that, it is unbearable in the cell, I can’t breathe, the coughing and vomiting doesn’t stop until the next ‘inspection,’ and then it starts all over again. The doctors refuse to record the beatings, and the prosecutors refuses to take measures. All these persons are prepared to confirm this information,” writes Dmitry. Then the names of four people follow, including the name of the convict Bokov.

“Chudin is characterized negatively, he is inclined to self-harm. The sanitary treatment of the cell is made daily with such solutions as chloropin and trimycin under observation of the medical personnel. Convict Bokov has been questioned. No evidence of persecution has been found,” replies Republic of Karelia Prosecutor Khrapchenkov. Soon it was determined that the disinfectant chloropin contains 56% active chlorine. And no one questioned Bokov, he wasn’t even in the colony at the time of the inspection, which he explained in written testimony.

Dmitry Chudin could send his complaints to human rights activists during his transport to the courtroom, because the censor at No. 1 does not allow complaints to go through. The last letter was received in April 2013. After that, nothing more is known about the fate of Chudin. To all inquiries, the Karelia Prosecutor’s Office and the FPS continue to reply: “No evidence of violations has been confirmed.”

Prosecutor General Yury Chaika never notes these and other facts of inaction by officials of the Prosecutor’s Office. In his annual reports on violations of the law in Russian corrective institutions, the prosecutor prefers to condemn the FPS. “In 2012, 3,907 people died in Russian prisons; the Prosecutor’s Office found more than 43,000 violations concerning the conditions of detention of prisoners which entailed not only death but epidemics of mortally dangerous illnesses such as tuberculosis, HIV infections and drug addiction,” Chaika complained indignantly.

The general state of affairs in the prisons is largely reflected in the report by members of the Public Observation Commission in Chelyabinsk Region released a few weeks ago. The members of the Commission headed by Nikolai Shchur undertook titanic work. For 30 months, they traveled throughout the colonies and investigative isolation [pre-trial] prisons several times each, inspecting the conditions of incarceration and incidents of the use of torture. It must be noted that Chelyabinsk Region is one of the most dense and heavily populated areas for Russian labor camps on the map – there are 23 colonies and investigative isolation prisons. Most of the colonies had various violations, reported the human rights advocates. Here are some of the examples: “No. 5 (a women’s colony): ban in the punishment cell of shampoo and conditioner, toilet soap, ban on visits, wardens do not allow complaints out of the colony. Inadequate medical care, no hot water in the cells; No. 6: systematic extortion of money, slave conditions of labor; No. 9; dampness in sleeping quarters, fungus, no winter footwear.”

The human rights activists’ conclusion: “The general situation, the mentality of the penitentiary system and the mentality of its officials has remained as before, and none of the officials committing, in our opinion, abuse of people, are brought to account, especially from the leadership.”

FPS once again asking for money: 1.8 trillion rubles

The monstrous state of affairs in the system outrages not only human rights defenders. Justice Minister Aleksandr Konovalov in January of this year, speaking during the “government hour” at the State Duma, suddenly stated that every colony today is “a closed space” in which is occurring “completely unimaginably things, about which you and I can only suspect.” The question was put strangely: if the direct head of the FPS “cannot suspect” anything (structurally, the Russian FPS is subordinate to the Justice Ministry), it is hard to imagine then who can figure it out.

In February of this year, a report wound up in the media which had been prepared for the director of the FPS by his deputies. From the report it follows that the Russian FPS, aside from the funds allocated for conducting reforms, needs another 1.8 trillion rubles, and for urgent, critical tasks more than 12.5 billion rubles were needed immediately. Kornienko stamped “Approved” on the resolution. However, these funds are not in the budget, because the “humanization” apparently is postponed for an unknown period. Officially, the reform continues until 2020. And on paper, it is moving.


According to statistics from the FPS, as of 1 September 2013, there were 682,000 prisoners incarcerated in corrective institutions in our country; of these, 56,000 are women. There are 736 colonies in the country, 8 prisons, 229 investigative isolation prisons, and 56 education camps. The total number of personnel in the system is 312,000 people.