Monday, October 22, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Unbearable Conditions Driving Russian Prisoners to Revolt

Paul Goble

Vienna, October 22 –Increasingly harsh conditions in Russia’s penal institutions and the unwillingness of officials responsible for them to address complaints have combined to cause ever more inmates to organize and stage large revolts over the last three years.
Last week’s outbreak of violence at the Kirovograd youth detention center in Sverdlovsk oblast was only the latest of at least 24 such prison riots in the Russian Federation since April 2004, according to a study of the problem in the latest issue of Ekspert Online (
According to its author, Elena Borisova, two things are notable about this trend. On the one hand, jailers and the interior ministry officials over them continue to insist that nothing is really wrong and that this violence reflects the kind of people who are behind bars.
And on the other, this wave of violence in the Russian prison system features something new: A few years ago, most prisoners, however much despair they felt, acted individually, staging hunger strikes or cutting themselves. Now, however, out of a sense that they have nothing to lose, they are getting organized.
Borisova notes that in all of the recent cases, the prisoners have acted collectively, have seized hostages, and organized escape attempts, actions that have led the authorities to use lethal violence against them but that have become legendary among prisoners and thus the model for future revolts.
She says that all specialists and human rights activists say that these protest actions in almost ever case occur because of “the unbearable conditions” in which Russia’s prisoners are now kept, conditions which in many cases are even worse than they were in Soviet times or even in the 1990s.
Vladimir Lukin, the federal ombudsmen, who investigated a prison revolt in Kursk oblast in June 2005, said that those who took part in it were only seeking to defend their rights to adequate food, reasonable sanitation facilities, and opportunities to file protests.
This last possibility is especially important to prisoners, but guards and prison commandants do everything they can to prevent protests from being lodged or going forward. In one case, Lukin found, guards beat a prisoner who wanted to file a protest for 15 minutes and then made him eat the protest.
A commission of inquiry that examined the prison revolt in Leningrad oblast in 2006 found that prisoners were being charged up to 100 US dollars in order to go to the bathroom or to avoid being raped and that they were often confined for extended period in unheated and unsanitary disciplinary cells.
Because conditions in Russia’s prisons appear to be deteriorating and because ever more prisoners, on the occasion of their release, are telling both the media and groups involved in the defense of prisoners’ rights about them, more and more activists are speaking out, warning of still worse explosions to come.
Indeed, Valeriy Abramkin, the director of the Center for the Reform of Criminal Justice, told Borisova that Russian prisoners today have been driven to such a level of despair that they are “ready for anything.” After all, he continued, they now believe “they have nothing to lose.”
And Abramkin added that “if nothing is changed in the penitentiary system, [such outbreaks of violence] will increase in geometric progression.”
Among the groups now getting involved in trying to do something about Russia’s prisons are religious ones. The Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church has a special department for work with prisoners, but it has the reputation of doing what it can to support the authorities rather than prisoners.
Over the last several years, Muslim groups have become more active in this area, especially in the Middle Volga and North Caucasus where Muslims are the most numerous and Muslim prisoners the most common. Mullahs routinely visit prisons and have overseen the construction of mosques in a growing number of these institutions.
But now a Muslim website,, has upped the ante, not only reporting on the good works of Muslim leaders among prisoners but providing a channel for prisoners to communicate with the outside world and to bring complaints about their problems to a broader audience.
The site is extremely well developed, with news, information, and even radio podcasts, and as such, it may lead to even greater organization among the roughly one prisoner in 20 who is an active Muslim believer, a development with potentially explosive consequences.
Most immediately, growing awareness among Muslim prisoners of their problems could have the effect of triggering clashes between them and the one prisoner in ten who is Orthodox or the remainder who profess no religion at all (
And more generally and long term, as the problems Muslim prisoners now confront become more widely known, ever more Muslims outside prison walls could be radicalized as well, asking whether these prisoners are being treated badly because they are prisoners or because they are Muslims.
Some in the Russian penitentiary system may be only too pleased to seek to maintain their power by a process of divide and rule, but in this case, such an approach is beyond doubt a most dangerous game, one that could be the equivalent of dousing a fire with gasoline and thereby producing a broader conflagration.

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