Penitentiaries in the pandemic Russian officials say coronavirus hasn’t infected a single inmate, but COVID-19 has undeniably changed life behind bars in big ways
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, several countries around the world have begun releasing large numbers of inmates to curb the spread of the disease behind prison walls. In Russia, however, it’s now impossible even to try to get early parole. Meduza looks at how coronavirus has changed life for prisoners in Russia, why the country’s prison system still hasn’t confirmed a single case of COVID-19, and how inmates have been mobilized for industrial labor during the country’s “non-working” holidays.
Release thou shalt not hold
In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries have started releasing prisoners convicted of minor crimes and granting early parole to inmates who have served most of their sentences. Officials are doing this to reduce the number of people who might become infected in coronavirus outbreaks at prison facilities. Russia’s Presidential Human Rights Council is still reviewing proposals for a general prisoner amnesty, but even Russia’s “official human rights activists” have failed to reach any consensus here.
According to data collected by Amnesty International, there are 9,500 people older than 60 now incarcerated in Russia and far more prisoners in severely poor health. “The current state of Russia’s penitentiary system — given overcrowding, bad ventilation, and inadequate levels of healthcare and sanitary conditions — exposes inmates to a higher risk of infection,” says Natalia Prilutskaya, a researcher for Amnesty International in Russia. “If the authorities do not take urgent protective measures, the COVID-19 pandemic could overwhelm Russian prisons, leading to devastating consequences.”
“Regarding an amnesty, there was a reasonable idea in one of the projects submitted to the State Duma to release disabled inmates, women older than 50, men older than 55, criminals convicted of certain categories of offenses, and people sentenced to less than five years,” argues sociologist Ksenia Runova, a researcher at the Institute for the Rule of Law at the European University at St. Petersburg.
As an interim measure, human rights activists say suspects accused of nonviolent crimes should be released on their own recognizance rather than jailed. Many countries have already taken this approach. “Personally, I continue to believe that the fewer detainees we have, the more successfully we can minimize the risks,” says Anna Karetnikova, an analyst at Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN). At the same time, she stresses that staff and doctors at detention centers in Moscow are doing everything possible to prevent outbreaks among prison populations. After visiting Moscow’s Butyrka prison in mid-April, Russian Human Rights Commissioner Tatyana Moskalkova made a similar announcement: “When it comes to individuals who have not committed violent crimes against other persons and people who are accused of economic offenses, I believe we can consider measures other than incarceration (such as bail or house arrest).”
On April 18, the Russian media reported a letter from FSIN director Alexander Kalashnikov addressed to Supreme Court Chief Justice Vyacheslav Lebedev, requesting that the justice system stop jailing people during the coronavirus pandemic for small and medium offenses. According to Kalashnikov’s text, 22 detention centers were already filled beyond capacity on April 1. The Telegram channel Mash was the first to publish the letter and a source close to the Federal Penitentiary Service later verified its authenticity to the newspaper RBC. According to the FSIN’s data at the start of the month, Moscow detention facilities had 9,406 prisoners, including 1,743 people (18.5 percent of the total inmate population) who are accused of minor crimes. This prison population grew 2.9 percent (by 281 people) over the court of March 2020.
Writing on Facebook, FSIN analyst Anna Karetnikova confirmed that Moscow’s detention centers are at risk of overcrowding. “On April 1, there were 53 people at Detention Center 7, which was purposefully unloaded beforehand as part of a ‘citywide approach’ (now all new detainees are sent to one facility). As of yesterday, there were more than 440 people. In other words, they’re arresting more than 20 people in a day and bringing them there,” wrote Karetnikova. “With this in mind, I think the FSIN director’s letter is principled and urgent.”
Meanwhile, during the pandemic, Russian courts have virtually stopped hearing convicts’ requests for parole and mitigated or commuted sentences. According to many officials (such as state prosecutors in the Lipetsk region), these cases do not meet the “urgent nature” exception described by the Supreme Court when it recently suspended judicial proceedings during the coronavirus pandemic.
Staff at Moscow’s detention centers now remain on site for two weeks at a time. “At these facilities, there are meals and amenities arranged for the guards on duty. The employees awaiting their next shift are in self-isolation,” says the FSIN’s Moscow branch, insisting that every detention center in the capital has enough medical personnel “for both inpatient and outpatient care,” as well as sufficient supplies of medicines and personal protective gear. Prisoners’ relatives are also permitted to send medicines if they can get the consent of senior physicians at isolation wards.
How the FSIN is trying to fight the coronavirus pandemic
If prisoners show symptoms of COVID-19 or are suspected of having contracted the disease for any reason, regional prison wardens are under orders to arrange for these individuals to be treated at civilian hospitals, according to an official announcement by FSIN, citing a directive from the agency’s surgeon general, Artyom Galkin. All regional FSIN heads have also been instructed to coordinate with local gubernatorial coronavirus task forces. The Federal Penitentiary Service’s medical units are now operating around the clock and the agency says it’s providing these workers with “the necessary supply of drugs.” Medical personnel at jails and prisons are now supposed to screen inmates twice as often “for fever and cold symptoms in order to isolate them as quickly as possible.” Senior officials at FSIN have also ordered guards at all prisons to examine outside visitors for signs of acute respiratory viral infection (ARVI) and measure guests’ temperatures.
The moment any respiratory illnesses are detected among prisoners or staff, coronavirus tests become mandatory at that facility. (FSIN has opened laboratories at its hospitals to process these tests.) Staff at detention centers and prisons are supposed to be provided masks, gloves, and disinfectants.
On March 16, all prisons and detention centers across Russia indefinitely suspended visits with inmates. At various regional FSIN branches, officials are now trying to organize “video calls” between inmates and their loved ones, instead. In areas hit by COVID-19 outbreaks, jails and prisons have also stopped accepting outside parcels and packages. Friends and relatives who want to send food and other basic necessities to prisoners can still place orders through the FSIN Pokupka online portal (run by the “Kaluga” federal state unitary enterprise).
Across the country, FSIN’s facilities in Moscow have imposed the strictest containment measures. With the exceptions of the Presnensky District’s Detention Center 7 and Noginsk’s Detention Center 11, all detention centers in Moscow and the surrounding region have stopped admitting new inmates. The facility in the Presnensky District is isolating all newcomers in a separate wing and the detention center in Noginsk moved its entire inmate population to other jails to make room for new prisoners.
“Not even the kitchen staff has masks”
At the time of this writing, Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service hasn’t confirmed a single case of COVID-19 among the prison population. The agency’s Moscow branch denies a report by the newspaper RBC about the spread of coronavirus at the capital’s “Matrosskaya Tishina” prison. Officials have denied similar reports in the media and blogosphere about alleged COVID-19 outbreaks at prisons in the Ivanovo region, Buryatia, and Mari El.
In the Ryazan region, following reports by “Russia Behind Bars” human rights activist Olga Romanova, FSIN has acknowledged that an employee at Correctional Facility 5 tested positive for the disease, though the agency maintains that coronavirus hasn’t spread to any inmates in Ryazan.
“Those who were in contact with the sick staff member have received all the necessary tests. All inmates showing signs of ARVI were also being tested for COVID-19. All results were negative. The sick employee has a mild case of the disease. He and members of his family are now in isolation and he has not required hospitalization,” FSIN clarified in a public statement. The agency is now auditing Correctional Facility 5, which has suspended the reception and transfer of inmates, stopped receiving outside parcels, and begun regularly disinfecting and ventilating its premises.
On April 13, Buryatia’s branch of the Federal Service for Consumer Rights Protection and Human Welfare reported that five local FSIN staff had contracted COVID-19. “An employee’s husband infected her after returning from Moscow and she then spread the disease to her colleagues. FSIN’s internal health service is handling the necessary work with the infected,” said Elena Kuzmina, the deputy director of Buryatia’s Rospotrebnadzor branch. Another two staff members at a prison in the Saratov region tested positive for coronavirus, according to Vladimir Neznamov, the chairman of the region’s public monitoring commission. At least one FSIN employee has died from COVID-19: Anatoly Isichenko, who worked at an agency research institute and was hospitalized at the “Novomoskovsky” medical center.
As part of its effort to monitor the COVID-19 situation in prison populations, the human rights organization “Russia Behind Bars” has started publishing disturbing messages from inmates across the country. At Correctional Facility 12 in the Kostroma region, for example, prisoners have complained about a lack of disinfectants and say even the facility’s staff don’t have gloves or masks: “They come in for inspections without masks or gloves, but in their reports, they write that they were wearing masks and gloves. Nobody is checking temperatures. Not even the kitchen staff has masks.”
At Correctional Facility 9 in Tver, inmates say a regional FSIN commission arrived on April 12 to search living quarters, just as the prison suspended visitation rights. “FSIN staff touched convicts’ personal belongings, including personal hygiene products, without using protective gear (masks or gloves),” says one message shared by Olga Romanova’s organization.
Some prisons seem to be better equipped than others, however. An informant at Correctional Facility 1, which is currently under strict lockdown, told Russia Behind Bars that inmates are issued two masks a day (one at morning check and another at daytime inspection) and provided a virtually unlimited supply of hand sanitizer gel.
Meanwhile, in Novosibirsk, prisoners at Detention Center 1 have expressed concerns about the suspension of medicine transfers and the hospitalization of an inmate with a severe respiratory infection at the center’s health facility. Prisoners at Novosibirsk’s Correctional Facility 2 say there’s been a surge in patients with ARVI symptoms (fevers and coughs) and a lack of treatment. Local sources told Russia Behind Bars that one inmate has died and another prisoner was hospitalized for unknown reasons, though it’s unknown if either inmate tested positive for COVID-19.
“It’s very important to ensure the safety of doctors, who are already scarce in the prison system. First and foremost, they need to be provided all the necessary means of protection and disinfection,” says sociologist Ksenia Runova. “Facilities with prisoners suffering from tuberculosis also need to ensure maximum isolation from potential contact with the infection.”
According to Runova, roughly 10 percent of Russia’s current prison population (about 60,000 inmates) are infected with HIV. Roughly 16,000 prisoners have active tuberculosis and the number of inmates with “closed tuberculosis” is greater than the HIV-positive population. On April 14, Russia’s Presidential Human Rights Council said it plans to ask the Federal Penitentiary Service for data about COVID-19 testing among prisoners.
Reports about a supposed outbreak of coronavirus at an FSIN facility in the town of Toroprok, outside Novgorod, have already triggered a criminal investigation into the dissemination of publicly harmful false information. Citing the decision to open the case, the state television network RT claimed that Russia Behind Bars is the subject of the investigation. In response, the human rights organization’s founder and director, Olga Romanova, accused RT of spreading fake news and threatened to sue the network. The statement issued by Novgorod investigators says only that the case concerns information “published on an Internet outlet on April 9, 2020.”
Mobilizing prison labor
Many regional FSIN branches say they’ve canceled all mass events, but not a single facility has reported a suspension or even reduction in manufacturing output during the “non-working days” declared by President Putin.
Correctional Facility 12 in Yaroslavl, for example, says it recently opened a new site to produce fire (smothering) blankets. “[...] In order to maximize prisoners’ involvement in paid work, a partner institution purchases and installed 16 sewing units,” the prison announced.
On April 8, a hospital for tuberculosis patients at a prison in Tagil started installing equipment for packaging laundry detergent: “A compressor unit and a mixing hopper have been supplied. A lifting mechanism was installed. The new equipment is fully automated, which allows the detergent to be packed and packaged without errors.”
Two dozen inmates at Correctional Facility 55’s sewing workshop in the Sverdlovsk region have been manufacturing prison uniforms since January. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, production hasn’t stopped — it’s actually accelerated: from 200 uniforms in January to 220 in February, followed by 500 in March, and then more than 300 in just the first six days of April. “The convicts who are gaining momentum in sewing production are encouraged by incentives and rewards from the prison administration,” says the FSIN.
On April 8, Women’s Correctional Facility 33 — a prison in the Kirov region where 40 of the 260 inmates are employed in the sewing workshop — reported that it is processing a sewing order for 6,000 canteen jackets. That same day, Perm FSIN branch director Yuri Lymar and senior management at Correctional Facility 13 discussed the opening of a new production site to treat and preserve railroad crossties.
“The problem is that halting production still won’t isolate prisoners from each other in conditions where inmates live in groups of people in a single room with one kitchen and a shared bathroom,” explains sociologist Ksenia Runova, who argues that prisoners deprived of work and isolated in groups “could start making alcohol and doing things like that just to pass the time.”
“70 masks a day is the norm”
This month, more than 120 FSIN facilities are supposed to begin sewing medical masks, according to Federation Council Economic Policy Committee Chairman Andrey Kutepov, who says just three prisons had already manufactured 132,000 masks by April 2. “Based on data provided by the Federal Penitentiary Service, 122 prisons will begin producing masks by April 7,” the senator announced earlier this month, arguing that Russia’s prison system needs to recruit businesses with raw materials and manufacturing equipment to expand production.
“The solution could be the prompt allocation of vacant space at FSIN facilities to businesses for organizing production under a simplified procedure,” Kutepov said in a letter to Russia’s Justice Ministry in early April. A couple of weeks later, the Parliament adopted corresponding legislation drafted by Kutepov and endorsed by Federation Council Chairwoman Valentina Matviyenko.
The FSIN’s product catalog currently lists just a handful of mask producers: Correctional Facility 9 in Kaliningrad and Correctional Facilities 1, 7, and 9 in Karelia. But mask manufacturing has also reportedly started at prisons in the Sakhalin, Mordovia, and Sverdlovsk regions. Correctional Facility 2 in Yekaterinburg has even shared footage on its YouTube channel (see above) showing inmates on the assembly line. The Sverdlovsk regional government has also signed a 500,000-ruble ($6,485) contract with Correctional Facility 46 to produce an additional 30,000 medical masks.
According to reports published by Russia Behind Bars, Correctional Facility 14 in Novosibirsk is also using prisoners to make masks. “The norm per prisoner is 70 masks a day. They’ve mobilized everyone who finished sewing classes at the local vocational school. Inmates have to sign for their masks and they’re each issued only one. The prison authorities promise to install ironing boards and bring in more irons to disinfect the masks,” one source told the human rights group.
“No matter what, together we can’t lose hope”
Throughout Russia, the only senior regional prison official who’s personally appealed to inmates during the pandemic is Oleg Korobeinikov, the acting head of the FSIN’s Krasnodar Territory branch. “Remember that the top priority is to protect the lives and health of the people around us. We must carefully observe the recommendations from doctors and the authorities and work professionally, efficiently, and proactively,” Korobeinikov said in a message to the prisoners in his region. “Misunderstanding and underestimating the severity of this situation could lead to the most unpredictable consequences. The future of the country, of ourselves, our friends and family, and the people for whom we are responsible, as well as the whole penitentiary system’s prestige, depend on our teamwork and steady composure.”
In the Smolensk region, on the other hand, local FSIN officials have concentrated on reassuring their own staff. For example, prison psychologists in the area have started watching online lectures about “the topical issue of the coronacrisis” by Mikhail Khasiminsky, the head of the Center for Crisis Psychology and a member of the FSIN’s Public Council. In these videos, he explains to prison staff that “it’s not the illness in a pandemic but the statistics people see and hear that cause stress.” “Mr. Khasiminsky recommends thinking about how these statistics relate to each of us and counting how many people you know in total, how many of them have become sick and died, and who among your friends has suffered from coronavirus. Figures shouldn’t scare people. We must be rational when confronting confusion and fear,” says a message posted on the FSIN Smolensk branch’s website.
“No matter what, together we can’t lose hope. We have to pull ourselves together and rally against this problem,” the FSIN Sverdlovsk branch said in a special press statement about COVID-19 on April 6. “Throughout history, the Russian people have been unbeatable. We are all capable of overcoming any adversity.”
Translation by Kevin Rothrock