Why are the toilets in Russian jails such shit? Human rights activists have spent 30 years fighting for better privacy and cleaner facilities, but ‘holes in the floor’ persist
In recent weeks, the Russian authorities arrested thousands of demonstrators at protests across the country, sentencing hundreds to several days or weeks in jail. For many of these people, behind bars for the first time in their lives, state custody was a uniquely upsetting experience — particularly the “hole-in-the-floor” squat toilets located in plain sight of all the other cellmates. Meduza special correspondent Maxim Solopov looks at Russian jails’ failure to keep pace with modern comfort and privacy when it comes to pooping and peeing.
“A hole in the floor instead of a toilet, surrounded by a waist-high wall and dead-center under a surveillance camera.” That’s how one woman jailed in Sakharovo, outside Moscow, described the facilities in her cell. Another detainee, 23-year-old Emin Kerimov, told the news outlet Mediazona that going to the bathroom in his jail cell was a public spectacle.
The jail-cell toilet also shocked Sergey Ukhov, the regional coordinator for Navalny’s campaign office in Perm:
“It wasn’t a hole, but a steel bowl cemented into the floor, separated from the rest of the room only by a short partition 1.5 meters [five feet] high — not nearly high enough to conceal me. To go to the bathroom, you go up three steps onto a pedestal where you are visible from the waist up. That’s the most humiliating thing [about being in jail]: having to go to the bathroom right in front of everyone. There’s also the dreadful stench.”
Ukhov also described some of the time-tested tricks prisoners utilize to reclaim an ounce of humanity in these conditions:
“To block the odor, there’s a string tied to an old half-liter cup of sour cream that they’ve filled with something heavy. It’s all wrapped up in a plastic bag. Every time you go to the bathroom, you’re supposed to pull the cord and remove the ‘plug’ and then stick it back in, when you’re done. These ‘plugs’ have been hanging there for years and years — they’re completely black.”
“A hole in the floor”
The squat toilet – sometimes called a “Genoa bowl” — has endured in Russian detention centers because of its durability against vandalism, says Andrey Babushkin, the honorary chairman of Moscow’s Public Monitoring Commission, a watchdog group that oversees the treatment of prisoners. “It’s practically impossible to break a Genoa bowl,” says Babushkin, “but it’s relatively easy to break a toilet. Vandal-proof toilets first appeared only 30 years ago. No such thing existed 100 years ago. If you install a normal toilet in a prison, there will be nothing left of it within a month.”
Babushkin says the Russian authorities also prefer squat toilets because they encourage inmates and detainees to be more efficient when relieving themselves. When the prison system had one latrine for every 25 people, “the time required for defecation played a major role in providing toilet access,” says Babushkin, adding that today’s standard of one latrine per 15 inmates wasn’t adopted until 1985.
In an audit conducted in November 2018, the Samara district attorney’s office discovered that 10 of 14 prison wings in the area failed to comply with the Justice Ministry’s toilet protocols, in some places offering as little as one toilet for every 100 or more inmates. The investigation went to trial and a court ruled in February 2019 that the Federal Penitentiary Service’s sanitary guidelines allow for either standard toilets or “Genoa bowls” in jail cells.
Last year, a court outside Yekaterinburg awarded 25,000 rubles ($340) to a prisoner named Dmitry Matsiletsky for the conditions he endured in detention, where he and his 170 fellow inmates had access to just two squat toilets and two modern toilets. In his lawsuit, prosecutors painted a grim picture of the jail cells’ bathrooms:
“In addition, the bathrooms had no privacy. The toilets and genoa bowls were separated with a one-meter-high partition. There was no running water in the toilet, creating a blockage of sewage. On September 22, 2017, Matsiletskiy was late for morning exercises while waiting in line for the toilet. As punishment for being late, he was put in solitary confinement for 15 days.”
Human rights activists have been campaigning since the early 1990s to replace the squat toilets at Russian detention centers with modern facilities. “Here in my hand are the collective recommendations of our 1995 roundtable meeting on prisoners’ rights, made a quarter-century ago,” Babushkin told Meduza. “I remember recommending the replacement of Genoa bowls back in 1991 when I was chairman of the Mossovet [Prisoners’ Rights Commission].” He says lobbying by activists has pressured remand centers in Moscow to install modern toilets in most holding cells, but police departments and temporary detention facilities still lag behind.
The reason for this is simple, says Babushkin:
“If someone at a remand center kicks or shakes a toilet, their cellmates would easily know exactly who’s to blame, and they’d let that person know how angry they were. At police stations, people are held for a maximum of 48 hours, while it’s just two or three days at temporary detention facilities. In these [latter] conditions, it’s hard to figure out who broke what. The system uses the Genoa bowl so it doesn’t have to replace the toilets every month.”
But squat toilets don’t accommodate everyone. “If people have broken bones, spinal problems, musculoskeletal injuries, or vestibular-system complications, using a Genoa bowl can cause undue suffering, demand unreasonable agility, or be downright impossible,” argues Babushkin.
In some cases, this has led to court-ordered compensation for prisoners. One inmate in Kaliningrad who injured his leg while trying to escape was later able to sue the state for damages (winning 10,000 rubles — about $135), due to his jail’s failure to offer bathroom facilities for disabled people. A man jailed in Nizhny Novgorod, meanwhile, managed to win 2,000 rubles ($25) for enduring his remand center’s squat toilet, despite a spinal injury that required him to wear a back brace and rely on a cane for mobility.
“The cell was a horrid mess. Cockroaches and rats the size of slippers crawling right out of the [Genoa] toilet. There weren’t enough mattresses for everyone, so we slept on our jackets and padded coats. Our belongings were always damp, so there were lice and bedbugs,” the former prisoner recalled in his lawsuit.
Privacy and prison
Defecating into a hole in the floor is no picnic, but Russian inmates also complain about the lack of privacy and the putrid stench that accompany squat toilets. Courts across the country have received countless complaints about these conditions, but the authorities rarely respond with any action.
Two years ago, for example, a former inmate at a remand prison outside Krasnoyarsk petitioned a court in Norilsk for compensation, arguing that the squat toilet in his cell had no running water, leaving “gravity alone” to do the flushing. The latrine was separated from the cell’s living space by a short partition just 80 centimeters (less than three feet) high, and the room flooded with stink whenever someone used the bathroom. The court rejected the lawsuit, however, on the grounds that the plaintiff was released 12 years before he brought charges against the prison system. Today, magnificent barriers soaring 1.5 meters (almost 5 feet) now separate the squat toilets in Norilsk’s remand prison cells.
Last year, a man named Sergey Piskunov, now serving a life sentence, sued his penitentiary in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug for inhuman treatment after he was held in quarantine from December 23, 2019, to January 14, 2020. “There’s no adherence to privacy standards and no liquid to flush, so the room always smells like sewage,” Piskunov said in his lawsuit. In May 2020, the Labytnangsky City Court ruled against him.
While Russia’s legal system tolerates squat toilets in jail cells, courts draw the line at no toilet at all. In Bashkiria, for instance, a court awarded damages to a former inmate who sued for being held in an isolation ward in Bashkortostan with no lavatory whatsoever. The court’s description of the bathroom situation was vivid:
“When guards changed duty, the arriving and departing guards together had to take each inmate, cell by cell, to the lavatory. This applied to those convicted as well as those awaiting trial. At night, inmates had to use a ‘bio-toilet’ (a bucket) to relieve themselves. At the time designated for morning defecation, the staff member on duty, following the daily routine, empties the bio-toilet’s contents into the toilet. The bio-toilets were then cleaned and disinfected with a solution of 0.1-percent deo-chlorine [bleach].”
A court in Orsk, on the other hand, ruled in 2018 against a former prisoner who sought compensation for emotional distress sustained during his incarceration at a temporary holding facility. “There was no toilet at the prison except a Genoa bowl with no tank for flushing. A surveillance camera was pointed right at the toilet,” the man claimed in his lawsuit.
Andrey Babushkin told Meduza that pointing surveillance cameras at latrines in jail cells is a gross violation of inmates’ rights. “If someone feels that is the case, then a request should be made to be taken to the surveillance room. There he can be sure that the camera is set in such a way that the toilet is not in view. We always recommend precisely this. Decent facility supervisors allow people this access. In many hundreds of visits to guarded detention facilities, I know of only about five cases in which surveillance cameras were actually pointed at the latrines. And those responsible are severely punished,” the rights activist explained.
Far more often in Russian jails, the problem with cell-room toilets is that they’re designed as though inmates eat and sleep literally atop the toilet. “Imagine a cell that’s eight square meters [about 86 square feet]. Each person is supposed to get four square meters [43 square feet] and the toilet takes up two square meters [21 square feet]. So people are spending 10–15 days on the toilet. This is really a big problem,” says Babushkin. Additionally, the barriers separating the latrine from the rest of the cell, he says, should reach the ceiling or at least rise to normal human height. Sound-proofing and odor-proofing the lavatory are also necessary.
Moscow remand prisons are now equipped with adequate toilet stalls, but it’s another, far grislier story at the city’s temporary holding facilities and so-called special detention centers, says Babushkin, who credits former Federal Penitentiary Service Director Alexander Reimer with spearheading the improvements in remand prisons. Before Reimer’s support for better barriers around latrines, says Babushkin, the decision about walls around toilets was left with wardens and sometimes even ward supervisors. But these officials had little incentive to offer prisoners more privacy because they were also held responsible for any mishaps that occurred out of sight, such as inmates’ suicides. Before he was ousted and convicted of embezzlement, Reimer changed this by endorsing modern toilet stalls directly.
Ironically, when Reimer ended up an inmate at Moscow’s Lefortovo Prison, he found himself at “the one remand prison that hadn’t carried out his order stipulating privacy for latrines,” says Babushkin. “Reimer was outraged. Lefortovo has since begun installing stalls, but not in all the cells, I think.”
Back in 1995, the Russian Interior Ministry’s State Special Design and Survey Institute developed entirely different guidelines for cell-room latrines, stipulating that “toilets and washbasins in regular cells, solitary confinement cells, and special isolation cells must include separate stalls equipped with doors that open outward, partitioned by walls rising one meter [more than three feet] from the lavatory floor.”
Babushkin says the issue of toilet partitions in jail cells isn’t as simple as it might seem: renovations cost money, and hidden spaces offer prisoners the opportunity for criminal activity or suicide. “We’ve come to the understanding that adequate partitions are nevertheless needed. Every time another suicide occurs at a given facility, however, the issue of removing the partitions returns.”
Translation by Peter Bertero, edited by Kevin Rothrock