‘The whole system is collapsing’ Ukrainian captives are being sent to Russia’s ‘chronically’ overcrowded remand prisons, reports Kommersant
Russia’s already overcrowded remand prisons are struggling to accommodate growing numbers of detainees, due in part to an influx of Ukrainians taken prisoner during the war, the newspaper Kommersant reported on May 30.
Eva Merkacheva, a member of Russia’s Presidential Council for Human Rights, raised the issue of “terrible overcrowding” in Moscow’s remand prisons last week. According to Merkacheva, the capital’s detention centers, which are designed to hold 9,000 detainees, are now more than 2,700 people over capacity. Moscow’s Butyrka and Matrosskaya Tishina remand prisons, for example, are currently 29 percent and 27.7 percent over capacity, respectively.
“People are sleeping on the floor. [They’re] full of sick people, disabled people, who sleep side by side. The whole system is collapsing due to overcrowding: the censors don’t have time to read letters, the staff don’t have time to pick up parcels from the post office [or] deliver packages to cells, [or] to take [prisoners] to the bathhouse and for walks,” said Merkacheva, as quote by Kommersant.
Merkacheva surmised that in some regions of Russia, overcrowding in remand prisons may be linked to Moscow’s “special military operation” in Ukraine. According to her, Ukrainians taken prisoner during the hostilities are being transferred to detention centers in Russia, where they are imputed in criminal cases. In particular, Merkacheva said she knew that some Ukrainian nationals had been taken to a remand prison in the Rostov region, which already held a “large number” of detainees.
According to earlier media reports, Ukrainian nationals taken captive by Russian forces — including civilians — reported being held in remand prisons in Russia’s border regions. However, earlier reports didn’t mention criminal cases opened against Ukrainian captives.
Speaking to Kommersant, the head of the Rostov region’s Public Monitoring Commission, Igor Omelchenko, “did not exclude” the possibility that prisoners of war from Ukraine are being held in an “empty” detention center in Taganrog. At the same time, he underscored that incarcerating POWs with “ordinary” Russian detainees is “out of the question” without a court order.
Other experts told Kommersant that some prison facilities in Russia are being emptied to accommodate captives from Ukraine. Which, in turn, has led to overcrowding at other facilities. According to Kommersant’s sources, this is happening not only in the Rostov region, but also in the Volgograd and Voronezh regions. In particular, a source close to the Volgograd branch of the Federal Penitentiary Service said that a remand prison in the city of Kamyshin and another prison facility in the town of Surovikino had both been “unloaded” and now hold “only Ukrainians.”
Alena Saveleva, a lawyer from rights group Russia Behind Bars, said that her organization had been made aware of prisoners in Russia’s border regions being transferred en masse to prison facilities in other parts of the country. However, the organization couldn’t confirm why this was happening.
Lawyers and human rights activists told Kommersant that overcrowding is a “chronic” problem in Russia’s remand prisons. Sources from the Rostov region, Stavropol krai, Irkutsk region, and Buryatia, as well as from Russian-occupied Crimea, spoke of constant overcrowding in local detention centers.
One of the main causes of this overcrowding is the fact that Russian investigators tend to ask the courts to detain defendants, rather than seeking other pre-trial measures of restraint, several experts told Kommersant. “Sending [people] to pre-trial detention centers happens mindlessly. Out of habit, everyone is locked up using canned rhetoric [about how they] might ‘abscond’ or ‘put pressure on witnesses’,” said Igor Omelchenko. In turn, Alena Saveleva added that the long duration of investigations is another main cause of overcrowding in pre-trial detention centers. (Eva Merkacheva pointed to an overall delay in investigative work due to the coronavirus pandemic.)
On May 19, the Federal Penitentiary Service reported that out of Russia’s 203 remand prisons, 50 were overcrowded as of May 1.