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Locked Up During Lockdown: Prisoners in Russia and the World During the Pandemic

Olimpiada Usanova
Image: Russia File 6/10/20
A group of male prisoners stand and listen to an Orthodox priest. Novosibirsk, Russia, 2011.

BY OLIMPIADA USANOVA

Prisons and contagious diseases are a deadly combination. Unhygienic and overcrowded, prisons can easily become death traps.

Russia has the third-highest number of COVID-19 infections, after the United States and Brazil. At the same time, Russia ranks first in Europe in terms of the number of prisoners per 100,000 population. There were 523,900 people in prison according to 2019 data. At least 9,000 of them are more than sixty years old, and many more are in poor health.

People in enclosed spaces are the most vulnerable to a deadly virus. Add in the present state of Russia’s penitentiary system—with overcrowding, poor ventilation, and inadequate health care and sanitation—and it is easy to see that prisoners, especially those over fifty-five, have little chance of surviving the pandemic.

The main feature of Russia's prison system is that the convicts are not all held in prison-type institutions, as in Western countries, but live in colonies. In the colonies, prisoners are organized into large collective groups, not divided into small cells of several people. Another point of trouble is the detention centers. They were dangerously overcrowded during the active phase of the spread of the virus, the analyst of Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) Anna Karetnikova reported. “On April 1, there were 53 people at Detention Center 7 [one of Moscow’s many similar institutions—RT]. As of yesterday, there were more than 440 people. They were arresting more than 20 people a day and bringing them there,” she wrote on her social media account on April 19.

Since the pandemic hit Russia, the penitentiary system has slammed shut, cutting off the prisoners’ connection with the outside world. Prisons have stopped allowing visitors or the delivery of packages or medicine in an effort to keep the coronavirus outside the prison walls. The penitentiary directorate suspended inmates’ access to lawyers, human rights defenders, and members of public oversight commissions. Meanwhile, during the pandemic, Russian courts have virtually stopped hearing convicts’ requests for parole and mitigated or commuted sentences. This means that many prisoners are cut off from the opportunity to gain their freedom.

Officials have recognized 600 COVID-19 cases among prison system employees and 145 cases among inmates. The prisoners’ relatives and human rights activists report mass COVID-19 infections at correctional facilities. “We are very worried,” an inmate in Rybinsk, who has seven years left of his sentence for assault and theft, told the Moscow Times. “We do want to live.”

Russia is not alone in choosing hyperisolation as a means of protecting prisoners. The monitoring of prison policy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic in countries around the world has shown that the most popular tactic, implemented in more than eighty countries over the course of March and early April, was to limit connections between prisoners and the outside world by temporarily banning visitors. In some countries the ban extended to lawyers and other prison staff outside the regular guards.

This hyperisolation in the context of the coronavirus pandemic has led to protests in jails across the globe. Between mid-March and mid-April, at least 108 people lost their lives in prison riots around the world. Prison riots were reported in thirty-six countries. According to Amnesty International, around thirty-six prisoners may have been killed in two prisons in Iran. Twenty-three inmates were reported dead of the coronavirus in one of the largest jails in Bogotá, Colombia.

On April 10, a mutiny broke out in the N15 high-security penal colony in Angarsk, 5,000 kilometers east of Moscow. Brutal video footage from the riot circulated on social media in which inmates could be heard calling for help. They slit their wrists to protest the daily physical abuse and humiliation handed out by their guards. The mutiny was followed by a bloody crackdown. Since then, fifty-four inmates are unaccounted for, their relatives and NGOs report. Human rights activists have not been allowed into the prison, and relatives and monitors are unable to contact the prison due to quarantine restrictions. So they have real fears that the prisoners are no longer alive.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, issued a statement calling on governments to take urgent action to protect the health and safety of people in detention and to work quickly to reduce the number of people incarcerated. Most countries have already undertaken some positive actions.

In the United States, authorities in most states began to release prisoners. Thousands of detainees were temporarily shifted to house arrest, while others were placed on probation or released early. The largest amnesty was launched by the king of Bahrain, who, before all the developed countries made their move, issued a decree to pardon 901 prisoners in his country. As the pandemic unfolded, Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, Canada, Australia, India, Sudan, and Jordan released everyone except those convicted of terrorism, homicide, or sexual offenses.

Iran was set to temporarily release 85,000 prisoners, amounting to about 35 percent of the prison population. This was a huge step in a country where imprisonment is heavily used. A similar situation emerged in Turkey, which released 90,000 prisoners temporarily. On a smaller but still significant scale, in Ethiopia 4,011 prisoners were pardoned and released on March 13. Some 10,000 have been released from prisons in Afghanistan.

It is obvious that these countries put humanitarian considerations above political considerations. What measures has Russia taken to protect its prisoners? The answer is nothing, save closing prisons to visitors and withholding information on the number of COVID cases in them.

Ahead of the Victory Day anniversary celebrations in May, expectations were high that an amnesty would be announced. But on April 21, the Russian Duma declared that it was not going to consider an amnesty.

The current situation in the Russian penitentiary system is explosive and can lead to riots in the penal colonies, which in turn will inevitably endanger the lives of prisoners and colony employees.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Olimpiada Usanova

Olimpiada Usanova

Galina Starovoitova Fellow on Human Rights and Conflict Resolution;
PhD of Law, Independent Scholar and Lawyer

Olimpiada Usanova is a lawyer, an independent scholar, and a human rights activist. She is former Galina Starovoitova Fellow on Human Rights and Conflict Resolution at the Kennan Institute.

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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, and the region though research and exchange.  Read more