The Russian federal prison authority plans to ramp up the fight against the so-called prison jamaats, according to the newspaper Kommersant. Officials say that Islam is spreading rapidly among inmates and may be a security danger in light of the threat the Islamic State poses to Russia. According to the newspaper’s sources in the Russian state penitentiary service, the number of Muslim inmates in Russian prisons further increased in 2015. The sources claimed that informal networks of Muslims in Russian prisons spread extremist literature and recruit supporters. In particular, the officials reported that Valery Ilmendeyev, an inmate in a prison in Ulyanovsk, spread the sermons of Said Buryatsky, a radical Muslim preacher who was killed in Ingushetia in 2010 (Kommersant, January 26).
The prison officials’ promise of a new crackdown on Muslim inmates in Russian prisons signals the failure of government policies. Muslim inmates have been abused in Russian prisons for years, yet their number and influence has apparently grown. Russian prisons are known for dire conditions and the cruelty of their personnel, but the prison authorities are often especially harsh on the Muslim inmates, sometimes intentionally insulting their faith (Newsru.com, April 21, 2009).
Russian courts routinely replace capital punishment with life imprisonment. According to estimates, in some maximum-security prisons in Russia, half of the inmates serving life terms are Muslims either from the North Caucasus or Volga region. Many of the inmates from the North Caucasus and Volga in these institutions were imprisoned on terrorism charges. Some witness accounts suggest that the Russian security services use inmates serving life sentences for their own purposes—for example, blaming such inmates for crimes they did not commit, so that the security forces can inflate the number of “solved” cases (Zeki.su, February 16, 2013).
However, by no means all Muslims sentenced for terrorism are terrorists. A Moscow district military court recently sentenced five members of the Hizb ut-Tahrir movement to prison terms in Chelyabinsk. Two organizers received 16 and 17 years in prison and the other three received terms of 5–6 years. Their crimes involved secret meetings, religious conversion and spreading extremist literature. According to prosecutors, “Members of the cell agreed with the conception of building a worldwide caliphate step by step” and plotted to overthrow the government (Kavkazskaya Politika, February 5). Thus it appears that the “crime” of the Hizb ut-Tahrir members was secretive meetings and wishful thinking about a coming age of Islam. The term “extremist literature” in Russia is also quite broad, so much so that well-regarded Islamic works, including a translation of the Koran, have been outlawed in the country, (Memohrc.org, September 27, 2013)
According to Russian prison officials, only about 9,000 Muslims are inmates in the country’s prison colonies. The number of official Muslim jamaats (communities) in the prisons is estimated to be 950, and there are 61 mosques and over 230 prayer rooms to serve the Muslim population in Russian prisons. The word “official” is probably the key here, since the government is concerned mostly about the “unofficial” Muslim jamaats that it cannot control. Clerics from the Spiritual Board of Muslims visit prisons to deliver sermons. But those Muslims who do not trust the official clergy are left to their own devices, and prison officials do not know what they are up to, which apparently unnerves them (Kommersant, January 26).
Prison administrations in Russia have often relied on the informal leaders among inmates to keep the prison population under control. When the influx of Muslims into Russian prisons increased after the second Russian-Chechen war, so-called “Green Prisons” (Zelyonaya Zona)—correctional facilities dominated by Muslims—appeared in the Russian prison system. The usual methods of governance do not work in such prisons, and the Russian prison administrations now have to adjust to the changing patterns in the prison population. Along with Russia’s high Muslim birthrate and insurgency-related crimes in the North Caucasus and elsewhere in Russia, migrants from Central Asian countries also have an impact on the growth of numbers of Muslims in the Russian penitentiary system.
A right-wing Russian opposition activist, Daniil Konstantinov, ended up in prison in 2012 for participating in civil protests in Moscow. According to Konstantinov, he was impressed by the Muslims’ ability to resist the prison authorities. One Muslim, Konstantinov recalls, was beaten repeatedly for being religious, but he refused to stop praying. After some time, the inmates who participated in the beatings of the Muslim were contacted by “serious Islamists” from outside the prison, who threatened to “cut their heads off” if the beatings did not stop. They stopped. Denis Sokolov, a North Caucasus expert at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, says the prison jamaat “provides physical protection for Muslims and protection against the degrading practices of Russian prisons. Islam allows Muslim inmates to somehow reconcile themselves with the reality and remain human. The prison jamaat is not necessarily about recruitment for the insurgency and something illegal” (Kommersant, January 26).
The announcement by the Russia federal prison authorities of another crusade against Islam in the prison system suggests it is quite concerned about the spread of Muslim prison jamaats. It also suggests the actual number of Muslims in Russian prisons is substantially higher than the official number. The official numbers of Muslims must be substantially lower than the actual ones to cause such alarm among the Russian authorities. Another side of the story is the emergence of “Green Prisons”—a new phenomenon that is forcing prison officials to rethink their tried-and-true methods to suppress and control prison populations. So far, it appears the officials have done little to break down Muslim solidarity groups.