Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 119

The dire state of Russia’s prisons was again underscored last week, when UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson declared that conditions in Russian prisons constitute torture. Some rich prisoners, meanwhile, are reportedly getting special treatment–for a large fee, of course.

On June 16 Robinson managed to talk her way into Moscow’s notorious Butyrka prison, where many inmates are being held in pretrial detention, to inspect conditions. Some of Butyrka’s cells hold as many as eighty prisoners–more than twice the number they were built to hold–and a Moscow prosecutor’s office official told a Moscow daily that the average pre-trial inmate spends eight months to a year, and sometimes much more, awaiting trial. Rates of tuberculosis and other infectious diseases in Russian prisons are far higher than outside them. Given all this, it is no surprise that on June 18, at the end of her week-long fact-finding mission, Robinson said that the overcrowding alone, coupled by the fact that prisoners are allowed outside for only an hour a day, constitutes torture (Moscow Times, June 17, 19).

In contrast to this horrifying picture, some wealthy prisoners are reportedly receiving different treatment on a commercial basis. The special perks–which, according to a Russian weekly, cost US$7000 a month–are not particularly luxurious: a separate cell, complete with a “shabby” rug on the floor; access to doctors and aspirin; fresh bed linen; a bar (evidently with a modest supply of liquor); a television; and a flush toilet. The magazine reported that prison officials would not confirm the existence of special cells for the rich. It also reported that last December, then Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov signed a government order creating an “International Fund for Protection Against Discrimination and the Observing of Constitutional Rights and the Basic Human Freedom.” This fund will distribute special credit cards to some prisoners-­well-off ones, apparently–who will be able to use the cards to pay for services inside prisons, as well as for doctors, lawyers and “humanitarian aid,” all arranged by the fund (Vlast, June 15).

Meanwhile, on June 18, Russia’s State Duma passed a resolution which will grant amnesty to more than 94,000 prisoners, mostly nonviolent offenders, including thousands who are in pre-trial detention.