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1988-1998 Chronicle of monitoring and struggle



The USSR (of which RF was a part) has made a certain progress in human rights observance. The number of death penalty executions decreased by four times, compared to 1985. Torture in the period of investigation decreased on a massive scale. Detention conditions in penitentiary facilities (especially those in SIZOs) significantly improved. Largely, the improvement of the conditions was related to the reduction of the prison population. In 1986-88, the number of those suspected and held in custody decreased by 2-2.5 times (compared to that in 1983-85) and the relative number of court sentences reduced by 12-15%. Total prison population, after a number of amnesties, dropped by 30-40%. On 1.01.89, the Russian SIZOs, for example, held 102,000 people and the number of those arrested by the procurators did not exceed 190,000 people.

Certain types of disciplinary penalties for prisoners were abolished (in particular, torture by hunger in disciplinary cells and blocs). Special psychiatric hospitals were moved from the jurisdiction of the MVD to the Ministry of Health.


The USSR signed the Vienna agreement stipulating, in particular, the observance of the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. The authorities began to make public information about the criminal justice system. Prison facilities were slightly opened to the mass media, religious groups and human rights organisations.

By assignment of Academician Sakharov, the MCPR associates checked the reliability of information of the existence of a special torture prison. The data obtained by the MCPR made it possible to confirm that prisons of EPKT type and some closed type prisons (for example, the prison in Eletsk, Lipetskaya oblast) are especially designed for intimidation of the violators of prison regime transferred there from ordinary penitentiary institutions, and for investigating of undetected cases by illegal methods, forcible recruiting of agents among the leaders of the criminal community.


The Internal Ministry of the USSR carried out an experiment to humanise prison conditions in a number of female colonies and VTKs.

The MCPR received information from the Primorski Krai about massive beatings of prisoners in one of the colonies. This was carried out for “prophylactic purposes”, in order to intimidate prisoners and prevent protest actions on their part against the outrageous violations of legitimacy. These data were confirmed after the inspection made by the Commission for Human Rights at the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR in co-operation with the representatives of the GUIN MVD RF and the MCPR. Criminal proceedings were instituted against three associates of interior departments.

MCPR launched the campaign against torture in the prison White Swan (Solikamsk).

The Human Rights Committee of the Supreme Soviet assigned the MCPR to work out a draft law on changes and amendments to the Correctional Labour Code.


In the next years, the problem of overcrowding of SIZOs has increasingly worsened.

In autumn of 1991, Soviet prisons and camps found themselves at the mercy of massive uprisings of prisoners.

Prisoners mass riots were reported in the autumn of 1991 the first time since the prison uprisings in the early 1950s,. They were political in nature and highlighted in the media. In a number of regions prisoners' demands were supported even by penitentiary workers. At the height of the riots the Internal Ministry, by agreement with the Procuracy Office, met prisoners' demands and introduced significant changes in the internal prison regulations.

Soon after a nation-wide strike of prisoners held on November 13, 1991 at the initiative of the Moscow Helsinki Group and MCPR, the federal authorities were moved to satisfy the main demands of prisoners and human rights activists. Thus, at the end of November the Russian President issued a decree to abolish 50% deductions from prisoners' salaries previously used “to maintain correctional labour institutions”. At the beginning of December the Supreme Soviet put the issue of introducing alterations to correctional labour legislation on the agenda.

In summer 1991 MCPR developed the draft law about the changes and amendments to Correctional Labour Code of the Russian Federation and submitted it to the Human Rights Commission at the Supreme Soviet of the RF.


In June 1992 amendments were added to the correctional labour code: over 50 articles were changed, amended or introduced, making prison conditions much more humane. In the field of legislation it was the first noticeable attempt to change an inhuman correctional system for the better.

According to our estimates, as a result of prisoners' demands put forward during the mass riots in autumn of 1991 about 20 new standards were later introduced in the Correctional Labour Code.

The Law was adopted also due to the fight of Russian prisoners for their rights and active support of human rights organisations for prisoners demands.                           

Mass beatings of prisoners by the detachments of special purpose forces (spetsnaz) established at the regional services of corrections in 1989-92, became widely used. The soldiers of spetsnaz, “act only in masks that make it impossible to identify the fighter and strengthen his confidence in impunity. Al of the criminal proceedings instituted based on complaints about illegal use of physical strength and special means, were canceled by procurators”. The Reports of the Presidential Commission described the death of a prisoner V. N. Burlachenko, which resulted after he was beaten by spetsnaz, and the attempt of a mass suicide taken up by about 100 prisoners, who were reduced to despair by constant beatings carried out by spetsnaz. The MPCR archives hold hundreds of such cases, including three fatal cases, where the deaths of prisoners resulted from beatings.

MCPR and others human rights organizations launched the campaign against inhumane detention conditions in SIZOs. As a result of the campaign, started by MCPR in 1990 the scale of torture in the prison White Swan (Solikamsk) was reduced.


The MPCR began receiving testimonies that the spetsnaz soldiers would train (i.e. teaching the tactics of suppressing disorder, special ways of attack, kicks and so forth) on prisoners. Information about the planned training sessions, consequently, was confirmed by human rights activists and by some officials.

MCPR and SOPPU started the campaign against the gross violations of human rights of prisoners regarded to the use of spetsnaz.

The order N 13 of the Ministry of Internal Affairs on January 15, 1993 reintroduced a punishment by hunger abolished in 1988 for prisoners serving disciplinary punishments in various special detention and solitary confinement cells. The RF Senior Deputy Procuracy General deemed this decree to be unlawful.

In further violation of the current legislation new departments to punish prisoners “actively opposing prison administration” were established in prison colonies: these were so called “local prophylactic zones” (LPU) and “inter-regional common cell type premises” (EPKT).

Prisoners in LPUs (prophylacy centres for alcoholics) have committed no disciplinary offence, but in the opinion of the administration “have a negative attitude to the prison authority”. These illegal departments function under internal rules of a given correctional institution, developed on the basis of “General Provisions” approved by the RF Ministry of Internal Affairs.

Since the end of 1993, the number of complaints to MCPR and others human rights organisations from people subjected to torture and beatings in militia departments and IVSs, has sharply increased. To a great extent, an increased scale of torture was connected to the campaign against crime which started in 1992.

Since 1993, a number of cases of extremely underweight prisoners have been recorded in colonies.

MCPR sent the materials on torture and inhuman conditions in SIZOs in Russia to the structures of the UN and the Council of Europe.


137 of 177 pre-trial detention facilities and prisons appeared to be overcrowded. The number of those held in cells, exceeded the sanitary norms by 3-4 times. By our estimates, the number of those who died in pre-trial detention facilities only in 1994 exceeded 2000 people, about 80,000 of those under investigation and under trial contracted severe diseases. Apart from the torturous conditions, higher infection and mortality rates among SIZO inmates is partly because the prisoners have not received proper medical assistance.

Director and experts of MCPR for the first time decided to visit SIZOs (previously these institutions had been closed for outside visitors). The visit resulted with the report about inhuman detention conditions in SIZOs.

MCPR was involved in preparation of visit to Russia of the UN and the Council of Europe experts. In July the UN Special Rapporteur Nigel Rodley made a visit to Russia. At the press conference he called the conditions in SIZOs torturous.

CE experts who visited Russian prisons were appalled to find great numbers of people indicted for petty crimes in extremely overcrowded cells.

Reports on visits to pre-trial detention centres were prepared by the Council of Europe (CE) experts and the Special Rapporteur of the UN Human Rights Committee.

By the assignment of the Presidential Human Rights Commission MCPR prepared sections on torture and inhuman conditions for the Federal Human Rights Program and the report of the Presidential Human Rights Commission about the Observance of Human Rights in Russia.

MCPR in co-operation with other NGOs sent to the President the concerns and recommendations in respect to Presidential Decree N 1226 of June 14, 1994 “On Urgent Measures to Be Taken to Protect Russian People from Banditry and Organised Crime”. As put in these documents, “the decree includes provisions contradicting the RF Constitution, as well as gross violations of the rights of detainees under the current RF Code of Criminal Procedures”.


MCPR prepared Independent Submission to the UN Human Rights Committee as an alternative to the fourth periodic report of the Russian Federation on the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. For the first time ever, Russian NGOs were able to participate in the discussions concerning the official report. A number of NGOs, and the MCPR in particular, were present at the session.

The Committee members often used information provided by Russian NGOs and other independent sources. Reports by Committee members and the text of Consideration of Reports Submitted by State Parties Under Article 40 of the Covenant had many references to NGO information.

The MCPR experts were invited to take part in the work group of experts drafting the recommendations in view of the future admission of Russia to the Council of Europe.

Prison conditions in correctional institutions for people deprived of liberty began to deteriorate. We can judge how inhumane conditions were for this category of prisoners by the TB incidence and TB mortality rate in these institutions. In 1992, there were 854 TB patients per 100,000 people; in 1994, their number made up 1,611 per 100,000 and in 1995 — 2,481. TB incidence among prisoners was 42 times higher compared to the general population and the death rate from TB was 17 times higher.

estimates, the number of prisoners who suffer from various serious diseases due to inhumane prison conditions exceeded 100,000 cases per year. Since 1995, epidemics of tuberculosis have been accompanied by “epidemic” dystrophy. There were numerous cases of death from “chronic emaciation”. This means that for the first time since the Stalin era, hunger is widespread in Russian colonies.

In 1995, the first cases of dystrophy were recorded in juvenile colonies. This relatively small group of prisoners (about 21,000 people) enjoyed better prison conditions both under the communist regime and during the first years of “democratic” power (as compared to the rest of the prison population).


MCPR prepared Independent Submission to the UN Committee against Torture on the Periodic Report of the Russian Federation for the second periodic report of the Russian Federation before the UN Human Rights Committee. Russian NGOs were able to participate in the discussions concerning the official report. MCPR experts were present at the session. Recommendations of MCPR were used in Commentary of the Committee against Torture.

Dystrophy has become common in juvenile institutions.

First time since 1989 the number of prisoners in SIZOs reduced (by 14 thousands)


Amnesty International published report Torture in Russia: “This man-made Hell”, MCPR and other Russian NGOs published their reports on torture in Russia. Procuracy’s General Office prohibited the use of spetsnaz in penitentiary institutions as prophylactics. The provisions of Presidential Decree N 1226 of June 14, 1994, grossly violating the rights of detainees were cancelled. NGOs started successfully the campaign against the adoption of the draft Code of Criminal Procedure that according to independent experts would increase the violations the constitutional rights of citizens.


MCPR initiated the campaign of Russian human rights activists “Stop Torture”.

The Bill on Monitoring by NGOs of Penal Institutions.

It was drafted by MCPR in conjunction with other non-governmental organizations and referred to the State Duma's Committee for Public Associations and Religious Organizations in the autumn of last year. A group of leading legal experts, members of the MCPR and non-governmental organizations, has been formed to revise the document. It is expected that the Duma will debate the bill in the spring or autumn of 1998. If it is adopted, the bill could have a profound effect on the observance of human rights in Russian penal institutions (prisons and camps).

The Bill on the Moratorium on the Death Penalty. MCPR has been highly involved in the creation of this document and the campaign in its support since 1996. The first draft was put before the Duma by Valery Borshchev and Yuli Rybakov at the end of 1996. However, the parliament rejected it at first reading. At the end of 1997, a group of experts, including Valery Abramkin, director of MCPR, produced a second version of the bill, which was referred to the Duma by a group of six deputies. It is expected that the Duma will debate the bill during its spring 1998 session. The chances that it will be approved are not great, although there is hope that more deputies will vote in favour this time.


As of December 1, 2001, there were approximately 56,000 women in Russian jails and penal colonies, or roughly 5% of the Russian prison population of about 1 million, and 50% of the female prison population in the countries belonging to the Council of Europe. All in all there are 78.6 million women in the Russian Federation (53.1 % of the population), which means that for every hundred thousand women 80 are deprived of freedom.

The main problem for women in the Russian penitentiary system, it seems to us, is that the conditions under which sentences are served, as established during the Soviet period, do not allow for women’s special psychological and physiological needs, i.e., women are confined exactly like men, or rather, like some average human prototype without regard to sex, age and other individual characteristics.

In Russia there are 35 correctional colonies for women, with a population of about 40 thousand inmates. Ten of these institutions have accommodations for children: those in Cheliabinsk, Kemerovo Region, Khabarovsk Area, Krasnodar Area, Moscow Region, Nizhnii Novgorod, Samara, Sverdlovsk Region, Vladimir Region and Mordovia. There are also two special regime camps for repeat offenders, one of which, located in the city of Berezniaki in Perm Region, holds about 400 women.

There are about 20 thousand women in segregative pretrial detention. We know of two new exclusively female investigative detention facilities, in Moscow and St. Petersburg. All the other holding facilities are coed, housing mainly men, but containing cells for women as well.

In the provinces, investigative detention centers are filled to about 150% capacity, in Moscow and St. Petersburg, to over 300% capacity; however, the special facilities for women only are filled to approximately 150% capacity.

In 1998, as soon as the financial crisis began in Russia, we started to get reports of famine in places of detention. We were especially astounded by information received from the Mozhaisk women’s colony: we learned that as a result of malnutrition the convicts’ small children living on the territory of the camp had begun to lose their hair and go bald. To try to help them, we announced, with the aid of Human Rights Watch representative Malcolm Hocks, a collection of charitable donations among the foreign residents of Moscow, and were thus able to buy the most basic essentials for the children: vitamins, butter, baby food, medicine. This marked the beginning of our serious work in women’s penal colonies, which continues to this day.

In 1999 with the financial support of Penal Reform International we undertook the project “Women in Prison” (conceived and headed by Ludmila Alpern, author of the subsequent report), within the framework of which we monitored conditions in places of incarceration for women. We used a questionnaire put out by International Prison Watch (Lyon, France), which we translated into Russian. 320 female prisoners from six Russian facilities (3 preventive detention centers, 3 labor camps) responded to our survey. While conducting the surveys and related activities, we provided psychological, legal, and personal humanitarian aid. We turned for help to charitable organizations, private contributors (we received strong support from the International Women’s Club in particular) and commercial ventures. Over the course of the project we paid a total of 11 visits to 7 women’s facilities, spending 24 days in places of confinement.

Our research brought to light the high degree of social and medical neglect and lack of legal protection endured by women in prison. The main problem is that women are treated like men or, rather, like some averaged person without regard to sexual, age-related, or other individual particulars. Women held under such conditions become habitual offenders. Even those who end up in prison as fully mature women and were heretofore well adapted socially lose their social ties and a normal social environment after three to four years in isolation (the average sentence for women) and undergo extreme psychological deformation. Upon release this prevents them from resuming their place in society and as a result they again find themselves behind bars.

Women and adolescents are the most vulnerable portion of the Russian prison population. They are severely traumatized as they pass through all the stages of the criminal justice system: insults, beatings and even sexual assault during the preliminary investigation, followed by a trial that can drag on for years without concern either for the investigators’ means of obtaining evidence or the conditions in preventive detention, which are more often than not unbearable and might well be considered sufficient punishment for many of our criminals (for it is no secret that over half of those serving sentences in Russia were convicted of petty theft). Those who are pregnant when arrested and are lucky enough to give birth in outside hospitals while still held under investigation are escorted back to their cells two hours after delivery because the prison administration cannot afford to keep guards in the maternity ward. The process of transferring convicts from detention centers to correctional institutions can last several months, after which they face the degrading life of a slave laborer at their final destination, the penal colony. The following are only a few examples: women do not receive sanitary supplies essential for feminine hygiene; mothers who by law are permitted to care for their small children in correctional institutions are separated from them at control points; female convicts are forced to march in line and work ten to twelve hours a day. How can a woman, who has lost all familial ties, housing, children, as well as the ability to make independent decisions, return to normal life at the end of her term? 1

In 2000-2001 we undertook a project called “The rehabilitation of the most vulnerable groups in the prison population” (conceived and headed by Ludmila Alpern), which was a logical outgrowth of the previous one. Its focus was women and minors in jail, and its goal was to determine mechanisms for convicts’ social adaptation. This project was supported by the Soros Foundation, the Swiss foundation “Liberty Road,” and small grant programs from Penal Reform International, Le Secours Catholique and “Acer-Russie” (France). 2

In the course of the project we made a total of 46 visits to 22 institutions for women and juveniles, amounting to 56 days spent in prisons. We wanted to pinpoint the most traumatic aspects and rules of prison life, both open and hidden, so as to draw attention to them and urge the administration to keep an eye on them and change them; and to find outside modes of influence making prisoners less susceptible to psychical deformation in jail, especially in the case of children and women, those for whom incarceration is particularly detrimental. Our main focus was those women and adolescents whose future is even more problematic than the rest’s: ones held in disciplinary isolation and under strict regimes; HIV-positive prisoners; orphans; mothers with small children. We were able to achieve real results in certain institutions, which we termed baseline establishments, where we worked well with the administration, and we realized that the staff is an important prerequisite for more humane prison conditions.

Consequently toward the end of 2001 we began work on the next logical link in our series of projects, “Correctional Services personnel: an important factor in the humanization of penitentiary institutions,” the main thrust of which will be an alternative instructional seminar for staff of female penal colonies. The project is supported by the Soros Foundation in partnership with Penal Reform International.

Moreover, in 2001 one of the Center’s members, Ludmila Alpern, received two individual grants: one from the MacArthur Foundation to conduct personal research on “Women in prison: retrospect and prospects,” studying available sources for information on prison conditions for women from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the present day, so as to trace prevailing tendencies through changing times and political systems and to outline desirable courses of development; and an IREX grant through the program “Pressing contemporary issues” to conduct personal research on “Prison monitoring and social rehabilitation of vulnerable groups of prisoners” in the United States (February 21-June 21, 2002).

1 - Two booklets were published based upon the findings of the survey and monitoring, “Women in Russian prisons” and “Prison is not a woman’s business,” the latter also in English. They were approved by top officials of the and with their help and support distributed to all women’s correctional institutions, of which there are currently 38.

2 - The following publications grew out of the project: “Children in prison” and “Children tell about prison,” compilations of submissions to a writing contest for juveniles in prison; “Life after prison” and “How to write a complaint,” sets of instructions for juvenile detainees; “A legal encyclopedia, or nearly everything a woman in jail should know,” a handbook for female prisoners; “Concerning the social rehabilitation of vulnerable groups of the prison population,” a collection of articles, visitors’ reports, personal documents, and other materials; “Only the tenth part,” accounts by prison visitors and essays by Ludmila Alpern.

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