MOSCOW – Some Russian prisons might be mistaken for vacation destinations based on their nicknames, with animal appellations that include the Black Dolphin and the Polar Owl. But a hunger strike by jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny cast a spotlight on the fear and torment that critics say are the signatures of Russia's prison system.
Amid reports about his declining health, Navalny was transferred Sunday from a penal colony known for its particularly strict treatment of inmates to a hospital unit in another prison.
Russia's penal institutions house nearly 520,000 inmates, by far the largest number in Europe though a slightly smaller proportion of the general population than prisoners represent in Turkey. Most of the country's prisons are collective colonies, a system dating back to the Soviet Gulag era, with inmates sleeping in dormitories and working in production facilities.
Russian President Vladimir Putin "is satisfied with such prisons….He wants to have a frightening instrument in his hands. You need to have a place where everyone is afraid to go,” Olga Romanova, head of the prisoners’ rights group Rus Sidyashchaya (Russia Behind Bars), said.
In the penal colony where Navalny had been held since March, metal bunk beds stand in long rows in a room with aqua-painted walls that resembles a low-budget backpackers' hostel, according to a report from Russia's state-funded RT television. RT correspondent Maria Butina, who served 18 months in the United States for a conviction of being a foreign agent, claimed the prison was “more like a Scout camp” and far better than what she experienced in a U.S. federal prison.
Konstantin Kotov, who spent time in the penal colony 85 kilometers (53 miles) east of Moscow while serving an 18-month sentence for participating in an unauthorized protest, said RT's portrayal is accurate but superficial. The prison officially is called IK-2 — IK being the acronym for Ispravitelnaya Koloniya or Corrective Colony — and hasn't been given a nickname.
“As to living conditions, they are normal in principle….Everything is on a pretty good level - renovated facilities, more-or-less decent food - but that’s it in terms of positive things,” Kotov told The Associated Press.
Medical care is slow and inadequate, he said, recalling that he had to wait two months to see a doctor about a rash that prison medics said was an allergy but turned out to be scabies, a mite infection.
Kotov said the only up-to-date medical equipment he saw in the prison was an X-ray machine used to examine inmates for tuberculosis. The disease is a persistent problem in Russian prisons, although the current infection rate of about 500 per 100,000 prisoners is far lower than the 3-in-10 infection rate of the 1990s, according to epidemiologist Olga Vinokurova of People’s Friendship University.
Navalny began his hunger strike on March 31 to protest what he said was poor medical care for severe back pain and loss of feeling in his extremities and to demand the authorities allow a visit by his personal doctor.
Other hunger strikers in Russian prisons have attracted wide international concern. Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov lasted 145 days, taking only glucose and vitamins, before abandoning his strike under the threat of forced feeding.
Kotov said the guards at the prison appear eager to harass inmates by finding niggling procedural violations, such as failing to greet an officer or using gloves during an outdoor roll call in cold weather.
“What’s most important about these reprimands is that they use them to strip you of a chance to get parole. So you fail to greet an officer and will stay behind bars to the end of your term,” he said.
Dmitry Demushkin, a Russian nationalist leader who also served time in the penal colony, said the physical demands could be excruciating.
“Much worse than beatings is the detention regime. You either stand for six to eight hours a day or you sit with your back straight, legs together, arms on your knees and nothing can be done,” Demushkin told RT in a program that aired about two years before its broadcast about Navalny’s prison conditions.
“For any action, for example, if you want to scratch your nose, you have to get permission from the ‘activists,’” he said, using the term that prisoners apply to inmates who cooperate with the guards and report on fellow prisoners’ behavior.
Occasionally, images leak of inmates living a much different, even lavish, sort of life. A year ago, photos emerged appearing to show Zaur Dadayev, who was convicted of the 2015 assassination of leading opposition figure Boris Nemtsov, sitting along with other prisoners at a long table laden with food. Prison authorities promised to open a probe but never reported the findings.
Neither Kotov nor Demushkin reported being beaten, but beatings and torture of inmates are common in other prisons.
While the colony in the town of Pokrov is an example of so-called “red” prisons where regulations are meticulously observed and authorities watch over inmates' every step, violence reportedly is widespread in “black” prisons where inmates set their own rules and authorities look the other way.
Human rights groups periodically release videos showing prisoners getting beaten and tortured. In February, independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported on videos from a penal colony that it said showed beatings in 2016-2017, including of one inmate who died a month later.
The beatings took place at the same prison that figured in a 2018 case that led to the convictions of 13 prison guards who beat an inmate as he lay facedown on a table. The guards received sentences of three or four years, and the prison’s director and deputy were acquitted.
In the most-severe prisons, such as the Black Dolphin, routine procedures appear to come close to actions that are considered unacceptable torture under international human rights laws. Video from Russian television shows prisoners shoved down corridors while blindfolded, forced to bent over with hands cuffed behind them and their arms raised high.
Romanova, the prisoner rights activist, said she thinks the cruelty stems from the kind of people who gravitate to work in the penal system.
“People go to work there according to the leftover principle -- when they no longer can be taken anywhere else. And they themselves often live the same way as prisoners,” she said by email. “They are so used to it and do not understand that it is possible to be otherwise.”
Varya Kudryavtseva in Moscow contributed to this story.