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Viewing cable 08MOSCOW531, RUSSIAN PRISONS

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Reference ID Created Released Classification Origin
08MOSCOW531 2008-02-27 13:01 2010-12-26 21:09 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Moscow

DE RUEHMO #0531/01 0581325
P 271325Z FEB 08
C O N F I D E N T I A L MOSCOW 000531



E.O. 12958: DECL: 02/27/2018

REF: A. 07 MOSCOW 4543

Classified By: Ambassador William J. Burns for reason 1.4(d).

1. (C) Summary: The Russian prison system combines the
country's emblematic features - vast distances, harsh
climate, and an uncaring bureaucracy - and fuses them into a
massive instrument of punishment. Russia imprisons a greater
portion of its population than almost any other country in
the world (second only to the U.S.). In contrast to other
Western countries, the system is foremost focused on
punishment, not rehabilitation, and while statisics are
difficult to compare, produces a lower rate of recidivism.
Recent prison riots, new prisoner shock tactics, and smuggled
videos of prison mistreatment have highlighted the cruelties
and corruption in the system. Health conditions in Russian
prisons are poor and infection rates for contagious diseases
are much higher than in the general population, but
surprisingly the mortality rate for men in these prisons is
only one-third the rate on the outside - a statistic that
says much more about the dangers of alcoholism and road
safety than it does about healthy living behind bars.
Reports of abuses in the prison system have been answered
with calls for reform, most recently in the Human Rights
Ombudsman's annual report and by the President's Human Rights
Council. While NGO activists such as the embattled Lev
Ponomarev praise the work of Lukin, the insurmountable
challenges posed by the physical and cultural nature of the
prison system mean that efforts to improve conditions or to
alter the character of the system from punishment to
rehabilitation are likely to produce only superficial
improvements. End summary.

Structure of the Prison System

2. (U) The Federal Service for the Execution of Punishments
(FSIN), part of the Ministry of Justice, administers more
than 700 Russian jails and prisons across the country (this
cable does not address the military prison system operated by
the Ministry of Defense). There are four levels of
incarceration as prisoners move through the justice system:
temporary police custody facilities for those held pending
charges; pretrial detention facilities (SIZOs) for those
charged with crimes; lower-security correctional labor
colonies (ITKs); and high-security prisons for more dangerous
prisoners and for those who violate the rules of ITKs.
Convicted juveniles serve their sentences in "educational
labor colonies" (VTKs) for juveniles, in almost all cases
separate from adult prisoners.

3. (C) According to Lev Ponomarev, who recently established
the NGO "For Prisoners' Rights," the authorities use a
two-tier system of administration. The prison officials and
the guards protect the perimeter of the facilities and
provide the upper layer of security, but then they elevate
select prisoners to act as internal enforcers among the other
prisoners. These elite prisoners receive privileges and
protections in return for enforcing a brutal form of order
within the prisons. Ponomarev called this a "low-risk ghetto
system" for the guards. "If one of their enforcers gets
killed by another, they can just promote a new one. Maybe
even the one that killed the last boss." Ponomarev told us
that the prisoners have little choice, and cited an example
of one member of the National Bolshevik Party who was sent
into solitary confinement for one year for refusing to act as
an enforcer.

4. (C) This system of using prisoners to enforce discipline
and order was formally established by the Ministry of Justice
in 2005. According to William Smirnov, a member of the
President's Council on Human Rights, the MOJ formalized a
system that had long existed. Smirnov defended the system,
telling us that "It was not a bad idea, but it was poorly

5. (C) According to Viktoriya Sergeyeva of Prison Reform
International (PRI) in Moscow, the source of the problems is
the Ministry of Justice and the FSIN. The low pay and low
prestige of prison administrators and guards, combined with a
lack of oversight and accountability, have created an abusive
system rife with cruelty and corruption. Guards use
violence, threats of violence, or the lack of protection to
extort prisoners. Other guards take bribes for allowing
relatives to smuggle in goods to prisoners. Sergeyeva said
that prison administrators knew what was occurring and
probably received a cut from the guards.


The Inmates

6. (U) According to FSIN statistics, as of July, there were
approximately 889,600 people in the custody of the criminal
justice system, including 63,000 women and 12,100 juveniles.
This rate of 630 prisoners per 100,000 citizens is second in
the world only to the United States (702 per 100,000). The
number of prisoners has increased in recent years. Compared
to July 2005, the total number of prisoners has increased by
101,000 ( 13 percent), the number of women prisoners
increased by 15,000 ( 31 percent), and the number of juvenile
prisoners decreased by 2,400 (-17 percent). Not
surprisingly, most prisoners are poorer and less educated
that the general population; only 1.3 percent of male
prisoners have university degrees, compared to 22.5 percent
of the general population, and nearly 60 percent of convicts
were unemployed prior to their arrests. Seventy percent are

7. (C) During the last year, there have been scattered
reports of uprisings in prisons, including a revolt and
jailbreak at the youth prison in Togliatti (Samara Oblast).
According to Ponomarev, this revolt was triggered by the
transfer of a large number of 20 year-old prisoners to an
adult prison. By law, he explained, convicts sentenced
before they turn 18 are sent to youth prisons, where they may
stay until they turn 21, at which time they are transferred
to an adult prison. Other protest actions, such as hunger
strikes, are still common, but Ponomarev described a new
shock tactic whereby prisoners will en masse slice open a
vein on their arms or neck in protest of mass beatings.
While the poor conditions in the prisons have not further
deteriorated in the past few years, the prisoners are
becoming more organized. "Smuggled cell phones are enabling
prisoners to communicate better and to coordinate mass
action," said Ponomarev.

--------------------------------------------- -
Distance, Climate, and Isolation as Punishment
--------------------------------------------- -

8. (U) The prison system incorporates Russia's vast distances
and harsh climate into the system of punishment. Although
the law states that prisoners should not be incarcerated
outside the region where they lived or were convicted unless
local prisons are overcrowded, this rule is routinely
disregarded, according to Sergeyeva. Many prisons are
located in isolated regions with harsh climates and use
buildings that are not adequately heated, cooled, or
ventilated. Often, the transfer of prisoners far from their
homes is due to space concerns, but it is also used as a form
of punishment for troublesome prisoners. The best known
example of this treatment is Mikhail Khodorkovskiy, who is
imprisoned in Chita, nearly 3,000 miles from his native
Moscow. His associate, Platon Lebedev is imprisoned nearly
1,200 miles from Moscow above the Arctic Circle. The
Moscow-based Open Health Institute (OHI) reported that this
physical isolation leads to personal isolation, and that
between 50 and 80 percent of all prisoners had not received
any visitors in the prior three months. This isolation from
family and friends has negative repercussions on future
rehabilitation and reintegration into society.

9. (U) Due to the nature of this federal (not regional)
system, juveniles and women are more likely to be located far
from their homes. For example, there are only three prisons
in the country for the 1,000 girl prisoners - one in Tomsk
for all of Siberia and the Far East, one in Ryazan, and one
in Belgorod. This great distance makes it almost impossible
for families to have regular contact with their children.

10. (U) Prison guards still rely heavily on traditional forms
of violence and deprivation to maintain control. Solitary
confinement for long periods (sometimes longer than one year)
while illegal is reportedly used, and some isolation cells
are too small for the inmate to fully stretch out lying down.
In what Ponomarev said was a typical incident, he showed us
a video filmed by a guard and sent anonymously to For
Prisoners' Rights. The video, since posted on YouTube, shows
prison guards marching out prisoners in a Sverdlovsk Oblast
prison past dogs. Some prisoners were then stripped to the
waist, stretched out over tables, and then beaten with billy
clubs by the guards. "This is routine behavior," said
Ponomarev, "what is different is that it was recorded."
REN-TV aired short segments of the video during an evening
newscast. A recent news report from Kalmykiya claimed that
after a new warden was appointed to a local SIZO, the
Ministry of Justice's special forces visited the prison and
beat up every detainee saying that it was a greeting from the
new warden. Ponomarev said that such reports surfaced
relatively rarely, and that prison administrators will
continue to exploit their remote locations and be able to
ward off scrutiny from the press, NGOs, or government

11. (U) According to Sergeyeva, the recidivism rate in Russia
is only 36 percent (compared to more than 50 percent in the
United States or the United Kingdom). She attributed this
low number to a combination of factors, including the longer
average Russian prison term which keeps men in jail and a
genuine fear of returning to prison. (Note: It is difficult
to evenly compare the U.S. and Russian statistics since U.S.
conditions vary from state to state and from the federal
prisons. End note.) "We still have the problem that when
these prisoners return to society, they have no system of
assistance. The federal budget finances the prisons and the
punishment, but they leave it up to regional and local
government to finance the rehabilitation and health costs.
They break them, and then we own them."

Health Conditions

12. (U) Conditions in pre-detention facilities (SIZOs) are
generally worse than in the prisons. The prison system does
not have enough SIZOs to handle the large number of the
accused, and overcrowding and squalid conditions are
widespread. Many SIZOs lack toilets, and inmates use
buckets. In a well-documented case at the European Court of
Human Rights (Mayzit v. Russia, No. 63378/00), the court
found Russia in violation of the Prohibition of Inhuman or
Degrading Treatment by placing Yuriy Mayzit in severely
overcrowded cells with less than two square meters per person
(the Russian legal minimum is four square meters/person, the
European minimum is seven square meters/person). According
to Human Rights activists and the Ombudsman Lukin, similar
conditions (or worse) exist throughout the system.

13. (U) Health conditions in prisons are poor. Overcrowding
is common, the infection rates of resistant TB and HIV/AIDS
are much higher than in the general population, and even
though the TB infection rate has greatly decreased since
1999, the active TB rate among prisoner is still five times
higher than in the civilian population (Ref A). According to
the Open Health Institute (OHI), there were 41,500 inmates
with HIV/AIDS in 2006, approximately ten percent of the cases
in the country. Prisoners with active TB are segregated from
the regular prison population and are given rigorous medical
treatment, but because the treatment of normal TB lasts up to
12 months and even longer for drug-resistant TB, many
prisoners are released before they complete treatment and an
estimated 40 percent fail to continue their treatment on the
outside. A 2005 study by OHI revealed that former prisoners
carry these infections back to the general population upon
their release, and they account for an estimated 20 percent
of new TB cases in the civilian population.

14. (U) OHI Deputy Director Aleksey Bobrik reported a
counterintuitive statistic that even though the mortality
rate from infectious diseases was greater in prisons than in
the general population, the overall mortality rate for men in
prison was only one-third that of the general population.
Bobrik and the other OHI researchers attributed this to the
absence of binge drinking, car accidents, and industrial
accidents in prison. Long-term health for inmates, however,
suffers greatly as the poor nutrition, stress, and disease
manifest themselves later in life.

First-Hand Observations

15. (SBU) Embassy and Consulate employees have visited
several jails and prisons across Russia and report that
conditions are generally poor. In the Kholmsk pre-trial
detention center on Sakhalin Island, the facilities are
literally crumbling, it is dangerous to walk the hallways,
and the dark living quarters lack every amenity. One
American detainee was initially denied a bed, and his health
deteriorated noticeably during the weeks he was held there.

16. (SBU) The facilities that consular staff see are
generally better than the prevailing living conditions,
according to prisoners. Consular officers generally will
meet with prisoners in a waiting room, sometimes under a
guard's watch, but often alone in a room. We have the
greatest access to the prison in Mordovia, which is used for
foreign citizens, but we cannot say that it is typical of the
system. An American citizen convicted of pedophilia used
money and goods sent from the outside to buy the favor and
protection of the prison commandant. He had no complaints
about threats from other prisoners, which is not typical of
Russian prisons where pedophiles are reportedly at the bottom
of the prisoner caste system.

17. (SBU) At the women's prison in Mozhaisk (Moscow Oblast)
the Embassy and a visiting DOJ delegation were given a tour
of the prison housing facilities and clothing factory, and
then treated to a bizarre fashion and talent show by the
inmates. Eleven of the 43 women's prisons in the Russian
Federation allow inmates to have children under age three to
live on the prison grounds, and women in the other prisons
who become pregnant are transferred to prisons that allow
children. Only two, Mozhaisk and Mordovia, allow mothers to
live and sleep in the same rooms with their young children.
At age three, the children are moved to family members on the
outside or to orphanages. The facilities at Mozhaisk were
clean, well kept, and the factory where prisoners produced
uniforms for the military, police, and other government
workers appeared to be safe, well lit, and well run.

Oversight and Efforts to Reform the System

18. (C) Human Rights Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin told the
Ambassador in a February 7 meeting (Ref B) that prison
conditions were one of the most important issues for him, but
that he had difficulty gaining unfettered access to the
prisons and that prison authorities were the main obstacle he
faced in addressing prisoners' human rights complaints. Lukin
said that the FSIN was slowly improving conditions, and that
new construction fixed many of the problems of sanitation and

19. (SBU) On February 14, Lukin issued his 2007 Human Rights
report for Russia which reproached the FSIN for the
deplorable conditions in the prison and for their lack of
cooperation in addressing the abuses. Like the 2006 report,
the 2007 report focuses heavily on abuse in the prison
system, and Lukin noted that almost 20 percent of the total
15,000 complaints that his office received last year were
reports of ill treatment in the prisons. Lukin wrote that his
office had investigated approximately half of the prison
complaints but that he was often stonewalled by prison
authorities in getting evidence. According to Lukin, fewer
than 150 of the 1,500 cases he had brought to the attention
of prison officials resulted in any corrective action.

20. (SBU) Lukin proposes several reforms that would address
problems in the system, foremost among them being the
expansion of parole, which would ease the overcrowding of the
system, and change the focus of the prison system from
punishment to rehabilitation. He also proposes minor
changes, such as moving the prison hospital system out of the
Ministry of Justice and into the Ministry of Health. Lukin
noted that Russia already had adequate legislation to address
many of the abuses, such as keeping prisoners near their home
region or providing them with proper medical care; the
problem, however, is that the FSIN often disregards the law.

21. (C) Ponomarev and PRI's Alla Pokras both praised the work
of Lukin and Ella Pamfilova, the Chair of the Presidential
Council on Human Rights, but said that the problems in the
system were too great and too severe for them to handle.
Pamfilova told the Ambassador on February 11 that she had
been thwarted in her reform efforts by the Ministry of
Justice (Ref C). Ponomarev noted that Putin met with
Pamfilova on January 11 to discuss problems in the prisons,
but that he offered nothing substantive. Putin was quoted
saying "The situation (in prisons) has been changing slowly
but surely, largely through consistent and systematic efforts
by human rights organizations." Although Ponomarev agreed
that human rights groups were doing most of the work to
reform the system, he disagreed that the situation was
improving, or that human rights organizations could do this
work by themselves. "We can shine a light on this situation,
but the government runs the prisons -- neither we nor Lukin
himself can even gain access to the 40 worst 'torture
prisons.' How can he honestly expect that we could possibly
change this system?"

22. (U) On February 22, a Moscow court acting on a complaint
by FSIN Director Kalinin filed a suit against Ponomarev for
defamation. The suit is based upon a November 2006 interview
with where Ponomarev called FSIN Director Kalinin
the "author" of the system in which select prisoners enforce
order and discipline on others. Ponomarev also described a
network of 40 "torture prisons" and alleged that torture,
beating, and rape (or the threat thereof) were used to
extract confessions and control prisoners. The prosecutor's
complaint did not take issue with Ponomarev's
characterization of the system or the allegations of torture
in the prisons, but focused instead on the fact that it was a
Ministry of Justice decree that established the system, not
Kalinin himself. If found guilty, Ponomarev faces up to
three years of first-hand experience inside the prison system.


23. (C) A system as vast and entrenched as the Russian
prison system will be difficult if not impossible to reform.
The nature of the system, which has not substantively varied
as it has evolved from tsarist prisons to the gulag to
today's system, nurtures the spread of disease, abuse, and
corruption. Observers agree that the combination of
distance, isolation, corruption, and general indifference to
the plight of convicts combine to create a system that is
brutal and will resist attempts to reveal its inner workings,
or to change it.