Russian prisoners transported in inhumane conditions, says report

Cruel and degrading conditions endured by convicts outlined in Amnesty report

A penal colony at Abakan, Russia. Although Russia has taken steps to humanise its prisons over the last 25 years, convicts are still transported using draconian Soviet-era practices. Photograph:  Alexander Kolbasov\TASS via Getty Images

A penal colony at Abakan, Russia. Although Russia has taken steps to humanise its prisons over the last 25 years, convicts are still transported using draconian Soviet-era practices. Photograph: Alexander Kolbasov\TASS via Getty Images

 

Serving time in Russian jails is tough, but travelling in the overcrowded, unventilated prison trains and vans that carry convicts to remote penal colonies is an even worse endurance test. “It’s like the entrance to hell,” said Alexei Sokolov, the director of the Urals Human Rights Group that monitors conditions in Russian detention facilities.

Mr Sokolov was among the contributors to a report released by Amnesty International this week (Prisoner transportation in Russia: Travelling into the unknown) that documents the cruel and degrading conditions Russian convicts endure while in transit to corrective colonies.

Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service inherited a network of penal colonies from the Soviet gulag system, many of which are located in remote areas in the Arctic north and far east of the vast country. Although Russia has taken steps to humanise its prisons over the last 25 years, convicts are still transported using draconian Soviet-era practices that endanger their physical and psychological health. Journeys over thousands of miles often involve long waits in transit cells en route and can take weeks or even months to complete.

“It’s time the Russian authorities finally rid themselves of the legacy of the Gulag,” said Denis Krivosheev, deputy director for Europe and Central Asia at Amnesty International. “They must end these practices and ensure that prisoners are transported in conditions which comply with international law and standards.”

Special fleet

The RFPS operates a special fleet of so-called Stolypin prison train carriages where 12 or more convicts together with their luggage are packed into windowless compartments that on a commercial train would accommodate only four passengers. Bedding is not provided for the metal bunks where convicts take turns to lie down.

Convicts are given dried food rations that they dilute with hot water administered by the guards three times a day. Many opt to fast on the journey as access to toilets is limited while trains are moving and barred altogether during often lengthy stops.

All information about prisoner transportation is treated with the utmost secrecy by the RFPS. Convicts are not informed about the final destination of their journey and are denied contact with their relatives and lawyers. This enforced disappearance is psychologically distressing and heightens the risk of physical abuse, said Mr Sokolov. “A person can be beaten during transportation, can be badly beaten and nobody will find out.”

Public oversight

In a list of recommendations sent to the Russian government, Amnesty International called for time limits on the transport of prisoners and greater public oversight of transit conditions. Corrective colonies at the greatest distances from population centres should be closed down.

Recent reforms allowing prisoners occasional family visits were a welcome step, but were of no benefit to relatives who could not afford the cost of travel to faraway penal colonies to spend time with their loved ones, said Heather McGill, a researcher at Amnesty International’s East Europe and Central Asia department who authored the report.

The tradition of incarcerating convicts in inaccessible parts of the country dates back to the Tsarist era and is part of a unique penal culture in Russia that “combines punishment with exile”, she added.