Saturday, April 4, 2020

If Moscow Doesn’t Release Elderly and Sick Inmates, Prison Revolts will Occur, Svetova Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 1 – Some governments faced with the coronavirus pandemic are releasing elderly or sick prisoners to home confinement in order to reduce pressure on the system and slow the spread of the virus among the remaining prisoners, something especially likely in crowded conditions, Zoya Svetova says.

            But the journalist notes, Moscow is not among the world capitals taking such far-sighted steps. Instead, it is moving in exactly the opposite direction, turning the already nightmarish world of Russian prisons and camps into a breeding ground for prisoner revolts (

            Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court stopped the consideration of all criminal cases as long as the coronavirus pandemic continues, except for those that for some reason can’t be put off or involving young people. That will increase the number of people held in preliminary detention, eliminate the possibility of review and keep most prisoners where they are.

            This will include the more than 12,000 prisoners of pension age or above, few of whom have been sentenced for violent crimes, and the even larger number who are suffering from diseases like tuberculosis or the coronavirus, a number that will grow if such people aren’t isolated from others.

            Such prisoners should be immediately released from jails and prison colonies “because the virus is already on the inside.” Testing isn’t being done all promises to the contrary. After all, if there aren’t enough tests available for the civilian population, the government is hardly likely to ensure that they are available for prisoners.

            Moreover, the Russian penal system is becoming increasingly inaccessible to outsiders so few will be able to say what is in fact happening. “In Moscow, for example, packages, visits with relatives and meetings with lawyers have been forbidden.” And so these limited channels of communication with the outside world have been blocked.

            Self-isolation is hard for ordinary people. “But a prison is isolation squared. Especially if it now occurs in a super-secret fashion and no one knows exactly how long this will go on – for a month, two, three, half a year?”

            “I do not even want to think about how relations between prisoners and guards will degrade,” Svetova says. “I do not want to think how many suicides, how many violations of prisoners’ rights, and how many crimes could occur in prisons during this period.”  But they will certainly increase as will corruption with wealthy prisoners buying their way out of the worst.

            This will be particularly bad because neither rights activists nor lawyers will be allowed to know what is happening.  The authorities should realize that it is in their own interest to release some prisoners as a petition by the Moscow Helsinki Group urges (российские-власти-призываем-к-максимально-широкой-амнистии-из-за-коронавируса).

            Unfortunately, she says, she does not think that “the accused and condemned are a priority for the president. The condemned don’t vote and that means they aren’t of interest. Only those in preliminary detention. But if you consider that in Russia there are about 600,000 under arrest, and each has relatives, the size of the potential electorate grows by orders of magnitude.”

            The Kremlin “ought to think about this.” It should also be thinking about something else. “Together with the inmates in prisons and camps a whole army of employees of the prison system are also at risk” as a result of its foolish policy. “Those,” Svetova reminds, “are for the president ‘socially close.’”

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