By Paul Goble
Half of all inmates in Russian penal institutions, Russian officials say, but the Russian government currently spends only about a dollar a week on their medical care, a situation that means many who suffer from diseases like HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and syphilis will be released back into the civilian population uncured.
Earlier this week, Nikolay Krivolapov, deputy head of the Federal Penal System, said that 340,000 of those incarcerated in it, roughly half the total prison population, were ill. Of those, 67,000 have psychological problems, 55,000 are HIV positive, 40,000 suffer from tuberculosis, and 15,000 have syphilis (www.specletter.com/obcshestvo/2010-07-15/smert-za-reshetkoi.html).
The prison official added that the Russian government currently spends approximately 33,000 rubles (1100 US dollars) on each inmate, but of that “less than 2,000 rubles” (65 US dollars) is devoted to medical treatment of any kind. Consequently, many of the prisoners become more ill during their incarceration.
While he acknowledged that the situation remains disturbing, Krivolapov said that the 13,000 doctors and 8,000 other medical personnel working in the prison system were “qualified cadres who have undergone retraining.” These cadres, he said, keep the situation from deteriorating, and he suggested the prison system does not need more funds.
But independent experts disagree. Lev Ponomaryev, the executive director of the All-Russian For Human Rights Movement, says that he and his colleagues have found that in many prisons and camps, there are not enough of even the most basic medicines, an indication that even if they are being purchased, they are not reaching those who need them.
For that reason and because the medical situation in Russian prisons is so dire, Ponomaryev continued, penitentiary officials “must not give the impression that everything is fine. They need to raise the alarm,” something that rights activists had hoped would happen when a new director for the system was appointed.
Russians focus on the deaths of prisoners in Moscow who have not received the medical treatment they need, but few of them recognize that the situation elsewhere in the country is much worse. “Yes,” Ponomaryev says, “some of [the prisoners who died] were intentionally killed, but at times the cause of death was the result of the way things are done in prisons.”
This situation in which poor medical care for prisoners leads to their deaths or disability is “characteristic for all our system of punishment,” the rights activist says. In the 1990s, he notes, there was a certain improvement at least partially because “the prison leadership cooperated with human rights workers.”
“But beginning in 2000” – when Vladimir Putin came to power – “the situation became still worse than it was for example under [Soviet leader Leonid] Brezhnev, when each case of death in prisons or colonies was carefully investigated and the guilty punished.” Now, officials cover up their own crimes and those of their subordinates.
A year ago, Aleksandr Reymer became head of the Penal System and initially began to “cooperate closely with human rights activists.” But despite that, Ponomaryev continues, “force in the camps has continued. It is unknown whose fault this is.” Indeed, it is even possible that Reymer would like to change things but can’t.
Of the approximately 740 prison camps in the Russian Federation today, the rights activist observes, most are operated more or less well. “But there are 40 to 50 camps where the situation is so bad that the infamous American prisons at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib are “simply nursery schools with crude teachers.”
In these Russian facilities, Ponomaryev says, inmates are mistreated, raped, killed or “infected with various diseases.” And inmates in other camps always have the threat hanging over them that they can be transferred “to such places.” Consequently, even though the total number is relatively small, the danger they present is extremely large.