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9 Feb, 2010 04:31

Prison violence in Russia could be curbed by reform

A nationwide penitentiary reform taking place in Russia aims to relieve the overcrowded prisons, giving inmates more room and placing fewer people behind bars.

Such a new measure for Russia as house arrest has already been introduced for minor offenders.

Meanwhile, human rights advocates are lashing at the astonishing level of violence in Russian jails. Explicit video of brutal attacks on prisoners in a Ekaterinburg facility have even been posted on Youtube, sparking a wave of criticism from human rights activists.

“Our places of detention face a really grave challenge, which is violence,” said human rights advocate Valery Borshchyov.

Andrey Mayakov spent three years in Russia's prison system for fraud, and experienced the abuse first hand.

“The administration representatives humiliated inmates by using violence. For example, one inmate would rape another while the administrative representative filmed it on his mobile phone,” revealed ex-prisoner Andrey Mayakov. “They humiliate others as part of the re-education process. They make people bite the stone steps and put trash cans on their heads.”

Such stories have the Kremlin calling for reform and one prison colony in the Vladimir Region is attempting a bold experiment, giving prisoners better working, eating and living conditions.

“Things are different here. We are all serving our first term, have never been convicted before,” explained inmate Sergey Zarshhikov. “Here I am treated as a person who can still change and is not totally debased by such places.”

An experimental prison is one thing, but making a comparison with another prison colony in the Tver Region, where multiple offenders are serving time in jail, things are much like in other prisons around Russia and the conditions are not so favorable.

“The problem of overcrowding exists, but we do not have means to solve it here on the spot,” the head of the strict regime prison Colonel Valery Kozhevnikov, summed up the situation. “When I receive a newcomer, I cannot send him back. We just add a bed for a new person. We try to find new wards, to improve other facilities to hold them. At least we do not keep the prisoners outside the building.”

As an RT crew was making a tour of the Tver strict regime facility, authorities were obviously trying to put their best feet forward. But it was still clear that prison in Russia is not a pleasant place. According to Andrey Mayakov, it is common practice to present an alternate image of prison life for the media.

“Television and public committees that go there talk to prisoners who are under the control of the administration,” ex-prisoner Mayakov told RT. “And then they leave, while the prisoner stays. If he says anything wrong, he can be isolated or, what's worse, he can be beaten up.”

In fact, RT recorded an interview with a prisoner Sergey Lyubimov in the Tver facility who said, “No, I have not seen such problems in this camp.”

But, as Andrey Mayakov suggests, the comment may not have been completely candid, as it was made in the presence of numerous prison guards – some say an echo of a dark period in Russia's past.

“It’s the inheritance of the GULAG system of the Soviet period. I think we’ll need not less than 3-5 years to improve this system in one way or another,” shared advocate Valery Borshchyov.

It has been said that a prison system is a reflection of the society that creates it, in which case it is understandable why the Russian government is seeking such reforms.