Rights organizations are warning of disastrous consequences if the novel coronavirus is allowed to spread further in jails. They fear that the authorities will cover up abuse and prisoners will be isolated even more.
"There are neither masks nor tests," complained Ivan (name changed), a prisoner in the region of Yaroslavl. Though officially there were no cases of COVID-19 in his establishment, he said, many inmates had had symptoms similar to that of the novel coronavirus.
Ivan told DW that although those who had fallen ill had been x-rayed, told to wear masks and keep a distance from others, they had not been isolated. Furthermore, he added, there were not enough masks to go around. And beds in cells were usually less than a meter apart from each other.
He said that all the inmates had to go into the courtyard at least three times a day.
Real numbers much higher
At the end of April, Russia's Federal Prison Service stated that nationwide 270 staff members and 40 inmates had tested positive for COVID-19. It added that none of the cases had been serious and claimed that almost 19,000 tests had been conducted.
There are about half a million prisoners in Russia and some 300,000 prison guards.
Olga Romanova from Rus Sidyashaya (Russia Behind Bars), a non-profit that documents the mistreatment of prisoners in Russia, assumes that the number of cases is considerably higher. She said that since March information had been trickling in from inmates, their lawyers and relatives, as well as from the Public Oversight Commission (ONK), which is authorized by the government to monitor places of detention. Romanova said that recently, even officials had started making reports about COVID-19: "They're worried because they know that nobody will look after them."
No visits allowed
"People have been complaining of fever and coughing," said Alexei Fedyarov, a lawyer for Rus Sidyashaya. He added that inmates had also complained that there was not enough medicine.
Because of the restrictive measures put in place to curb the spread of the virus across Russia, prisoners are not allowed to receive visits. However, many are not even receiving parcels, which often include medicine and food.
"Suddenly, the inmates aren't getting food," said Fedyarov, adding that in some jails there was a risk of starvation.
Rus Sidyashaya has long criticized conditions in Russia's in opaque and corrupt penitentiary system. It has also raised concerns that torture might be commonplace. Inmates often make complaints about wardens abusing them physically and psychologically. However, they often retract their allegations after receiving threats.
Traditional amnesty canceled
The World Health Organization (WHO) has called on all countries to introduce measures to protect the global population of inmates from COVID-19. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has encouraged governments to reduce the number of inmates in overcrowded jails by introducing amnesties.
Several governments have heeded the advice, with 80,000 prisoners temporarily released from jail in Iran and 30,000 in Indonesia. The US, France and Germany have all released inmates.
In Russia, there is a tradition of releasing some prisoners on May, 9, which commemorates the victory of the Soviets over Nazi Germany.
Activists had hoped this would be the case this year. They think that an amnesty is the only way of preventing the spread of COVID-19. However, the chairman of the Presidential Council for Human Rights, Valery Fadeyev, announced that it would not be happening this year.
Romanova from Rus Sidyashaya said that there was not much support for an amnesty amid the general population, putting this down to ignorance: "If we don't explain to society what an amnesty is, it will remain unpopular."
Covering up of torture?
As the virus spreads and conditions become increasingly hard to bear, tension is rising in Russia's jails. At the beginning of last month, some inmates rose up against prison staff in the region of Irkutsk. They said that the staff had attacked them brutally. At least 10 people were seriously injured in the riot.
Human rights activist Svyatoslav Chomenkov said that an investigation was necessary. "Activists and families have tried to send lawyers there," he said. "But they've not been allowed in because of the quarantine measures."
He was worried that prisoners would become even more isolated as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. He said that family visits and monitoring by the Public Oversight Commission (ONK) helped to ensure that the rights of prisoners were not violated.
"If prisoners die en masse of COVID-19, the deaths of prisoners who were abused and tortured could be covered up," Chomenkov said.