What are Russian prisons like?

What are Russian prisons like?

Mikhail Khordokovsky, the ex-tycoon who was convicted in a Moscow courtroom Monday on embezzlement charges — a development that surprised approximately zero observers — faces a grim short-term future, judging from a cable released this week that describes the Russian prison system in painful detail.

The cable, dated Feb. 27, 2008, and signed by then-ambassador William J. Burns, tells of a broken, inhumane system that "combines the country’s emblematic features — vast distances, harsh climate, and an uncaring bureaucracy — and fuses them into a massive instrument of punishment." A Dostoevsky novel come to life.

Khordokovsky has yet to be sentenced, but observers expect he could be on the hook for as many as 15 more years in jail. Since he was first arrested in 2003, he has spent much of his time in Krasnokamensk, a Siberian prison camp more than 3,000 miles from Moscow. There, he was exposed to freezing temperatures, awful food, and solitary confinement — conditions he called "Gulag Lite." Later, during his two-year trial, he was crammed into "a 35-square-foot cell with several other men and no fresh air or sun save for a few shafts of light through a tiny ventilation window," according to an account earlier this year in FP.

Judging by Burns’s cable, Khordokovsky’s experience sounds rather typical. But Russian prisons aren’t simply brutal, inhospitable places. They also contain some unique features. For instance, enforcers:

According to Lev Ponomarev, who recently established the NGO "For Prisoners’ Rights," the authorities use a two-tier system of administration. The prison officials and the guards protect the perimeter of the facilities and provide the upper layer of security, but then they elevate select prisoners to act as internal enforcers among the other prisoners. These elite prisoners receive privileges and protections in return for enforcing a brutal form of order within the prisons. Ponomarev called this a "low-risk ghetto system" for the guards. "If one of their enforcers gets killed by another, they can just promote a new one. Maybe even the one that killed the last boss." […]

This system of using prisoners to enforce discipline and order was formally established by the Ministry of Justice in 2005. According to William Smirnov, a member of the President’s Council on Human Rights, the MOJ formalized a system that had long existed. Smirnov defended the system, telling us that "It was not a bad idea, but it was poorly implemented."

Another unique feature? Toddlers:

At the women’s prison in Mozhaisk (Moscow Oblast) the Embassy and a visiting DOJ delegation were given a tour of the prison housing facilities and clothing factory, and then treated to a bizarre fashion and talent show by the inmates. Eleven of the 43 women’s prisons in the Russian Federation allow inmates to have children under age three to live on the prison grounds, and women in the other prisons who become pregnant are transferred to prisons that allow children. Only two, Mozhaisk and Mordovia, allow mothers to live and sleep in the same rooms with their young children. At age three, the children are moved to family members on the outside or to orphanages. The facilities at Mozhaisk were clean, well kept, and the factory where prisoners produced uniforms for the military, police, and other government workers appeared to be safe, well lit, and well run.

Burns, or whoever wrote the cable, holds out no hope for change:

A system as vast and entrenched as the Russian prison system will be difficult if not impossible to reform. The nature of the system, which has not substantively varied as it has evolved from tsarist prisons to the gulag to today’s system, nurtures the spread of disease, abuse, and corruption. Observers agree that the combination of distance, isolation, corruption, and general indifference to the plight of convicts combine to create a system that is brutal and will resist attempts to reveal its inner workings, or to change it.