Anna Karetnikova: Monitoring Moscow’s Prisons

karetnikova
Anna Karetnikova

Anna Karetnikova: “The worse things are in Russia and the less money there is, the worse things are in the system”
OVD Info
October 27, 2016

As promised, OVD Info has published the full version of our interview with Anna Karetnikova, civil rights activist and member of the last three Moscow Commissions for Public Monitoring of Detention Facilities. The term in office of the third Moscow Public Monitoring Commission (PMC) is coming to an end, and by law anyone who has sat on the same commission for three consecutive terms cannot apply to serve on it again. Karetnikova had applied to serve on the Moscow Region PMC, but was not included in the new commission’s lineup. Similar things happened to a large number of civil rights activists who tried to get appointments to PMCs in other parts of Russia.

The interview was conducted shortly before the new lineups of the oversight commissions were made public. In conversation with OVD Info, Karetnikova summed up the work of the Moscow PMC and talked about the Russian penitentiary system’s numerous problems.

What is a PMC?

A PMC is a public monitoring commission of detention facilities. On the basis of Federal Law No. 76, its members are admitted into institutions that have such facilities, from police stations to remand prisons, including temporary detention centers, military prisons, and so on. They see the conditions of detention and can make recommendations on enforcing the law, eliminating violations, and otherwise furthering the legal interests of the persons imprisoned there.

How would you assess the work of the current commission? During your term have you been able to effect changes in the system, in the treatment of inmates, and the way the system interacts with civil rights activists?

I would rate it quite highly. I can speak only about the Moscow PMC. We succeeded in implementing serious reforms in meal services, accountability, and expanding the range of products that can be delivered to inmates in remand prisons. We made definite improvements to the Kaluga Federal Unitary State Enterprise, the [online] prison store or shop where inmates’ relatives can order things for them.  We definitely improved the conditions in Women’s Remand Prison No. 6. Unfortunately, among the things that have remained beyond our control and are getting worse, in my opinion, is medical care. The more we try and get on top of it, the worse it gets.

Medical care has remained a fallow field despite the huge effort we made to improve it just a bit. It was like running up the down escalator.

Nothing can be done. I understand the situation with healthcare is the same nationwide, but it is particularly horrible in our remand prisons.

What do you mean by accountability?

Registering complaints. If we are not around, say, the only way an incarcerated inmate can get something is by filing a complaint or petition. We expended a great deal of effort making sure these complaints and petitions were registered normally, because basically they save lives. It can happen that someone asks to see a doctor for six months and submits petitions to this effect, but none of them is registered. Then he dies, and we are sent an official reply that he never requested medical treatment.

Do you mean that if suddenly PMC members stopped visiting remand prisons, the system functions better already and complaints would be registered?

I cannot give such guarantees. I put a lot of effort into it. Everyone laughed at the fact I was attaching such importance to filling out the complaints registers. Naturally, if we’re not around, there will be no one to check the registers. That is the other side of the issue.

How do you check whether an inmate has tried to file a complaint but has been turned down?

It’s really simple. We go into a cell and say, “Brother, have you filed any complaints? How many have you filed?”

“Fifteen,” he says.

“Give me the register. For some reason, there is only one complaint listed here.”

That is how we check it, as if we were rolling out the sunset by hand. After all, when prosecutors do an inspection, they proceed from documents to individuals. On the contrary, first we go to the individual, and then we check the documentation. I think this is the best way to check.

Aside from medical care, what other problems are the most difficult? Overcrowding in remand prisons?

Overcrowding is a terrible problem in Russia, of course. It turns the cells into a hell for the prisoners. Recently, Zoya Svetova and I followed a tip and visited a two-bed cell occupied by six people. How could they live in there? The cell was so tiny.

This has been happening for a couple of years, no?

Yes, we have been living with this for around two years.

What is the reason?

Fewer people need to be jailed!

Do you know why it has been happening in recent years?

I cannot say for sure, but I think the investigative and judicial system is biased towards filing charges and making arrests. It is not even that investigators find it easier to take everyone into police custody, but that if they are taken into custody they all plead guilty, if only to escape to the penal colonies from the remand prisons, where they are jailed for years on end. And it looks good on the books for investigators and judges. If the chair of Moscow City Court asks for a greater number of convictions, this is one way of getting them, naturally. This is aside from the fact that there are many migrants in Russia without residence permits, so they have to be taken into custody.

Can’t it be attributed to rising crime levels in recent years?

I know of no such statistics. I don’t have the time and the means to look for them, but objectively speaking, I do think this factor exists, because, if Russia is in the midst of an economic crisis, naturally, there will be more crime. You cannot dismiss this by saying that only the innocent are jailed in Russia. Of course not. This factor exists.

What other serious problems are there? Is there a shortage of staff in remand prisons?

Yes, it’s terrible. I write about it constantly. It’s the consequence of the optimization program signed by our president.

We have two awful counter-trends: an increase in the numbers of arrestees in remand prisons, and a constant decrease in staffing. One person does two or three jobs. He cannot work this way, and he clearly is unable to follow the rules and do what it says in his job description.

How do things stand with violations of rules and laws in remand prisons, violations of rules and regulations by personnel and their overall knowledge of the laws?

There is senior staff, and then there are the lower ranks, all those junior inspectors about whom the senior staff complain they were hired through the newspapers. This is really the case. Someone puts an advert in the paper in which he writes, “Vocational school grad seeks job guarding car wash.” He gets a call from a prison asking him to come work for them ASAP.  Clearly, due to his intellectual capacities and education, he will often simply be unable to make heads or tails of the rules and regulations. And you also want him to read through the laws? He’ll just resign immediately. They wouldn’t have anyone to fill the positions.

Has the work of the current PMC differed significantly from that of the previous PMC? When the current PMC was being formed, it was expected that people from law enforcement would fill all the positions, rather than people from the civil rights community.

Everyone was expecting the system would be destroyed, that people were being put on the PMC to vote the “right” way, and there was a scuffle over the job of chair of the Moscow PMC.  [Anton Tsvetkov, head of the Officers of Russia, chaired the third Moscow PMC — OVD Info]. But then—excuse me for speaking this way—I got involved. By that time, I was deeply interested in the issues and had begun to work very hard. But you need to work with other people, because there have to be two of us when we go into detention facilities. It turned out that some of the people who had come on board just to vote the “right” way also became interested. I got them engaged, and they started doing absolutely proper civil rights work. I won’t say that everyone did this. There were members of the commission whom we never saw. Some have been up to slightly bad things, but I cannot criticize my colleagues. My code of ethics forbids me, although I really dislike a lot of what has gone on. But some of the members did their jobs completely normally. They studied up and achieved a certain professionalism, and this included people from both groups [the civil rights and law enforcement groups — OVD Info]. Some got interested towards the end. For example, Zoya Svetova has always been involved with Lefortovo Remand Prison: it had been one of her topics as a civil rights reporter. Now she, too, has become very interested in the issues. She works almost more than I do. She also visits run-of-the-mill remand prisons even when there is no sensational story involved, and I think she is excellent at coping with the goals she sets herself. There are lots of these people on the commission, and it doesn’t matter when they were appointed.

I see the watershed elsewhere. It does not run between “liberals” and “anti-liberals,” but between people who do their job and people who never do anything, and maybe even worse.

In this connection, has the PMC’s work changed compared with the previous rosters?

It has become more active and, thus, more effective, because effectiveness is achieved by working day in and day out. Aside from other things, this involves obtaining and analyzing information. Let’s be honest. People meet us halfway only because we are well aware of what’s going on.

Nevertheless, there continue to be conflicts within the PMC?

There do, but I would say they are personal conflicts. But there are few such examples. I get along famously both with Zoya Svetova and Eva Merkachova, a Moskovsky Komsomolets reporter from the new roster. We have no disagreements. We just work very well together and help each other out a lot, using the different resources we have at our disposal.

But was the sole purpose of appointing people from the law enforcement bloc really so they could vote for the chair? Why do you think people from veterans’ and law enforcement organizations would want to join the PMC?

People are also quite different. An organization nominated someone and forgot about him. It is rarely the case that organizations help their own people the way Memorial helps me. The organizations are springboards for nominating people, but once they are in, it’s sink or swim. So you cannot say that people are fused to their organizations. Of course there are people who serve on the PMC purely nominally and do not visit detention facilities. Thank God if they at least provide us with organizational support, but the majority provide no support whatsoever. Nevertheless, there is no one who joined the commission specially to visit the institutions and write, “There are no complaints. Everything is great. We adore the Federal Penitentiary Service.” If someone has written something like that, then it is only because once a year he visited a prison for an hour and didn’t understand a thing. They poured him a cup of coffee, he chatted with the warden, and he decided everything was fine. But then he got bored and stopped visiting the place. So, basically, I praise the Federal Penitentiary Service when it really does something good.

At the outset, you mentioned different institutions where people are incarcerated. Did you visit only remand prisons during this term?

Yes, I have become highly specialized. It’s better to work on the things you know, and I’m not one of those people who know a little about everything, but rather someone who knows everything about a few things.

Were the duties divided among the PMC’s members so that different people visited different remand prisons?

We weren’t able to do that.

How many remand prisons are there in Moscow?

Two federally managed prisons and seven run by the Federal Penitentiary Service’s Moscow Directorate, but Remand Prison No. 7 is closed for construction, so now there are eight prisons.

And how well did this sitting of the commission cover other places of detention?

I think they were very poorly covered. They were virtually not covered at all. But if I spent my days at remand prisons, and then checked police stations at night, I would probably die real soon, and no one would go there at all anymore.

Are you saying that no one visited the police precincts, the border guard services at airports, and the escort guardrooms at courthouses?

During my eight years, I think I heard once that someone had visited a border guard service. I have never been to such exotic spots. During my first two terms, I had the time (there were lots of public events then) to deal with civic activists [detained at protest rallies — OVD Info] and the entire police at the same time. Now I know that Andrei Babushkin and someone from Officers of Russia visit police precincts from time to time. But you cannot square the circle. There are forty people on the commission, and seventeen or eighteen do their jobs to some extent. What can you say about the large regions, if it is obvious we cannot cope in Moscow? It’s like the junior inspector who takes on five jobs at once.

Apparently, you visit remand prisons nearly every day. What about the other members?

When I call them. They also go on their own. Valery Borshchev [ex-chair of the Moscow PMC — OVD Info) and Lyubov Volkova don’t particularly interact with me, but they sometimes go out on their own. I think it’s a good thing when an active commission member goes somewhere at least once a week. If they go twice a week, that’s just super. My faithful partner Sergei Sorokin, who is no spring chicken, practically saved me this term. Imagine that on Mondays I have to ring if not forty, then twenty people and ask whether they plan to go anywhere. Then I have to draw up a schedule for them.

Do all members of the PMC work at other jobs?

Yes, of course. We work as volunteers on the commission. We don’t have the right to receive remuneration for our work, but we have to live on something. So once again I would like to acknowledge my organization, Memorial, which supports me. In my case, I get money. But generally, a person goes to his or her real job, asks to get off early, and goes to visit a prison.

How would you rate the work of Anton Tsvetkov as PMC chair?

The rumors of his awfulness have been greatly exaggerated. I’m talking specifically about his work as head of the Moscow PMC. What is more, when there were sticky situations, he rescued us. Our relationship with the management of the Federal Penitentiary Service did not always evolve smoothly. We have gone through different periods. I cannot say he was amazingly active. I think he could have done more had he wanted. But when the need has arisen to meet with the prosecutor’s office or the escort guards regiment, he has used his privileges as a member of the Public Chamber and set up these meetings for us.

To be perfectly honest, however, we didn’t work out the organizational issues and nearly all of them were dumped on me: all the authorizations, agreements, exchanges of information, receipt of correspondence, and processing of complaints. There is a huge number of complaints. Of course, if we had a staff that could have helped me, we would have been even more effective.

But on this score I will cast no stones at Tsvetkov. Initially, I said he didn’t help us, but at least he didn’t interfere. For the greater part of the terms, we were grateful to him for this. He really didn’t interfere in our work. And when denunciations against me were sent to the commission, he would say, “Duly noted.” [Karetnikova gestures as if setting a letter aside.]

Some time ago you were made deputy chair of the PMC. Do this mean you have some authority?

It doesn’t mean anything at all. It’s purely a matter of status, because I was also deputy chair during the previous sittings of the PMC. Naturally, it does not confer any authority, except that at a remand prison I can say, “You’re the deputy warden, and I’m the deputy chair. Let’s you and I discuss everything.”

You have held round tables with Federal Penitentiary Service officials and meetings with MPs. Have there been attempts to reform the system?

Different members of the PMC meet with different people. Eva Merkachova meets with Supreme Court judges, and we meet officially and unofficially with Federal Penitentiary Service officials. We drafted changes to the list of permitted items and made suggestions. It’s another matter that now, when Decree No. 189, which validated the internal regulations of remand prisons, has been amended, practically none of our recommendations was taken into account. The list of things you can have in your cell is quite scanty. We really wanted to expand it to make conditions of daily life tolerable. I cannot say that we were duly listened to.

Can you give an example of things forbidden to have in your cell?

Rope. Because it’s not on the list of permitted items. For many years, we have been asking how inmates are supposed to dry their laundry. They wash it, but where are they supposed to hang it? Moreover, if you hang it on a bed, that is draping, an action for which you can be punished. In fact, there are ropes in most places, but they have to be taken down before every inspection, which I think is totally idiotic. No hangers or driers are provided. A lot of other things are not on the list. Thank God, at least they have added nail clippers to the list. Previously, they had to be smuggled into prisons. But if you have something not on the list in your cell, it is a forbidden item, and and you have violated the rules.

There were discussions of possibly expanding the list of diseases that would exclude a person’s incarceration.

We have been trying constantly, at every meeting dealing with medical issues. I’m mainly a specialist not only on regulations but also on monitoring medical care. So we constantly attend all sorts of medical care-related meetings and have brought up the issue on many occasions. So far there has been no movement.

Can we compare how prisons are inspected in Russia and abroad? Are prison systems ever so well organized that people from the outside don’t need to inspect them? How should this be organized generally?

I don’t know, I’m not a theorist. Maybe somewhere there is a magical paradise where nothing needs to be inspected, but I doubt it. If paradise were inspected, maybe conditions there would improve too. Lyubov Volkova once kindly took me on a fact-finding mission to England. It was the only time I saw in practice more or less how this works. London prisons have observers, old grannies recruited through the newspapers. They make up the board of trustees of particular prisons. So while we walk around the prisons accompanied by personnel armed with DVRs, these grannies dash round the prisons themselves, opening everything with their own keys. They are quite energetic. They come to visit the prisons from their farms, where they raise goats and sheep.

Meaning that prisons function poorly without public oversight?

If England believes that public oversight is necessary, there must be some rationale to it. A number of countries have it, while others don’t. When I was in Prague I asked a prison chaplain whether they had something similar, and he was quite surprised civilians inspect prisons in Russia.

Are there remand prisons in Moscow where the conditions are particularly rough? There were complications at the Medved Remand Prison, having to do with the fact that inmates were being extorted. How was that resolved?

In terms of overcrowding and conditions, Remand Prison No. 3, Presnya, and Matrosskaya Tishina Transfer Prison, are the worst. Presnya is terribly overcrowded and dilapidated, and Matrosskaya Tishina is also terrible overcrowded and needs repairs.  As for the incidents at Remand No. 4 that you mention, Elena Masyuk has written really great articles in Novaya Gazeta.

But I have to say that extortion exists in one form or another at all remand prisons except federal remand prisons, which were built for another purpose and are the only remand prisons [izolyatory, in Russian – TRR] in the truest sense of the word.

All the other remand prisons have a quite specific way of life, and extortion naturally flourishes, because lots of gangsters are jailed in them, and they live according to their traditions and unwritten rules, according to what they abbreviate A.U.E. [in Russian]—”the way of convicts is one” or “Convict-gangster unity.” The cornerstone, of course, is not only a comfortable life for inmates but also extortion. The remand prison is a machine designed to extort money from a particular group of inmates and their relatives.

At Medved Remand Prison, the situation was exacerbated by the fact that the wardens were involved.

Can the wardens or, at least, the staff at other remand prisons not be involved in what’s going on? Recently, my witty colleague Alla Pokras put this question to the warden of Butyrka Prison, Sergei Telyatnikov, when we had received many complaints about extortion.

“Are you aware of what is happening in your prison, Sergei Veniaminovich?” she asked him.

“Yes, you know, gangsters are like that. They extort money,” he replied.

“But imagine what is terrible: I think this would be completely impossible without the involvement of staff!” said Alla Yakovlevna, who has long worked with the Federal Penitentiary Service.

“Yes, you have opened my eyes, Alla Yakovlevna,” Telyatnikov looked at her and said. “You have decided to shock me!”

We left it at that. What else could he have said?

Things at the Medved Remand Prison went too far: a person was killed, at least one person. And many inmates really seriously slashed their throats and wrists to escape from Remand Prison No. 4, to get out of a place where their lives were made intolerable, where a person would be beaten up first and then told either he would get them half a million rubles the next day or he would go to the “fag zone” [the cell where the lowest caste of prisoners live — OVD Info]. There were no other options. So people slashed their veins so they would be transferred to Butyrka at least. But, as the prosecutor told us, criminal charges were filed in connection with one incident under Article 111.4 of the Criminal Code [intentional infliction of grievous bodily harm, inadvertently causing the victim’s death — OVD Info]. At first we had been told the man had fallen out of bed, from an upper bunk. But now they have had to open a criminal case, probably because it was a violent death. Was it the only one? We know about one. But we remember that a series of deaths occurred there.

But when I met there with Yevgeny Rozhkov, the man who at the time was the mafia’s enforcer [in Russian, polozhenets, the organized criminal appointed to enforce the unwritten rules — OVD Info] at Remand Prison No. 4, about whom Lena wrote, he explained his position to me.

“Why have you dug me up? It wasn’t me who thought all this up. It took shape many decades ago, but suddenly reporters and human rights activists have brought it to light for some reason,” he said.

He looks at things the same way as senior officers do.

“It took me a long time to become an enforcer. I spent a lot of effort to make it this far and build a good name for myself.”

He’s an awful man, of course (he was convicted of robbery and murder), but he was completely sincere when he said that there had always been extortion in prisons. He lied about many other things, because, like everyone else, he wanted to use us. But that is really the way it is, the way it happened.

Were charges filed against inmates or staff?

I think some inmates were charged, but the prosecutor did not give me details of the case. I think that staff will be charged as well, as happened during the investigation of the corruption scandal at Matrosskaya Tishina last year. People can be added to the case later. It can drag on for years. Everyone will have forgotten about what happened by the time anyone goes to jail for their crimes.

There was, in fact, another incident, in which inmates at the Medved Remand Prison received death threats for complaining to the PMC.

There was a point when Rozhkov gave orders not to let civil rights activists into the cells, to stonewall everyone. When Lena published her articles and they caused shockwaves, he suddenly realized it was a bad thing that civil rights activists were all over the prison.

“That’s it. You’re no longer allowed in the cells,” Rozhkov said.

“What, I won’t be allowed in, either?” I asked.

“No, you’ll be allowed in somehow, but the others won’t,” he said.

“You need to get your orders straight,” I replied. Prison staff call them “inputs,”  while organized criminals call them “signed documents.”

But a new acting head warden was appointed, Vladimir Mashkin, former head warden at Remand Prison No. 7, a very ambiguous man. He gave orders to smash the organized criminals, whom the previous management had let put down serious roots either due to powerlessness or because they were mixed up with them. It’s true that in other remand prisons the enforcer doesn’t go from cell to cell and personally assault inmates who don’t pay up. Things are done different there. There might be threats. There might be instructions to make someone an “untouchable” for doing something wrong. But it was probably excessive to go round and thrash everyone personally. You have to realize that he could go anywhere without being escorted by staff. He is locked up in a cell like everyone else. Meaning someone would have opened the cells for him.

Do you communicate with members of PMCs from other regions? Do they have similar problems or, on the contrary, completely different problems than in Moscow? Are there facilities that refuse to cooperate with the PMCs?

I don’t have the time to be in touch with life in the regions. There are a certain number of active PMC members from other regions, but most of them are on my Facebook. I see what they write, and sometimes I post it on my LiveJournal blog, because officials at the Federal Penitentiary Service read me, and I want them to see what is happening in the regions.

Once, inmates from Matrosskaya Tishina and Butyrka, who knew us well were transferred to Ivanovo, if I’m not mistaken. Along the way, they were locked up in the Yaroslavl Remand Prison and neglected for two months. They were so used to interacting with civil rights activists they phoned us right away.

“It’s really interesting here,” they said. “They don’t feed us, they don’t give us blankets, and there are no beds, either.”

I realized they had nothing other than mobile phones, from which they sent me what amounted to a running commentary that I would post on LiveJournal. Ultimately, the local human rights ombudsman went there and read everyone the riot act, detailing in his report the one hundred shortcomings the place had, which usually doesn’t happen.

So we completely accidentally improved conditions at the Yaroslavl Remand Prison thanks to our inmates,  who were not used to outrages but to the fact they could always contact us directly.

How has your interaction with the ombudsmen been?

Honestly speaking, bad. We haven’t worked out the kinks, especially when Pamfilova was replaced by Moskalkova. Right during the time when the fight for improving Remand Prison No. 6’s future was underway, Moskalkova went there with us. She sincerely wanted to help, but she didn’t have much time: she hurried off to see either the president or some other VIP. Then someone wrote about it, and I think she was a bit miffed that she had wanted to do the right thing, but the text was harshly written, arguing that we probably didn’t need to conduct such inspections.

Later, we were joined by the deputy director of the Federal Penitentiary Service, and that proved really effective. Meaning we realized that upstairs, at headquarters, people don’t always understand what is happening here on the ground. There are problems that are not systemic, and they can be fixed. You just have to bring attention to these problems to the authorities or, better yet, show them the problems.

He was very surprised.

“What, it turns out you can’t send cucumbers and tomatoes to female inmates? Where is my deputy for logistics?!” he said.

So some problems are solved like that. Not issues like “Russia without prisons” or the system’s tendency to convict people, but problems like this. That is also our function: to take people by the hand and show them what we know.

Do you know anything about how the new PMC has been shaping up?

I don’t want to know anything about it. I’m tired of being on edge, tired of the fuss. I realize I’m unable to influence it in any way and, frankly, I have been trying to disengage from it.

A large percentage of current Moscow PMC members cannot be nominated again?

A huge percentage! I have reasons to fear—I don’t know who will be on the new PMC—that we are losing what we have been building all this time, all the levers and mechanisms for interacting and, partly, managing things. Naturally, things will start moving backwards.

When was the first PMC appointed?

Eight years ago. Meaning, the PMC functioned for two years, then three years, and then another three years. At first, you could serve on the PMC two terms, but then a third term was added.

The PMCs didn’t exist prior to this at all?

No. The law bill [calling for their formation — TRR] was drafted and passed, but it was not signed into law for a long time. Valery Borshchev played a big role in passing and drafting the law: he is basically its father.  At some point, the law was signed, but at first no one understood why it was necessary.

What advice would you give people who are joining a PMC for the first time?

To think hard about whether they want to do it.

And if they want to do it?

Work more. What can I say? The first three years we saw things, but we didn’t realize what we were seeing. I would probably wish that these people aspired to professionalism and a very solid knowledge of the regulatory framework.

I am certain that if you seriously plan to engage in this work, and not be an extra, you have to know the laws better than the prison staff. Because you have to realize that when you go into a prison, everyone’s sole desire will be to deceive you.

By everyone I mean both the staff and the inmates. The system is completely closed. That is how it’s organized: to keep outsiders out, and to keep information from getting out. So I always quote my favorite science fiction story, Robert Sheckley’s “Ask a Foolish Question”: “In order to ask a question you must already know most of the answer.” So we have managed to get things done. Only with “inputs” like that have we been effective.

What are you going to do when your term on the PMC ends?

I don’t know, but I have submitted an application to the Moscow Region PMC. I don’t know what will come of it, because, as I’ve said, I don’t follow how the lists of candidates are drawn up. I realize there are lots of different factors, so I don’t know. People tell me I shouldn’t worry and that I’ll definitely get on the commission. But I suspect there are as many negatives against me due to various factors. Of course, I get along with the Federal Penitentiary Service when they do good things and help us out, but I’m a big thorn in their side. I’m always kicking up a fuss and pestering them, and occasionally I tell things to journalists, although only a few things.

Could you describe in general terms the attitude of the Federal Penitentiary Service staff towards inmates? Is the prevailing view among them that all inmates are criminals and thus don’t deserve particularly humane treatment?

Unfortunately, this is a quite common point of view. It’s what is called an occupational hazard. On the the other hand, it is easier this way. If you believe they’re all criminals, then it’s easier to do your job. Otherwise, the question arises as to what they are doing in prison cells.

So it happens that conflicts and misunderstandings between you and Federal Penitentiary Service occur on this basis?

I’ve stopped paying attention to it. It’s probably an occupational hazard in my case, too. But when I hear some blatantly rude remark, I tell them they’re probably overdoing it. On the other hand, for example, the internal regulations require that staff speak politely to inmates, in particular, that they address them using the formal second-person pronoun vy. But in prison everyone uses the informal second-person pronoun ty. It’s the rule as it were. A lot of what is stipulated by law is violated. Nearly everything is violated, because for various reasons it couldn’t be otherwise. And yet during the numerous inspections (they get inspected every day, sometimes during the day, sometimes during the night) they have to pretend that the law is obeyed. So a struggle to put up appearances is underway. No one bothers to see what is really happening, but the formal rules must be observed. Except perhaps for the fact that we now acknowledge that the four square meter per person rule is violated, because it is hard to deny. Otherwise, the system has to say and write on its website that everything is fine, we don’t have even the slightest problems, the inmates are happy, and we haven’t received a single complaint.

I tell colleagues that if they have visited a prison and not received a single complaint, it means they’ve done a poor job of inspecting, that they didn’t know what to look for.

It’s just that in prison you cannot holler, “What are your complaints?” No one will tell you a thing, because complaints are taboo. You have to put the question differently: “What suggestions do you have for improving your living conditions?” You’ll get an answer immediately.

How do inmates usually respond?

Any way whatsoever. They say they haven’t seen a doctor for months, that the tap has been leaking for two months, and it hasn’t been fixed, and so there is no water, that staff forgot to bring this thing or that thing, that they forgot to bring them food and bread.

In Moscow’s remand prisons, you have intersected on more than one occasion with people charged or sentenced in cases that many consider political. Would you say that their conditions differed from those of other inmates? Were they better or worse?

I would say that the wise wardens of the facilities, of course, housed them in good conditions where they were unaffected by all that mafia-inmate unity jazz, extortion of money, and, God forbid, real criminal proclivities. They were jailed in tolerable cells.

The wise warden realizes that if he makes conditons worse for political prisoners, he would be mobbed by the press and human rights activists, and they would be showing up every day.

Butyrka, for example, took wonderful care of the Bolotnaya Square case inmates who were jailed there. Generally, I didn’t come across any deliberate worsening of their conditions of imprisonment relative to the general population. Sergei Mokhnatkin, who is a complicated person, spent time in solitary confinement, but I wouldn’t say that his conditions of detention were worsened artificially. But I have seen this happen repeatedly with other categories of prisoners.

What categories?

Police investigators coerce inmates when it comes to commercial cases involving lots of money. Literally right now we have been confronted with a situation at one of the remand prisons in which a group of people facing such charges refuses to confess their guilt. The FSB is involved in the investigation. That is when the fun starts, whether in Lefortovo, Butyrka, it doesn’t matter where.

The FSB guys show up and say, “Are you going to confess?”

“No,” you say, “and why should I? And who the hell are you? Where’s my lawyer? Why have come to see me?”

“Fine,” they say.

After they leave, you are immediately put in solitary confinement on a trumped-up rules violation. For starters, you spend seven days in there.

The FSB guys come and ask you again, “How you holding out? Do you want to confess or not?”

“Not really,” you say. And you go back to solitary.

Then you’re sent to the prison’s high-security wing, where your living conditions are made worse in some way. Maybe you end up in a bad cell with no TV and no refrigerator.

But they keep showing up and asking how you’re doing and whether you’ve changed your mind yet or not.

We see this, and always try and oppose such things when we come across them. The authorities sometimes meet us halfway. When it’s clear we already know too much, they sometimes back down. But we know that police investigators engage in coercion, too. One warden who was already working somewhere else once told us that we were always telling him to summon a doctor for particular inmates and transfer them to normal cells. But right after we would leave, the other side would come and tell him that under no circumstances should he summon a doctor and that the inmate’s conditions should made as bad as possible. What was he supposed to do?

In your opinion, if things were normal, police investigators would have no impact on conditions of detention?

In Russia, remand prisons still play a role in solving crimes, unfortunately. And the operations units in the prisons act in this capacity too: all those confessions, partly solved crimes, and so on. Because it’s like this, maybe it would it make sense to get rid of this function altogether, because it segues into what I was just talking about: coercion by police investigators by messing with the conditions of imprisonment, and the fact that it’s extremely hard to separate the one from the other. So maybe it would be more reasonable to get rid of this option altogether. Then the guys in operations would deliver tea kettles and TVs to the cells more quickly, rather than doing what they do there with those contracts. The operations guys are young, like in the police, around twenty, maybe twenty-two. They don’t understand anything: they read very few books. But what they get up to in there with those contracts, breaking people’s lives, is also a complete disgrace.

What are contracts?

An operational contract is a document that says you are going to snitch. Besides, they manage to pick people who throw themselves on civil rights workers the next day in court, screaming, “I signed the wrong thing. The whole country needs to come and save me! I was tricked and intimidated.” That’s the level they work on.

What is the formal function of these people who patrol the remand prisons? Are their meeting with inmates legal?

You mean the local operations people?

Yes, the local people.

Well of course they’re legal. They are the people charged with solving most of the issues having to do with living conditions. They have to know and maintain some kind of atmosphere so the inmates don’t kill each other, as happened last year in Matrosskaya Tishina, where there was a terrible murder. All these things are in the competence of the operations people, including, naturally, that option of solving and preventing crimes. When all these things get mixed up, the outcome is not that terrific, of course.

Meaning it says in their job descriptions they should assist in solving the crime for which an inmate has landed in the remand prison?

Yes, and all other crimes, too. They collect confessions. For example, an inmate confesses that he not only filched a purse from a woman at the Mayakovskaya subway station, but he also stole a bag from a guy at the Pushkinskaya subway station. They write this down in book for reporting crimes. “Cool! We’ve solved a crime,” they say. And the bust is credited to them.

Do you think it would be better if they didn’t do this work?

In this case, I’m afraid to say something amateurish. It calls for long, hard thought. I see quite well that the problem exists. We also need to understand that they can also have their own interests, which aren’t exactly legal. Mobile phones, for example, which the Moscow Directorate of the Federal Penitentiary Service has been fighting to eliminate. Now they’ve even confiscated phones from the wardens of the remand prisons and their deputies. Things have become interesting. It’s impossible to get any of them on the phone. It’s also impossible to solve any problems. Yet the inmates keep calling from their cells as before. These mobile phones sometimes fall on our heads, and sometimes they ring in the cells, but some of them are smuggled in by the operations people so the criminals make calls on the phones, which are wired, and their secret connections are thus uncovered to help police investigators out. You make a call, and they are listening in on your conversation the whole time. But, at the same time, a huge number of mobile phones just get into the remand prisons, and one of the sources are the staff, who make money off it in the sense of corruption and bribery. How do you tell one from the other? Sometimes, staff go to jail for smuggling things into prisons. Recently, there was a bad overdose in Matrosskaya Tishina; a man died. Because a nurse had smuggled telephone chargers into the prison, and there was heroin stuffed in the chargers.

Why did you decide to join the PMC?

I decided to join the PMC… I didn’t decide at all, but just ended up on it accidentally. It was when that law was adopted, and I was part of the civil rights community. I was working on the war in Chechnya, in the anti-war movement. Since we’re energetic folks and we never say no, they called us up and said, “There’s this funny business. We have to delegate people to the PMC now, but everyone is busy and doesn’t want to join. Will you join?” Mikhail Kriger and I said we would go, since they asked us to go. That’s how we ended up there. [Mikhail Kriger was on the PMC for the first and second terms, but was not chosen for the third term — OVD Info.]

Should we understand that you have recently ceased being involved in politics? [Anna Karetnikova was an active, longtime member of the Solidarity movement — OVD Info.]

Yes, it’s true.

What’s the reason?

I’ve been busy. First, I’ve been busy. Second, in all honesty, I see no possibility of the overall situation improving, and I prefer to settle for local possibilities. You see, it’s a kind of escapism. Not only do the prisons really need me, but I also need them. I can live and work in circumstances when I succeed in accomplishing something, little things, at least. If I don’t have this, I just get depressed. That’s my nature. I’m not prepared to work for the sake of an idea or a mission. I find it really important that some purely managerial tasks get solved lickety-split. Unfortunately, I don’t see that approach in bigtime politics. But I do see it where I can really do something beneficial and effective.

Do you know anything about the situation in the Moscow Region PMC and the penitentiary facilities there?

I really don’t want to criticize the work of the Moscow Region PMC. But inmates who end up in Moscow say the difference is quite huge, that things are much better in Moscow. Periodically, we run into female inmates who end up in Moscow in transit or on their way to the prisons where they’ll serve out their sentences, and they say, “We’re eating meat for their first time here in Moscow. Your prisons serve meat.” I was told the same thing by a staffer who had transferred from the Sergiev Posad Remand Prison: that the difference is great. “I didn’t expect, when I was transferring here, it could be like this,” he said. Despite the mess our prisons are in.

Are there more penal colonies and penitentiaries in Moscow Region than in Moscow?

Yes, there are more, because they have both remand prisons and penal colonies. There are at least eight remand prisons there.  The staffer I mentioned came from Remand Prison No. 8, I think, and they also have penal colonies, women’s colonies, juvenile penal colonies, about which I know nothing, by the way. Meaning that if suddenly I’m appointed to the Moscow Region PMC, I’ll need to sit down and study everything from scratch, because I always start with the rules and regulations. It’s pointless to visit a penal colony without knowing the way things should be there. What the heck would I ask the staffers about? They would trick me, of course. I know that.

I get letters from other regions. They don’t realize my authority doesn’t encompass the entire country. It’s completely awful. It’s another tidal wave coming my way. They pass my business card to each other, and then it kicks off. For example, a woman writes from Remand Prison No. 1 in Yaroslavl and describes various nightmares: they have no grub, it’s impossible to live there.

Do you get a lot?

Of letters? I’m wallowing in them. I will never be able to read them. I’m losing my eyesight. Aside from everything else, a prison staffer burnt my eye with a DVR. I just don’t know what to do about it, and where it’s all going to end up when I’m gone.

To whom do you send them on now?

I try and sort them. If inmates complain of beatings during arrest, I send them to the Committee against Torture. If they’re high-profile case, I send them to reporters. I send some things to Andrei Babushkin. If I can go and solve the problem myself, I go. If it’s something really nasty in the regions, when I go to the Federal Penitentiary Service, I just turn it over to them. What else can I do? All these letters have to be read and sorted, but I can’t see anything.

You mentioned prosecutor’s office inspections of the remand prisons, and earlier you wrote about inspections by the Federal Penitentiary Service. How does this work? What do they react to? What do they do in general?

To be honest, I have a huge beef with the prosecutor’s office. We have tried to find common ground with the Federal Penitentiary Service, but we have found no common ground with the prosecutor’s office. For some reason they still think that their most important job is keeping track of us and restricting us as much as possible. Meaning that we haven’t become partners. I don’t know: maybe they view us as competitors. Because they do their inspections a little differently than we do ours. Their approach is formal: they make sure the law is obeyed formally and report any shortcomings. We don’t do that. If we criticize something, we make recommendations on how to improve it. But they could not care less. A prosecutor goes into a cell. There is a rope hanging in the cell: that’s one minus. There’s a cat living in the cell—he kicks the cat—that’s a second minus. If he doesn’t like something else, he’ll cite the prison for violating the four square meters per inmate rule. What a revelation! And he draws up a report citing twenty violations, so the prison warden is punished. That’s how inspections by the prosecutor’s office usually go.

You mean they don’t work with people?

Hardly ever. Eva Merkachova described a situation in which she managed to drag a prosecutor into a cell. He was asked some questions (since our people were there, and they talk when we’re in the room). They tried to ask him about something else, but he blew a fuse and ran off. Because that’s not what they’re there for. Why should they make the rounds of the cells? The people locked up in them are complicated, and they ask complicated questions. It’s easier to see that the firefighting equipment stand is hanging crooked. Excellent! He goes back to office, writes up his report, and gets his paycheck. To be honest, we don’t see what the prosecutor’s office does. Even in the case of a hunger strike it happens extremely rarely that a supervising prosecutor arrives on the scene. That is one of the main problems: reports of failings.

You say that the system is currently getting a C, but it functions?

It probably deserves a C, because the inmates are still alive, thank God, and it’s a minority of them that die. Although it’s a disgrace when, because of a refusal to provide medical care, people are dying literally right before your eyes. There is simply no excuse for it. On the whole, however, as an expert, I see ways of solving specific systemic problems. Unfortunately, you have to realize the system is worse off than the country, but it is bound up with the country. The worse things are in Russia and the less money there is, the worse things are in the system. Nowadays, the most popular phrase, the one that everyone says to each other, and which reconciles us with staff and management is, “There’s no money left, but you hang in there.” If you’ve had an argument with someone, you just have to repeat that phrase at some point, and any conflict comes to a halt.

What can we do if the money has run out? We fought to get the inmates better food, but since this selfsame money that has run out is allocated on food, then it will probably get yuckier. How else could it be? That’s how it is everywhere. The Federal Penitentiary Service will try to serve inmates the cheapest food, based on the price/quality ratio. The tenders will be won by the companies who produce that awful canned food about which I wrote once. A colleague and I weighed them out. In a can weighing 325 grams, there were 70 grams of meat. What is a logistics officer supposed to do who has to divide those 70 grams into four portions? Regulations say it should be 50 grams per person, and 80 grams, I think, if it’s stewed meat. The norm is 80 grams, but he’s going to have divide 70 by four. What does this have to do with obeying the law or even common sense? We got these cans of food. They were manufactured for us in some distant penal colony, and they won the tender. Now someone has to eat them.

The inmates say, “Where’s the meat? We were served kasha without meat today!”

I tell them, “There was meat in it! It was just invisible meat.”

It’s this way everywhere. It will all come tumbling down. And there won’t be any repairs.

Why am I asked to bring pens and paper? Why do I buy faucet stems? Because no funds have been allocated for these things.

But the problem is probably not just a matter of money? Maybe the problem has less to do with money and more to do with the organization itself?

Among other things, money pays the salaries of staffers and their social benefits. I’m not defending prison staffers. I’m just explaining how what goes around comes around. If a prison staff member is poor, hungry, has no benefits, and tomorrow they’re planning to lay him off, he’ll come in and take it out on the inmates in their cells. Right? Many of us would do the same thing. That’s the way people work: when we have it good, we want to do good, and we want to work. But when we have it bad, we don’t want to do anything, and we want to chew someone’s head off if they cross our path, no? So that he feels worse than I feel now.

Unfortunately, that money pays the salaries of doctors, who are resigning en masse, a fact not acknowledged by the Federal Penitentiary Service’s Healthcare Provision Directorate, with whom we have not been able to find common ground, eitther. They think they have lots of doctors, and that their doctors are paid really well. When I have attempted to get it through their thick skulls that all their doctors have resigned, that we have lost a hospital, a head doctor, and half the specialists to boot, they rattle off statistics to the effect that in civil medicine there are 0.6 doctors per person, while we have 1.15 doctors per inmate. It’s completely pointless to talk to them.

“And where’s the money?” I ask them. “You haven’t compensated the temp doctors for their flats for two years. They’re jumping ship.”

But it’s okay.

“Everything is fine. We have lots of medicines and doctors. The Federal Penitentiary Service has a full staff of specialists.”

Even at Federal Penitentiary Service headquarters on Zhitnaya Street, I ask them, “Can’t you bring the staff doctors back? Can’t you raise at least one doctor’s salary so we can get a decent person for the position?”

They look up towards the wall (the president’s portrait always hangs there) and say, “Why don’t you try go seeing him!”

“You rarely invite me,” I reply, “but he would never invite me.”

No, maybe I’m saying the wrong thing. Money is not the only misery. There is also attitude. There is the issue of the system’s narrow-mindedness, the attitude of contempt the staffers feel towards the inmates. All that exists, of course. But, by and large, everything is connected.

If the prisons were staffed by polite, cultured, highly educated people, the issue of money would probably not be so acute. They would do everything well just like that. But you and I won’t go work in the prisons. We have found another calling for ourselves.

So the people who work in the prisons work in shifts. They put in a 24-hour shift, and then they go home and relax for two days. They don’t have good educations and professional qualifications, and they haven’t undergone psychological training. They face terrible pressure from their bosses and they can take it out on the inmates. These are two opposing tendencies that, especially among poorly educated people, very quickly shatter the psyche. They need psychological training, opportunities for rehabilitation, and psychological support. But none of this exists.

I wrote recently: “That’s it. We have lost a hospital, Comrade Commander in Chief! We couldn’t hold that plateau. We have no more hospital for you, and you don’t have a hospital for us. Let’s stop pretending it’s a hospital, that people are getting medical treatment there. There is nothing there, excuse me, except for narcotics, vodka, and mobile telephones. Nor are there any doctors there. They haven’t been seen there for many years. It’s a tuberculosis hospital, the central prison hospital in Moscow.”

What kind of people go to work at medical facilities in remand prisons?

People who push narcotics and can now longer get a job anywhere else, they probably go and work there. Because what else can you do there, if they don’t pay money? Very few people would work there due to an excesss of humanitarian impulses. For the 15,000 rubles a month people get paid there, I wouldn’t go work anywhere. I’d better go work there for free and then give interviews about what a good, kind person I am. But they have to live on that money. That’s the difference. By the way, I tried to explain this to the higher-ups on Zhitnaya Street.

“Yes!” they said. “You wrote so well about the fact that you don’t bring prohibited items into the prison, but they do.”

I explained to them I was one thing, that I had other options and motivations in life, but they had to live on that money. And that if you paid them 10,000 rubles a month, then they’re going to get another 15,000 rubles on their bank cards for smuggling in phone chargers stuffed with narcotics. A man died. What is there to discuss?

Аt the same time, apparently the security system wasn’t working. Because however many times I’ve gone through it (we go into the prisons without going through a physical inspection), the damned thing has never gone off once. I could never understand how such a large number of telephones could be smuggled into the prisons. But if nothing has ever gone off when I go through the metal  detector, it probably means it doesn’t work at all, right? I have keys, loose change, lighters, and god knows what else stuffed in my bag. But it doesn’t go off. But the story is that the Fractal metal detector works.

Civil rights activists can theoretically be accused of defending criminals too much. But does the opposite, the Stockholm Syndrome, come up when you communicate too much with the people who run the system?

Of course it does. I try and detach myself, but naturally I get jaundiced and start thinking, “How is this staffer really going to make the rounds of three floors and deliver to everyone there what he’s supposed to deliver?” I realize it’s impossible. It’s not even a matter of feeling sorry for him. But then I have to banish this thought and say to myself, “Listen, the people locked in the cells could give a flying leap about this.” Yes, you have to be aware of it, but you cannot make peace with it.

That doesn’t mean you have to give them a verbal thrashing and say, “You creep, you didn’t show up, and you didn’t deliver the stuff.” But you always have to keep in mind that the people in the cells are not to blame for the fact that you’re there alone. You have to talk about it, and not with yourself, but with your superiors.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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