Russia’s prison service is keeping its abuses under lock and key

Despite signs of early change, the cover-up of torture inside Russia’s prison service demands reform. Русский

Bulat Mukhamedzhanov
31 March 2017
Screen Shot 2017-03-28 at 11.58.17_0.png

An image from inside the Belorechensk youth colony. Source: Youtube. Right now, 17 prison officers are on trial in the southern Russian regions of Krasnodar and Kalmykia — they’re accused of meting out severe beatings to their charges, two of whom died as a result of their injuries. According to the prosecution, the guards at two correctional facilities used torture to force inmates into submission and carry out their orders. But were these just isolated cases, or do they form part of a deliberate policy inside Russia’s prison service?   

On an individual basis

In November 2015, according to police investigators, a duty officer in the Belorechensk juvenile correction colony in Kuban, a region in the North Caucasus, broke official regulations by allowing security guards and plain clothes investigators onto the colony site. The two teams had different aims in mind: the security team were to beat up and intimidate newly arrived underage offenders, in order to break their morale, while the investigators planned to conduct “individual chats” with them.

This “special operation” even involved a “mentor”, a member of the facility’s educational work department who, like his colleagues, in the interests of secrecy and more effective intimidation, donned a balaclava before “chatting” to his charges.

Screen Shot 2017-03-30 at 17.27.03.png

Youth offenders learn how to march in Belorechensk colony. Source: Youtube.One of the accused officers later confirmed that the offenders had behaved calmly and obeyed the prison officers’ orders. All the same, seven of the young men were taken off to the colony’s isolation wing, where guards started beating and kicking them for no reason. Then the educational officer began shouting at them, ordering them to do squats and press-ups — anyone who flagged was beaten again.   

Seven lads were taken off to the colony’s isolation wing, where guards started beating them

This still didn’t satisfy the police and security guys. They ordered the teenagers to undress and urinate on each other, and pushed their heads into toilet bowls. Then they were made to crawl on all fours into the toilet block one by one and clean the building with a dishcloth. Vitaly Pop, a 16-year-old prisoner from Ukraine, refused to allow himself to humiliated (consequences for those who fall down the prison hierarchy are severe), whereupon the guards beat him hard and pushed his head into toilet. One of his fellow offenders hosed him down, to try to bring him round.

After Pop died of a closed cranio-cerebral injury with cerebral contusion, the acting director of the Belorechensk colony told his staff that they’d “overdone it”, and ordered a report stating that Pop had attacked a guard and fallen down some steps while trying to escape. The prison staff didn’t even try to account for the beatings of the new arrivals who survived.

60 blows and a video camera turned towards the ceiling

In Elista, the capital of Kalmykia, the register of crimes inside the republic’s Correctional Colony No 1 goes back to September 2012.

Back then, an investigator and a security officer, along with the deputy head of Kalmykia’s prison service special operations unit (who recently admitted his guilt in court), beat up inmates in the facility’s body search room in order “to make them follow rules and regulations”. This incident was, however, recorded on a CCTV camera, and came to public attention only three years later, after the death of prisoner Dmitry Batyrev in 2015.

Batyrev was convicted of striking the former deputy head of Kalmykia’s Prison Service (read Badma Biurchiev’s investigation into this incident here), which probably played a crucial role in what happened to him afterwards. Arriving, handcuffed, at Correctional Colony No 1, Batyrev was dealt 60 blows by three prison officers, some of them with a rubber truncheon.


Kalmykia's Prison Colony No.1, where prisoner Dmitry Batyrev died in November 2015. Image: Badma Biurchiev. To avoid the CCTV, the colony’s deputy governor ordered the camera to be turned towards the ceiling. Batyrev’s beating took place under the eyes of the prison doctor, who, despite the prisoner losing consciousness several times, did nothing to stop his colleagues.

When Batyrev died of his injuries, the deputy governor called a staff meeting in his office, where they came up with a story about the dead man’s aggressive behaviour and a supposed knife attack he had made on prison officers. To lend some credence to the tale, the officers were ordered to cut themselves and slash their uniforms.

The Prison Service: beatings have gone down by 40%

Russia’s Federal Prison Service (FSIN) has adopted Soviet (effectively Gulag) methods of prisoner pacification. In 2016, according to FSIN deputy director Valery Maksimenko, prison service employees used physical force and other special measures against prisoners almost 2,000 times. He also noted, with a certain satisfaction, that thanks to CCTV, this figure had fallen by 40% since 2012.


Officers at Vladimir Central prison. (c) Alexey Kudenko / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.Clearly, Maksimenko was only referring to those cases where the Prosecutor General’s Office and Investigative Committee had considered the use of such measures justified, ignoring the actions of his subordinates that fell outside the law. And there have been enough of them recently. Here are just a few of the most egregious cases that ended in guilty verdicts. The times, in other words, when the prison officers “overdid it”. The interests of these victims are all represented by my organisation, Zona prava, which provides legal and informational support to prisoners and criminal defendants.  

In 2016, a judge in the Zabaykalsky Krai convicted eight officers from Correctional Colony No10 of abuse of power. They had driven 30 inmates out onto the prison exercise ground, beating them with truncheons as they went, and, once out, had continued to subject them to physical and psychological abuse. All eight officers received suspended sentences.

Prison regulations dating back to the Gulag are still in force. All humanity and kindness in dealings with inmates is strictly forbidden

In Bashkortostan, a prison officer at Correctional Colony No 3 hit a prisoner six times with a rubber truncheon. The man died. The officer was sentenced to 27 months in prison.

In Tatarstan, the head of a colony’s educational work department was given a suspended sentence for torturing an inmate. The crime was revealed thanks to video footage posted on the internet.

In 2017, in Chuvashia, a prison officer was found guilty of beating a prisoner and using a chokehold on him. He got a four year suspended sentence.         

The bosses know all about the torture  

What makes the “investigators” and “security officers” torture prisoners? Vladimir Rubashny, the FSIN’s former chief psychologist for Tatarstan,  believes that it is the penal system itself that creates torturers.

Prison regulations dating back to the Gulag are still in force. All humanity and kindness in dealings with inmates is strictly forbidden. There is a general feeling that an officer who is too lenient in his behaviour will lack respect from both the prisoners and his colleagues. Someone like this will simply never survive in the system and will chose to leave.


Vladimir Rubashny. Source: Idel.Реалии.A prison officer’s belief in his superiority over the faceless mass of prisoners gradually grows until he crosses a line, breaks the law and turns from a human being into an animal. It’s evolution in reverse. The prisoner can’t hit back: if he does, the prison officer’s injuries will be recorded on the spot and details passed to the Investigative Committee for a criminal charge to be drawn up against the prisoner.

Prison management is well aware of the physical abuse directed at inmates, and as we see, frequently encourages it. Their position is that it’s better to have submissive slaves than to have to deal with riots and other aggressive actions by prisoners, such as you get in so-called “black” colonies where it’s the inmates who have the upper hand. In quiet, so-called “red” colonies, peace is only achieved by the use of torture, controlled by the administration. When the staff “overdo it”, the prison governor has to decide how to clean up the mess, and, like a loving father, tries to save his subordinates (and most importantly, himself) from the consequences of their actions.

The Federal Prison Service is effectively the only major government body not to have undergone reform

This situation recalls Russia’s age-old question: “What is to be done?” Rubashny believes that the initiative needs to come from the government. The FSIN is, after all, effectively Russia’s only major state body not to have undergone reform in recent years. A new generation of prison administrators needs to be created. For instance, a pilot project with respected people from “civilian” life, such as civil activists, who would of course need to be trained for the job, could be designed.

As for rank and file prison staff, future “investigators” and “security officers” need much longer training. Training currently lasts just a few months, at the end of which the trainee has neither any communications or people skills, nor any idea of the various models of behaviour needed for interaction with offenders. In Tsarist times, prison officers were men in their thirties and older, people with some life experience, a family. Now a young lad who has just finished his military service can become an investigator, but what authority can he have in a colony?

Rubashny would like training of prison officers to last several years, with a guaranteed salary and social security benefits during their probationary period. And if in the course of officer training someone decides that he’s not up to the job or it’s just not for him, he should be able to leave the service without delay.

For the moment, the FSIN’s leadership is not about to release its grip on the penal system to public control. Russia’s regional public monitoring committees are packed with former FSIN employees and the Prosecutor General’s Office, as well as members of veterans’ organisations. And the FSIN still denies that prisoners are tortured, despite all the obvious evidence to the contrary.

It must be said that Anatoly Rudy, FSIN first deputy director, has admitted that staff at Belorechensk juvenile correction colony overstepped the mark: “This is a horrendous case and whatever went on there, our officers had no right to resort to such measures”. An exception, of course, that only proves the rule.

Translated by Liz Barnes. 

Get oDR emails Occasional updates from our team covering the post-Soviet space Sign up here


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData