On March 14, 2017, the Federal Penitentiary Service of Russia (FPSR) published a report claiming that the number of prisoners in Russia has reached a record low since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“In 2016, the lowest number of persons held in detention facilities in the contemporary history of the Russian Federation was reached,” read the statement.
The report said that as of January 1, 2017, there were about 107,000 people in Russia’s jails and approximately 523,000 in its prisons, out of which over 40,000 were women and 20,000 persons with disabilities. A few months earlier, the FPSR put the total number at 626,282.
A Polygraph.info fact check finds that while the number of prisoners may have decreased to a record low, Russia still has the highest number of inmates in Europe, and overall conditions in both Russian prisons and its legal system are among the poorest on the continent.
"Russian prisons are among the worst in the world – bad conditions, bad food and medical care, and torture as a regular feature,” Russia expert Paul Goble told Polygraph.info.
“Medical care is a problem: not only is it not regularly available, but Russian prisons are incubators of various illnesses from tuberculosis to HIV/AIDS,” he said.
A recent study of prisons worldwide reveals Russia’s per capita prison population rate is 433 per 100,000 people (based on a total national population of 144.5 million as of February 2017).
The Council of Europe lists Russia as the country with the highest incarceration rate in Europe, where the average prison population rate was 115.7 per 100,000 in 2015.
In addition, one out of every four Russian citizens – mainly men – has been processed in the court system. This number is higher than in any other country not only in Europe, but also in Asia.
Based on February 2017 data, Russia has 965 detention facilities -- 217 pre-trial detention institutions, 716 corrective colonies, 8 prisons, and 24 juvenile colonies.
In response to an email inquiry by Polygraph.info, Tatiana Baeva, a spokesperson for the Council of Europe (CoE), wrote that in its latest report from 2012 the CoE’s anti-torture committee (CPT) was concerned about prison conditions in Russia. However, based on the data submitted by Russia for the Council of Europe SPACE I report, which indicated that in 2015 the density of prison population was 79 inmates per 100 available places, some measures appear to have already been taken to address the issue of overcrowding.
“Several CPT visits to Russia, including the Northern Caucasus, took place in 2014-2016, but the reports about these visits are still pending," Baeva wrote. "Ill-treatment of prisoners and overcrowding were among the problems noticed in the 2012 CPT report. In its upcoming reports on Russia, the CPT will examine whether these problems have been dealt with.”
The European Court of Human Rights’ statistics for 2016 show that the highest number of violations by Russia in 2016 concerned the right to liberty and security (153 cases), inhuman or degrading treatment (64 cases) and the right to a fair trial (41 cases).
While the number of prisoners fell by over 6 percent, it does not correlate with increased humane conditions, experts say.
The CoE spokesperson wrote that “among the reasons for the decline in the number of prisoners was the pardon granted to 34,509 inmates in April 2015 due to the ‘70 years of victory in the Great Patriotic War’” – meaning the end of the World War Two.
Russia expert Goble said he is not encouraged by the lower prisoner number.
“The reduction in the number of prisoners is only about saving money,” he wrote to Polygraph.info.
Russia did not respond to the CoE’s repeated requests to answer non-custodian measures questions for the survey in 2015.
There are major differences between the budgets of the Russian penitentiary system and those in European countries.
Based on 2014 data, Russia’s prison system budget was about 5.4 billion euros, which is almost twice as high as the next highest budget of Great Britain at 3.6 billion euros. At the same time, Russia spent about 22.5 euros daily per prisoner, while the European average was about 52 euros.
The FPSR report claimed improvements in medical care resulted in a 12 percent reduction in prisoner deaths.
However, a survey conducted for the Council of Europe by the School of Criminal Sciences of the University of Lausanne, found that 61 of every 10,000 prisoners incarcerated in Russia die due to medical conditions.
This figure is twice as high as the European average.
The CoE has expressed concerns through the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights to the Russian government about prisoners’ health, including a lack of medical care in detention, facilities for inmates suffering from cancer, medical assistance for HIV-positive detainees, and medical treatment for patients suffering from chronic and mental diseases.
Some human rights watchdog organizations say that the number of prisoners in Russia remains very high - a result of ill-conceived police practices. For example, in 2016 there were some two million registered crimes and over a million arrestees.
In an interview with Deutsche Welle, Olga Romanova, director of Russia Behind Bars, said the Russian legal system needs a major overhaul. She said that in addition to widespread incompetency of judges, prosecutors do not understand “neither [their] rights nor responsibilities,” and instead provide “huge opportunities for corruption.”
Law enforcement officers simply want to ensure that statistics reflect positively on their work and to keep the number of arrests high, Romanova said.
“If police solve 90 crimes in January, then they want to surpass that number to reach 100 in February and collect bonuses,” she said.
Russia expert Goble sees needed reforms.
“The entire system is bad," he said. "It needs to be revamped top to bottom in all areas. Obviously, the fewer prisoners the better. But those that remain are mistreated.”