The conditions in the Moscow pre-trial detention prison Butyrka can be better described
in the words of one woman who was sentenced to 6 years of imprisonment for traffic
accident resulted in the death of an old man of 75. She’s awaiting the transfer to the colony for convicted persons which as a rule takes 2-3
Among other things she said:
“The cell is designed for 22 people, but there are 70 of us in here. Even basic
conditions are not provided. It is impossible to call a doctor, no soup, nor towel is
available. People are sitting and sleep on the same places – in three shifts. The food
is bad, pearl porridge in the morning, same porridge – in the evening, for lunch –
schi, water and salt. One lump of sugar a day, 200 grams of bread – for one bite... No
chance to wash your belongings, no hot water, no basins, no pails.... They do not give out
clean linen, we sleep on mattresses.”
Under such overcrowding the women have to wait from the morning till the evening in a
queue to get to the toilet. The cells are so stuffy and the time they spend there is so
long that it is nothing but torment.
The interview was taken in December last year. Butyrka as you may know is the oldest
and notorious prison symbolizing all the horror of imprisonment in Russia. This prison is
designed not particularly for women, they are only held on the third floor of the
facility. There are about 600 women held in there with the total number of 7000 detainees.
For the last few years about ten thousand women went through the cells of this prison.
Such a situation can commonly be found in most pre-trial detention centers in Russia.
And the recommendation of many organizations dealing with prisoners’ rights is to
introduce the special norms related to the detention conditions of female prisoners.
At present there are 2,053 adult female prisoners in
all types of penitentiary institutions, and about 20,000 in pre-trial detention (in late
1995, there were 17,000 in SIZOs).
International norms on the treatment of prisoners devote special
attention to the physiological needs of female prisoners. But prison conditions in male
and female facilities differ little in Russian SIZOs and IVSs, a state of affairs that is in full compliance with
Cells for female inmates are semi-dark rooms, dimly lit, day and night.
Windows are barred and have screens made of iron sheets with holes drilled in them. The
cells get no daylight or fresh air. Two-tier bunk beds are fastened to the walls.
Any cell, be it for 5 or 30 inmates, has only one sink and one toilet.
Showers are allowed once per week.
Also once per week (usually on the day when prisoners take showers)
women receive a small piece (about 50 grams) of the cheapest soap. No other detergents
(shampoo, laundry soap, etc.) are available. According to reports from female prisoners,
intervals between showers grow for various reason from two or three weeks up to two or
Women have to wash in the full view of the cell, and the sink and
toilet are not separated from the rest of the cell. Prison staff sometimes tear off
hand-made curtains which women use to screen the toilet.
Washing clothes and bedding is also a big problem.
Only prison clothing and bedding (which bear a special mark) can be
sent out to the prison laundry, and one can have washed only one bed sheet, one pillow
case, one towel and one set of underwear. But most SIZOs
now cannot supply all inmates with prison clothing and bedding. Those women who managed to
obtain prison clothing prefer not to send them out to the prison laundry, because their
clothing come back infested with lice, very worn out, or with holes torn in them. Women
sometimes tear off pieces of prison clothes for sanitary napkins. Inmates are allowed to
receive bedding, underwear, clothes, soap and shampoo only from those relatives recorded
in their case history (names recorded when the arrestee was first registered in a
pre-trial detention institution). The majority of women do not receive anything from the
outside (either they have no relatives or relatives cannot afford to purchase such items).
They are not allowed to have their personal things washed, yet it is almost impossible to
do laundry in the cell.
A celll is usually allotted only one basin (for 5-40 inmates), and
women have to wait in line to use it. As a rule there is no hot running water in cells. As
laundry is dried in the cell, the air there becomes very damp and smelly. Moreover, it is
forbidden to hang ropes for drying clothes. Wardens who strictly follow prison rules cut
off the ropes and throw everything on the floor. Sometimes women have to put on wet
clothes to dry them and fall ill as a result.
Women are not supplied with sanitary napkins or substitutes, prisoners'
relatives are not allowed to bring cotton, napkins or toilet paper for security reasons
(these articles can contain illegal correspondence or prohibited items). It is extremely
difficult to receive even bandages. Menstruating women have to use washed (at best) scraps
of prison clothing, pillows, mattress stuffing, and sometimes even newspapers.
Apart from such diseases common among prisoners as scabies, dysentery,
tuberculosis, there is a danger of catching venereal diseases because among prisoners
there are a lot of homeless women and railway station prostitutes in SIZOs and IVSs. Poor
sanitary conditions (one toilet and one sink), lack of detergents, toilet articles, and
clean clothing and overcrowding make these diseases highly contageous.
The quality of food defies criticism. First-time prisoners, prefer to
go hungry rather than to touch prison food during first two weeks.
Soup is usually made of spoiled potatoes, carrots and cabbage. Oats or
pearl barley or badly scraped, often spoiled vegetables are the second course. Fish is
cooked with innards and scales. Starch is often added to porridge. Prison food lacks
vitamins and has a disgusting smell. Such poor nutrition results in constipation, hair
loss, skin diseases, and festering and bursting skin. Cells are infested with bugs,
cockroaches, lice, mice and the like.
When prisoners are let out of their cells for daily exercise or for a
shower, they are always guarded by staff equipped with clubs and sometimes dogs.
Violations of discipline are punished by 10 days in an isolation cell, where it is cold,
damp, and mice- or rat-infested, with a bed that folds out only at night, inmates are
deprived of books, newspapers, daily exercise, showers, cigarettes. There is evidence that
women have been locked up in very small rooms (0,51 square meters) called
"boxik", where they could be kept for several hours (sometimes before a meeting
with an investigator, most likely, to make them more amenable) or a day. Women in these
"boxiks" are not let out to go to toilet and they are not given water. One woman
reported that she had spent 24 hours in a "boxik" where the floor was covered
with excrement. Women are supposedly sent to cells with specially chosen inmates (for
example, former MVD officer was in the same cell with repeat offenders) by the order of
The female wing of the Butyrka prison (Moscow) holds 500 women (50 of
them are girls from 14 to 18 years old). It is damp and stuffy even in corridors, let
alone cells and the walls are covered with mold. Female cells are not as overcrowded as
male’s, but even here there are about 30 or 40 inmates in cells with 20 bunk beds.Hair
falling out, skin diseases, festering and bursting skin on legs are the consequences of
such nutrition. Cells are infested with bugs, cockroaches, lice, mice, etc.