INSIDE a dimly lit cell built for 35 men in Moscow's
two-century-old Butyrka prison, some 85 detainees stand or sleep in
shifts on the filthy floor.
The air is so thick it stings the eyes; a mixture of cigarette
smoke, sweat, and unwashed bodies mingles with the stench of human
excrement from the lone toilet in one corner, draped with a cloth
"It's always stuffy and hot because there are so many of us. We
get new people every day," says 20-year-old Yura, his pale face
emerging from a hatch in the cell door where bowls of greasy
cabbage soup and kasha (gruel), are shoved through each day. (In
some Russian regions, 90 percent of prison inmates are reportedly
Yura, who was scared to give his last name for fear of
retribution from prison officials, came to Butyrka last year on
charges of "racketeering," or petty extortion, a crime increasingly
fashionable in the new Russia. He could face an eight-year sentence
in a penal colony -- if his trial gets off the ground.
"Three people have already died of TB since I've been here,"
Yura says, before a prison guard impatiently slams his only window
to the outside world firmly shut.
Insects and vermin are common here, and medicines are so scarce
that many health problems among prisoners often go untreated.
Prison officials admit that the number of incidents of tuberculosis
greatly exceeds the national average.
Butyrka has been dubbed the "death factory" by Russian human
Prison reforms have changed the infamous camp system chronicled
in Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "Gulag Archipelago." But it is a bitter
paradox that today the worst conditions are not in jails, but in
pretrial detention centers such as Butyrka, where people who are
presumed innocent under the law are sent to await trial.
"The conditions are out of this world, like the paintings of
Hieronymous Bosch. It is hell," said Nigel Rodley, a special
rapporteur to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, after
recent visits to several facilities, including Butyrka, in Moscow
and St. Petersburg.
If a society can be judged by the way it treats its prisoners,
as Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, then Russia's judgment could be harsh
As a consequence of Russia's spiraling crime rate and its
overburdened judicial system, more than 235,000 people -- men and
women -- are currently housed in 178 pretrial detention centers,
called isolators, or sizos in Russian.
In total, the country has almost 1 million people incarcerated,
according to Interior Ministry statistics.
The law mandates that detention cannot last more than two months
without trial, with special extensions up to 18 months possible in
But some detainees end up waiting in appalling conditions --
where people accused of murder and rape are thrown in the same cell
with those accused of petty economic crimes which may no longer
even be on the books -- for as long as six years while their trials
"Only torture can equal incarceration in such a facility," says
Viktor Mironov, head of the Commission to Study Investigative
Isolators in the State Duma, or lower house of parliament. "But we
received this horrible legacy from the Communist regime, and the
state is doing all it can based on the finances we have."
As a final irony, about 10 percent of detainees in such
facilities, according to Butyrka chief warden Alexander Volkov, are
eventually either acquitted or set free on technicalities --
without realistic financial compensation or even an apology to take
And many return to their old lives only to learn they no longer
have their former jobs or even their apartments waiting for them --
and branded with a stigma that can follow them the rest of their
"The principle of the presumption of innocence, which is
supposedly upheld in Russian law, should preclude people from
undergoing such torture," says Rachel Denber, director of the
Moscow Office of Human Rights Watch/Helsinki. …