Civil control in Russian prisons: Interregional conference in St. Petersburg

24 September 2021

On 7 and 8 August, an interregional conference on strengthening civil control in places of deprivation of liberty in the regions of Russia was held in St. Petersburg. The participants are members of the PMC, public and expert councils under government bodies, human rights defenders, employees of the offices of Human Rights Commissioners and employees of the Federal Penitentiary Service from 28 regions of Russia. The main topics are prisoners’ access to court, respect for the rights of people with disabilities in prison, respect for the right to privacy of prisoners, the peculiarities of the work of public activists and the system of execution of sentences during the pandemic, as well as the interaction of the PMC with the Federal Penitentiary Service and other authorities for the humanization of the correctional system.

The conference was organized by NGO “Man and Law”, Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (Warsaw) with the support of the European Commission following the results of the project “Strengthening civic monitoring of detention facilities in Russia”.


Conclusions based on the results of the study in the regions


After the opening of the conference, Olga Vasileva, a coordinator of the project “”Strengthening civic monitoring of detention facilities in Russia” (hereinafter referred to simply as the “Project”), told about how the project was implemented and what results the observers came to. There were several stages of work: a substantive study of international standards, laws and by-laws in the studied areas, education of regional members of the PMC and representatives of the Federal Penitentiary Service, monitoring, drafting regional reports and discussing them at round tables in the regions, drafting final all-Russian reports with recommendations to the authorities.

An important part of the project was to assist the work of the PMC during the pandemic and to support the regional departments of the Federal Penitentiary Service — the transfer of protective equipment on behalf of the members of the PMC. During the two-year work of the Project, strategic cases from different regions of Russia related to the observance of the right to privacy, access to the court and the rights of people with disabilities were promoted.


Olga Vasileva:

An important result of the project was the feedback from the participants that the work within the framework of monitoring increased the competence of the members of the PMC not only in public control of places of detention, but also in processing the results and discussing them with representatives of the authorities. The members of the PMC said that after working in the Project, they began to take a deeper and more comprehensive look at many areas, to take a more thorough approach to argumentation and justification of their conclusions. As a result, these conclusions were taken under control, solutions were proposed. The Project has become a tool that will increase the competence of the members of the PMC, and now they are more effectively influencing the situation with respect for human rights in places of detention.

Prisoners ‘ right to privacy


The chairman of NGO “Man and Law” Irina Protasova and the expert of the Project, the chairman of the Tomsk branch of the Council of Public Monitoring Commissions Gennady Postnikov spoke on this topic. They told about the problematic issues identified in this area.


Irina Protasova:

We are very concerned about the situation with respect for the personal space of prisoners and their relatives, in particular, the inspection procedure. It is carried out according to a document that is under the special stamp — for official use. Neither the convicts, nor their relatives, nor even their advocates have any idea about this procedure — how it is described in the document and whether human dignity is respected during the inspection, especially if the procedure is intimate and involves undressing.

There are very few complaints about the observance of rights during inspections. Perhaps this is not because everything is going well, but because no one knows how it should be.


The following problematic issues are related to the personal data of convicts, medical secrecy, personal space, meeting with relatives, the secrecy of telephone conversations and correspondence.

According to the results of the study, a report has already been published, which is available on the website of NGO “Man and Law”. It is currently being sent to the authorities. It describes in detail the conclusions and recommendations for changing laws, working with by-laws, and for law enforcement practice.

Prisoners ‘ access to court


Olga Salomatova, an expert of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, spoke about the situation with prisoners ‘ access to court. There are also a lot of problems in this area.


There are a lot of questions about video conferencing, with the help of which prisoners participate in meetings. They have various difficulties: poor communication quality; the inability to talk confidentially with an advocate, because the advocate is usually in the courtroom; often the convicts do not know what they are entitled to.

Another important point: the convicts do not understand what rules apply in the court, which takes place on the territory of the colony: the rules of the court or the colony. Prisoners are sometimes afraid of violating the internal regulations during the meeting by their actions, because this is fraught with penalties. Together with them, an employee of the colony is often in the hall. Prisoners cannot sit down in his presence and generally feel pressure.


The advocates have had additional difficulties due to the pandemic. They face unreasonable demands and restrictions when meeting with the client.


The rights of people with disabilities in prison

In the final of the first block, Olga Vasileva spoke about the rights of people with disabilities in prison:

We see that an accessible environment is being created in correctional institutions. Ramps are being created, conditions for washing, for sleeping. But there are still many areas where conditions are not created, where people with disabilities must seek help from outsiders. There are situations in which people should remain as independent as possible: the opportunity to wash themselves, go to the toilet, get dressed. Unfortunately, an accessible environment for people with disabilities has not yet been fully created in our institutions. First of all, prisoners with physical and sensory limitations suffer: people in wheelchairs, visually impaired and totally blind (tactile marking is almost completely absent in places of detention).


People who need constant help receive it from those whose work is not regulated. These are either prisoners who help voluntarily, or employees who are also not obliged to do this. This is a big difficulty, because those who perform these works voluntarily can refuse at any time. In addition, there is a question about their conscientiousness and the necessary skills to care for people with disabilities.


There is a gap in the legislation — it does not fix the payment of labor or other incentives for those prisoners who help. There are different practices in different regions. In some cases, this is just an additional burden, which, according to the prison staff, prisoners take on voluntarily. In some places, this is accompanied by incentives that are taken into account when paroling. But this is regulated only by the management of the institution.

An important factor is the registration of disability, examination and re-examination. The advantage is that now for those who already have a disability, it is extended in absentia (during the pandemic). And the disadvantage is that for those who register a disability for the first time, the procedure is delayed indefinitely due to the fact that prisoners need to undergo examinations with transferring from the colony, including to civilian institutions — and this is associated with significant obstacles and approvals during the pandemic. People sometimes wait up to six months to receive a disability status. During this period, the colony has a common approach for them, their restrictions due to health are not taken into account. In some cases, employees meet halfway, and in some cases this can lead to penalties due to the fact that a person simply cannot fulfill some requirements.

Another important conclusion based on the results of the study: the training of employees to work with people with disabilities is formal. In most cases, employees do not apply their knowledge in practice. Many people can’t even remember what they were taught. Therefore, one of the recommendations is the introduction of new formats for training the staff of the institution with the help of NGOs that are engaged in helping people with disabilities.

The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the problems and complicated the work of defenders in places of detention. The second block of the conference was devoted to how colonies work in the conditions of a pandemic.

The results of the projects of partner organizations (MHG “On providing convicts with personal protective equipment” and the “Gray Zone” project, which informs the society about the situation with coronavirus infection in places of detention) were presented here. The author of the project, the Public Verdict Foundation*, received messages from prisoners and their relatives, and sent requests to the authorities for each of them. A map of reports of respiratory diseases in colonies and pre-trial detention centers was created: https://prisonmap.info/

There was also a conversation about the recommendations of international organizations to reduce the prison population. Statistics are presented, according to which from 2018 to 2020, Russian courts, considering the petitions of the investigation for the election of a preventive measure in the form of detention, satisfied them 10 times more often than they refused. Observers consider it necessary to reduce the number of defendants for whom this preventive measure has been chosen during the pandemic.

Perspectives of Public Monitoring Commissions in Russia


On the second day, the participants discussed the perspectives for the work of public observers and their interaction with state bodies. Each speaker presented his position, and then a lively discussion began.


Elena Shakhova, a chairwoman of the public organization “Civil Control” (St. Petersburg)*, spoke about law enforcement and judicial practice in the work of the PMC, and Ivan Shevelev, a chairman of the PMC of the Tomsk Region, spoke about the criteria for the effectiveness of the work of public observers.

Leonid Petrashis, a member of the PMC of three convocations of the Rostov region, spoke about the continuity in the work of different PMC compositions and how to train new observers.


Vadim Egorov, a chairman of the Lipetsk PMC, introduced the participants to the innovations in the law “On Public Control”.


We have not forgotten about the public control of places where people with mental disorders are forcibly detained. Vladimir Naidin, a chairman of the PMC of the Primorsky region, spoke about the partner project implemented with the support of the EU “Prevention of torture and ill-treatment in places of forced detention of people with mental disorders”. In his speech, he made an excursion for the participants of the Conference to the past centuries and showed the history of the development of human rights in this area. He also spoke about the success of the project and the changes that occur due to public control.

During the project, its participants visited more than 40 psychiatric institutions and gave recommendations on how to eliminate violations. The observers paid special attention to the non-observance of personal space, the lack of privacy, for example, toilets standing in a row without partitions. The same is true with showers. There are too many beds in the wards, close to each other.


Vladimir Naidin said that the institutions were trying to implement the recommendations of the PMC, and showed several photos with changes.


A very large section was devoted to the concept of the development of the Russian penal enforcement system until 2030, which was recently presented by the Russian government. The concept was presented by Andrey Babushkin, a member of the Council for Human Rights and Civil Society Development under the President of the Russian Federation, who is a member of the working group on reforming the penitentiary system of the Russian Federation.

The goals of the concept are stated:

– ensuring the rights of prisoners and humanizing the conditions of serving sentences and preventive measures;

– improvement of legal regulation taking into account Russia’s international obligations and generally recognized norms of international law;


– correction of convicts — serving a sentence in conditions that do not humiliate human dignity, in accordance with Russian legislation and international standards;


– increasing the level of openness and forming a positive opinion about the activities of the penitentiary system.


Babushkin encouraged the participants that huge changes will soon take place in the direction of improving the conditions of detention and the treatment of people in custody.

The participants of the Conference made their suggestions for the development of the Concept, working in groups. Many proposals were made to support vulnerable groups of people in detention, to improve the conditions of serving sentences in pre-trial detention centers and detention centers, as well as in the interaction of the Federal Penitentiary Service with civil society institutions.

Following the results of the Conference, a document is being prepared, which will also be sent to the Human Rights Council and the Federal Penitentiary Service of the Russian Federation.



* The organization is included by the Ministry of Justice in the register of foreign agents

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