“Regulatory chaos”. Discussion about how people in prison survived the COVID-19 pandemic and what restrictions on their rights they had to face

9 April 2021

On 25 March, Sergei Poduzov, сo-chairman of NGO “Man and Law”, took part in the online discussion “Russia: the year of the pandemic and prisons”, organized by the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights. It was about how the COVID pandemic had led to additional restrictions on human rights in places of incarceration. The problems of prisoners are now again in the zone of more intense public attention, when it became clear that an advocate was not allowed to see political prisoner Alexei Navalny, and he was not provided with the necessary medical care.

A year has passed since the authorities in Russia began to apply restrictions in connection with the development of the COVID-19 pandemic. The main problems caused by the COVID restrictions in the penal colonies and hopes for changes in the future are in this material.


Moderator of the conversation: Piotr Pogorzelski, Polish version of the website «Belsat». 



Olga Salomatova, expert of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (Warsaw);

Roman Kachanov, advocate (Yekaterinburg);

Sergei Poduzov, co-chairman of “Man and Law”.


Restrictions in penal colonies during the pandemic


When Russia began to impose restrictions in order to slow down the spread of COVID, the system of execution of punishments also introduced its own restrictions. The chief sanitary doctor of the Federal Penitentiary Service issued departmental orders restricting visits. The prisoners were deprived of visits, both long and short ones. 


The restriction of long-term cohabitation meetings during the initial period of the pandemic can be understood, but the ban on short-term visits is questionable. During such visits, the prisoner and his/her visitor are usually separated by glass and communicate by phone. It is not clear how the virus can be transmitted in such conditions and whether this restriction was necessary. In addition, parcels from relatives were prohibited. 


The advocates also had difficulties. Colonies and pre-trial detention centers began to forbid them to visit their clients.


Another limiting factor was the ban on visits for public organizations that previously visited places of detention under the agreement with the Federal Penitentiary Service. This further increased the isolation of places of incarceration. Prisoners were no longer taken to civilian hospitals and medical commissions, trials were no longer held in penal colonies, and there was no question of going to court at all. They also restricted the access of various specialists: doctors, advocates, notaries.  


Effects of restrictions


Advocate Roman Kachanov told how he arrived at the meeting with a prisoner in a penal colony in Mordovia on 30 March, 2020. The meeting was necessary to prepare for the court session, which was scheduled for 31 March. Kachanov’s client was seriously sick and asked the court to release him from prison, since his illness was included in the list of those that prevented him from being in prison. The prisoner suffered a stroke and could only use a wheelchair.


The advocate was not allowed to see the client on the basis of the order of the chief sanitary doctor. As a result, he was unable to prepare for the trial properly. 


As a result, the court decided to release his client from prison, and now he lives with his family and is being treated, but the administration’s decision not to allow the advocate to visit his client even with a positive court decision was illegal. Kachanov decided not to leave it unpunished and filed a lawsuit.


 “The court found that the meeting with the advocate is neither long nor short-term. The right to meet comes from Article 48 of the Constitution — the right to qualified legal assistance,” Kachanov said on the air. – “But there is no legal responsibility of employees for the non-admission of an advocate. Theoretically, it is possible to bring to disciplinary responsibility, but there are 6 months for this, and while we are going through all the courts, all the appeals, the deadline expires, no one is bringing them to responsibility.” 


Now, according to Kachanov, in his region — the Sverdlovsk region — advocates are allowed to see their clients, but they can only communicate through glass using a phone, and these conversations are most likely controlled by the institution’s employees. Both restrictions are excessive. 


Sergei Poduzov added that advocates, in most cases, still cannot meet with a client without glass, even if they have a full anti-liquid package – masks and disinfection.


“Regulatory chaos” in the regions


“The whole situation with the pandemic was considered in the Russian Federation at two levels: federal and regional, — says Sergei Poduzov. – Each head of the region was given the authority to impose restrictions on its territory, based on the epidemiological situation, for example, on movement. According to federal law, an advocate not only has the right, but also is obliged to provide legal assistance in a number of categories of cases. During the pandemic, in order to go to court, an advocate had to obtain permission to travel within the region. And such a contradiction between federal legislation and regional decrees of the heads of regions created conflict situations, and people were left without qualified legal assistance.”


Advocates had even more problems when they had to go to a client in another region.

Olga Salomatova, expert at the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, called the current situation a regulatory chaos. 


 “The regulation turned out to be different in various regions. This greatly affects the fate of a particular person in prison, ” Salomatova said. — If people are free, even with strict restrictions, they can do something on their own, but when a person is deprived of freedom, everything is determined by the rules. If people in the penal colony do not have information about what to do and how to do it, it greatly affects their quality of life. The need to review what is happening in places of detention, in my opinion, is long overdue.”


“The fact that a person is deprived of freedom does not mean that we should deprive him/her of everything,” Olga Salomatova continued later. – I recalled the situation in Angarsk, which is called a riot, when the prisoners were taken out of there, and advocates were not allowed to visit them in the pre-trial detention center. And then they showed a film where the journalist spoke to the prisoner through the bars, not through the glass. The advocate was not allowed to come, and who is the journalist? Why was he allowed in? When people see this, they have questions why it is like this.” 


Problems of prisoners with disabilities


According to Roman Kachanov, during the pandemic, it became even more difficult for prisoners with disabilities. The correctional system can’t give them any help. The legislation allows releasing prisoners with serious illnesses through the court, but for this it is necessary to obtain a positive conclusion of the medical commission.  


To send a person to the commission, it is often necessary to transfer him/her from one institution to another. The prisoners waited a very long time for a referral to the commission, and it was useless to complain somewhere.


Sometimes doctors have relied on old medical data that was obtained before the pandemic, because it is impossible to conduct an examination during a pandemic. As a result, the convicts died in places of deprivation of liberty, without achieving release and receiving qualified medical care there. 


There is also a problem in assigning the status of a disabled person. In addition to the fact that they are assigned a disability pension, an individual rehabilitation program is assigned, they can get a wheelchair, crutches, and medicines. But the disability status is assigned by the Bureau of medical and social expertise. People during the pandemic waited for months to be sent to the commission, prepared a package of documents and then sent them to the commission, but the status of a disabled person is usually given for a certain specific period, less often for life. The period of disability has ended, and the person no longer receives either a pension or medication.   


“In March of last year, everyone had at least a little panic, because we were faced with something that we had never encountered,” says Olga Salomatova. — And somehow it had to be dealt with. People in places of incarceration are the same people, with the same feelings, only they are even less aware of what is happening. It turns out that the person knows about the threat, but does not understand it, and still finds himself/herself in conditions of additional violation of the rights. Here he is, for example, going to court on an application for parole, and then they tell him that there will be no courts, because of the pandemic. If the state assumes responsibility, even in a crisis situation, it is necessary to maintain a certain level of rights.”  


The riot in Angarsk


In some cases, the prisoners reacted to the additional restrictions with understanding, and in others they were outraged against it.  


According to Olga Salomatova, the riot in the Angarsk penal colony did not happen out of nowhere, and not only because of the pandemic, but also because there were other systemic problems. 


In Angarsk, the Irkutsk region, prisoners staged a riot after one of them had been beaten, according to “Mediazona”. Some of them cut their wrists. The next day, several buildings in the colony caught fire, and gunshots and explosions were heard. The prisoners asked for help. A cordon was set up around the colony. The advocates had problems accessing the prisoners.


Society’s attitude to the problem


“At the first stage, when the pandemic just started, there were difficulties with the examination, with the extension of the disability group, but then they allowed the extension of the disability group in absentia,” says Sergei Poduzov. — These problems during the pandemic have become more sensitive not only for prisoners, but also more clearly visible to society. During this period, I think, society experienced the same state as people with disabilities, when they did not leave the house. People in a wheelchair say: “We mostly live like this. And now others, having experienced it for themselves, already look at it differently.”


Sergei Poduzov believes that when the situation begins to change, the peak of the pandemic passes, and at the regional level some restrictions are cancelled, then at the level of the Federal Penitentiary Service the same thing should happen. If restrictions on receiving parcels and visits are imposed during the peak, then as soon as the rate of spread of COVID has decreased in the region and some restrictions for civilians are lifted, then the Federal Penitentiary Service should also start allowing something inside. 


 “Why was it impossible to allow communication with relatives with the help of “Zona Telecom”? They also could provide a room where relatives would come by appointment and talk to the prisoner, ” Poduzov believes.


Is there any hope for a change for the better?


This question was asked at the end of the conversation by moderator Piotr Pogorzelski. According to Olga Salomatova, this hope is given by the work of human rights organizations, such as “Man and Law”, “Public Verdict” Foundation and others.


Sergei Poduzov believes that the situation is already changing, and work is underway to reduce human rights violations. Due to the daily work of advocates, human rights organizations, and members of public monitoring commissions, problems with human rights violations are resolved. 


The Federal Penitentiary Service, in his opinion, is not the most conservative system in Russia and is ready to hear the voice of human rights defenders.


But now, during the COVID period, human rights activists fear that all the changes for the better that have been achieved may be canceled under the guise of a pandemic.

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