Former Inmates Allege Russian 'Torture Prisons' In Russia, the prison population is on the rise and so, too, are allegations of extreme abuse. Human rights groups and former prisoners say treatment of inmates is so bad that it's comparable to the Soviet Gulag.
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Former Inmates Allege Russian 'Torture Prisons'

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Former Inmates Allege Russian 'Torture Prisons'

Former Inmates Allege Russian 'Torture Prisons'

Former Inmates Allege Russian 'Torture Prisons'

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/92394785/92502843" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The Vladimir Central prison east of Moscow was founded in 1783. Not much has changed about it in the ensuing 225 years. Boris Ryzhak/NPR hide caption

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Boris Ryzhak/NPR

The Vladimir Central prison east of Moscow was founded in 1783. Not much has changed about it in the ensuing 225 years.

Boris Ryzhak/NPR

A smuggled letter addressed from a prison inmate, dated March 2008 and written in blood. The writer says he's been seriously injured and fears for his life. Boris Ryzhak/NPR hide caption

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Boris Ryzhak/NPR

A smuggled letter addressed from a prison inmate, dated March 2008 and written in blood. The writer says he's been seriously injured and fears for his life.

Boris Ryzhak/NPR

Vladimir Gladkov spent 15 years in prison, some of that time in Vladimir Central. He says the worst moments of his incarceration came during solitary confinement, when he would hear the screams of other inmates being beaten and wondered if he would be next. Gregory Feifer/NPR hide caption

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Gregory Feifer/NPR

A prison warden opens a cell door at Vladimir Central. Boris Ryzhak/NPR hide caption

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Boris Ryzhak/NPR

A prison warden opens a cell door at Vladimir Central.

Boris Ryzhak/NPR

Inmates share a cell at Vladimir Central. Boris Ryzhak/NPR hide caption

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Boris Ryzhak/NPR

Inmates share a cell at Vladimir Central.

Boris Ryzhak/NPR

The Vladimir Central prison stands in the medieval city of Vladimir, east of Moscow. It's one of Russia's seven main prisons, a collection of stolid brick structures built more than 200 years ago.

Inside its thick walls, not much has changed in the past two centuries.

A guard unlocks a heavy metal door to a cramped, wood-floored cell. Inside, four prisoners with shaved heads say they have no complaints about their treatment, although they speak under the guard's watchful eye.

Former inmates speak of overcrowding and raging disease. But they say there's something far more disturbing going on in Russia's penal system.

Accounts are spreading about extreme abuse by prison authorities. Human rights groups say the treatment of inmates at some jails is aimed at destroying people psychologically. It's so bad, they say, that it's comparable to conditions in the Soviet Gulag.

Vladimir Gladkov spent 15 years behind bars. Some of that time was spent in Vladimir Central and some of it in a place that's much worse — one of Russia's so-called torture prisons. He says that in the Kopeisk prison in the Ural Mountains, guards systematically abuse prisoners.

"They would force us from our cells, order us to spread our legs and put our hands against the wall, and then beat us with batons until we had to help drag each other back to our cells," Gladkov says.

Another former Kopeisk inmate, Yuri Skogarev, says those who tried to complain to the authorities were singled out for worse punishment.

"Guards would take me out, handcuff me to a shower, then beat and kick me until I lost consciousness," he says. "Later, I'd wake up back in my cell."

Skogarev says much of the abuse was committed by prisoners forced to beat their fellow inmates. After four prisoners were killed at the Kopeisk prison in May, the authorities accused them of attacking prison guards. Human rights groups say the battered corpses indicated the prisoners were probably beaten to death for having protested their treatment.

In a video that rights groups say shows prison torture, what appear to be guards wearing facemasks force cowering inmates to strip outside. Then they beat them with rubber truncheons. Inmates often mutilate themselves to escape such beatings, sometimes by swallowing pieces of sharp wire.

Human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov says there are dozens of torture prisons across Russia, where over the past eight years conditions have become so bad that some prisoners are driven to suicide.

"They're told they're not human," Ponomaryov says. "They're punished for trying to defend their dignity. The old Soviet term for that was turning people into 'Gulag camp dust.'"

Ponomaryov shows a page-long letter carefully handwritten in what looks like brown ink. It's the blood of an inmate who had no pen. The writer pleads for help, saying he fears for his life.

The authorities deny the existence of torture prisons, saying all penal institutions are regularly inspected by government officials and all complaints investigated. But Ponomaryov says torture prisons exist to spread fear — and compliance — among the general prison population. He says that style of enforcement is the product of Russia's new authoritarianism.

"Torture prisons are places where totalitarianism rules," he says. "That's why it's so important to stop it, because if it takes root, that kind of system will spread to other parts of society."

Russia's prison population is soaring, second only to that of the United States. "God help you," a former inmate says, "if you end up in a Russian jail."