Far From Home: Russia Weighs Law To Allow Convicts To Do Time Closer To Their Families

Russia Regions Map

(Article text ©2019 RFE/RL, Inc., Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – rferl.org – Karina Merkuryeva and Robert Coalson – Dec. 1, 2019 – article text also appeared at rferl.org/a/far-from-home-russia-weighs-law-to-allow-convicts-to-do-time-closer-to-their-families/30301657.html)

Zulaikhat Nurmagomedova has only seen her fiancé once in the last two years after he was sentenced to 12 years in prison on drug charges he denies and sent 700 kilometers east of the capital to a strict-regime colony in Mordovia.

The prisoner’s mother, who lives in Chechnya, has it even worse. She has not been able to visit her son even once since he was incarcerated in 2017, as it is practically impossible for an elderly person to travel from her village to distant Mordovia, Nurmagomedova explained.

“In addition to the trip being very difficult and long, it is also very expensive,” she said. “His mother’s pension is about 10,000 rubles [$156] a month. Every time we speak to the FSIN [Federal Penitentiary Service], we point that out. It would take her whole pension to buy tickets and cover the costs of one trip.”

Earlier this month, the State Duma’s Committee on State Structure and Legislation recommended that the legislature adopt a bill that Nurmagomedova hopes will make their lives easier. Under the bill, prisoners would be allowed to ask the FSIN to let them serve their time in prisons located in the regions where their relatives live.

In the case of Nurmagomedova’s fiancé, the measure — if made into law — could enable him to serve his sentence in the strict-regime prison colony that is located in the very Chechen village where his mother lives, Chyornokozovo.

Strictly speaking, Article 73 of the Russian Penal Code already requires that “convicts…serve their sentences in corrections facilities on the territory of the subject of the Russian Federation in which they lived or were sentenced.” However, that requirement is virtually nullified by the long list of exceptions enumerated in Part 4 of the article.

A report in the government daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta on the new bill goes so far as to say that the issue is currently governed “in principle” by “humane” rules. “But nonetheless, prisoners often find themselves thousands of kilometers from their families,” the daily reported.

Under current rules, a convict, theoretically, can only be transferred from one colony to another in the event of illness, if their personal safety is compromised, if a prison is decommissioned or reorganized, or in a few other rare instances.

Abuse Targets

The problem is particularly acute for prisoners from the North Caucasus, who are regularly sent to serve their time far from the region, says Olga Chmurova, the coordinator of Civic Cooperation, a project to aid prisoners from Chechnya and Ingushetia.

“Sometimes a prisoner or his relatives will write to us about some other problem and in the course of our communication we discover that they haven’t seen one another in years,” Chumurova said.

When prisoners are isolated in this way, they often become easy targets for abuse.

“I was only at the prison once as a visitor and even during that short visit my rights were violated many times!” Nurmagomedova told RFE/RL. “I can hardly imagine how the guards act with regard to the convicts.”

According to a report earlier this year by the Center for Eastern Studies in Poland, “in the first seven months of 2018 alone, the Russian press revealed 24 cases of torture in prisons.”

“The FSIN operates as a unique ‘state within a state’ with no supervision mechanisms,” the report stated, “but with a separate health care service, transportation system, education system, a unique system of trading in goods characterized by widespread corruption and the primacy of informal rules and hierarchies over formal ones.”

The Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights has ruled repeatedly that the practice of incarcerating prisoners far from their homes is a violation of their human rights.

“Although many prisoners continue to serve their sentences in distant prison colonies, the FSIN sees that these appeals to the [ECHR] are becoming more and more frequent,” activist Chmurova said. “Lately it has made efforts not to send prisoners so far away. They are rarely allowed to serve their time in their home republics, even if there are prisons located there. But they usually don’t send them farther away than central Russia.”

In the past, she added, people like Nurmagomedova’s fiancé would likely have been sent far beyond the Urals Mountains.