Prison Revolt Yields More Questions Than Answers
Published: November 29, 2012 (Issue # 1737)
There were either 250 participants or about 1,000. They demanded improved conditions or nothing at all. Their protest was plotted by criminal masterminds or it was spontaneous.
Almost nothing is clear about last weekend's revolt at a maximum security prison in the Urals, as official statements, media reports and testimony from human rights activists vary wildly.
What is clear, however, is that the incident has attracted an unusually large amount of attention, with even state television — usually deaf to reports of widespread abuse and corruption in the nation's prison system — devoting prime-time programming to developments at Federal Prison No. 6.
Activists say that might be because the reportedly non-violent revolt, which lasted from Saturday to Monday, was an extraordinary reaction to a familiar problem.
"There hasn't been anything like it for a long time," said Nadezhda Radnayeva, an expert at the In the Defense of the Rights of Prisoners Foundation. A typical revolt involves a few dozen prisoners. The rest are too afraid, have a separate agenda or come to an agreement with administrators, she said.
Hence the shock created by footage from the prison in the city of Kopeisk, which showed hundreds of prisoners standing on the roof of a building above a homemade banner reading, "Free people, help us! The administration is extorting $ [sic]. They torture and humiliate."
The incident prompted Chelyabinsk region Governor Mikhail Yurevich to acknowledge that the local penal system needed reform, and prosecutors promptly opened an investigation into prisoners' complaints that officials were extorting money, including for visits with family.
"If this kind of event had happened several years ago, there wouldn't have been such success," veteran human rights defender and deputy chairman of In the Defense of the Rights of Prisoners Foundation Lev Ponomaryov said by telephone Wednesday.
Ponomaryov speculated that high-profile criminal cases in recent months involving the punk protest band Pussy Riot and opposition activists suspected of attacking police at a May rally have led to an awakening of Russian civil society and increased attention to rights abuses.
Others, including Radnayeva, weren't so optimistic. Russians outside a small class of politically charged urbanites were still very indifferent to the plight of Russia's inmates, she said, and there was a pervasive belief that prisoners deserved whatever they got.
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