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Prison Revolt Yields More Questions Than Answers

Published: November 29, 2012 (Issue # 1737)



  • During the strike at the maximum-security prison, inmates complained about harsh conditions and demanded that fellow prisoners be freed from disciplinary cells.
    Photo: 6may.org

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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Sunday, Apr. 20


Celebrate Easter at Pavlovsk during the Easter Fair that begins today and continues through next Sunday. Visitors will have the chance to paint Easter eggs and children can take part in games as well as help decorate a tree in honor of Christianity’s holiest day.


Today is one of the final days to see the exhibit Cacti — Children of the Sun at the Peter the Great Botanical Garden. Starting Apr. 17, budding botanists will marvel at the variety and beauty of the desert’s most iconic plant.


Monday, Apr. 21


Improve your grasp of Neruda, Bolano and Marquez at TrueDA’s Beginners Spanish Lesson this evening at their location on the Petrograd Side. An experienced teacher will be on hand to help all attendees better understand the intricacies of the language and improve their accent.


Tuesday, Apr. 22


SPIBA’s Breakfast with the Director event series continues as the association welcomes Andrei Barannikov, general director of SPN Communications, to the Anna Pavlova Hall of the Angleterre Hotel this morning at 9 a.m. Attendees must confirm their participation by Apr. 21.


The AmCham Environment, Health and Safety Committee Meeting is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. this morning in the their St. Petersburg office.