A view of Butyrka, one of Moscow’s pretrial detention facilities.

© 2020 Human Rights Watch

Some of the world’s top human rights bodies are issuing guidelines for how governments should deal with preventing and fighting the COVID-19 pandemic in prisons, and with good reason. People in custody do not enjoy the same hygiene and sanitation protections as those outside, and live in close proximity to each other, so the virus can be easily spread.

Human rights defenders in Russia are deeply concerned about COVID-19’s potential impact on people in the prison system and the government’s response so far, which has involved ending family visits without increasing inmates’ access to more phone calls, and general commitments to protecting inmates’ health without making specific plans public.

Russia is the most populous country in the Council of Europe, Europe’s top human rights intergovernmental body, so it’s not surprising that it has the largest prison population on the continent. Although Russia’s rate of incarceration has fallen since 2008, it is still the highest in Europe.

Although prison conditions have improved in recent years, they remain poor in many facilities, according to Public Verdict, one of Russia’s top human rights groups. A March 24 Public Verdict statement points to “overcrowding, poor ventilation, lack of medical staff, poor medical care, and serious health problems, including chronic conditions and lowered immunity among inmates and staff alike.” This makes Russia’s prison population vulnerable to infection and likely unable to get adequate medical treatment should they fall ill with COVID-19.

Conditions are especially overcrowded in Russia’s pretrial detention centers, particularly in Moscow and St. Petersburg, heightening inmate’s risk if the virus reaches these prisons. This may be due in part to the high rate – 90.7 percent – at which Russian courts approve prosecutor’s requests for pretrial custody, and for extension of custody (97.8 percent). Since 2002, the European Court of Human Rights has handed down 80 rulings against Russia for its overuse of pretrial custody.

The World Health Organization, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, and other expert bodies have called on governments to find alternatives to custody to prevent the spread of COVID-19. As a matter of urgency, and public health, Russia should start following the advice of the European Court and use alternatives to pretrial custody.