A new video filmed in a prison that has become notorious for violence has refocused attention on Russia’s harsh penitentiary system.
The 9-minute clip released by watchdog group Public Verdict to newspaper Novaya Gazeta shows guards at the Yaroslavl Corrective Colony No. 1 beating prisoners and dragging one through the halls of the facility. The video, filmed in 2016, was recovered by the group from body cameras worn by guards at the prison and submitted as evidence in another abuse case. The group says the cameras’ memories had been wiped but they were able to technically restore the video.
Footage captured from one officer’s body camera shows the scene when guards arrive to takе an inmate identified as Andrei Ivanov to an “educational work” class after he complained about not being given toilet paper. Another inmate, Dzhoshgun Abdullaev, tries to defend him but is pulled away. Ivanov's wails are heard as Abdullaev is beaten and then dragged through the prison to another room where he is beaten more. At one point, another guard motions to the guard wearing the camera, apparently to remind him that his device is on. The second half of the video shows a guard going to an office and calling a colleague to coordinate what to tell management about what happened.
The organization Public Verdict published a video of abuse in the Yaroslavl Corrective Colony through Novaya Gazeta.
Ruslan Vakhapov, a former prisoner at the Yaroslavl Corrective Colony No. 1 from 2012 until last year, told the France 24 Observers that the video was typical of beatings he witnessed.
What you see in this video is what happens all the time. It’s an illustration of daily life in the camp, where inmates get beaten all the time. You hear the guards in the video saying the prisoner who was beaten “left with a blue ass". To them it’s not a big deal.
I was beaten by a guard within the first five minutes after I arrived. Everyone who comes into the prison, or practically everyone, is beaten. They beat you to break your morale. When you find yourself lying on the ground with a dog barking at you, you know the camp is a terrible place. That’s when they start to psychologically break you.
These kind of beatings happen whenever the guards think they are necessary – if they feel they’ve been insulted or offended, or someone didn’t behave correctly. In principle that was enough for a beating. That decision was taken fairly often. I witnessed beatings like this about 10 times. I can remember hearing the noises from those who were being beaten. I was in the isolation ward next door and heard as they brought a man to the room for “educational classes” and then beat him. That type of beating doesn’t happen every day of course, but happens about every week in the colony.
Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service said July 17 it is conducting a new review of prisons in the Yaroslavl area. A similar video released by Public Verdict in 2018 led to a broad investigation in the region. That video, also filmed at Yaroslavl Corrective Colony No. 1 in 2017, showed inmate Evgeny Makarov being taken to a room, stripped, repeatedly doused with a bucket of water and beaten methodically by a group of more than 10 guards.
The prison’s acting director Dmitry Nikolaev was arrested for abuse of office in February. Sixteen other former employees of the camp, another Yaroslavl facility and the regional penitentiary service face the same charge.
Dzhoshgun Abdullaev attempted to defend his fellow prisoner and was repeatedly beaten by guards.
“Seeing it with your own eyes, it has a completely different effect”
Lawyer Irina Biryukova of Public Verdict told the France 24 Observers that video evidence is critical not just for legal prosecution, but also for raising public awareness.
Publishing the videos was the only way we have to bring these guards to justice and bring the issue to public attention. The public often thinks it’s OK that people are tortured in prisons. Journalists have written about it in the press before the videos came out. But seeing it with your own eyes, it has a completely different effect. It brings forth completely different emotions.
Biryukova said fixing the problem would require not just reforms to the prison service, but also better oversight of prisons by public investigators, including unannounced inspections, and greater leeway for doctors to speak up about evidence of torture.
One reform of one department won’t be enough to fix the problem of torture in prisons. And there’s the question of political will. If there’s no real political will for reform, you can forget about it.
Vakhapov, who was released last summer after serving more than five years, said that fighting to change the prison system is difficult, but something that he feels the need to do. In addition to speaking out against beatings and torture, he works with the local chapter of Russia Behind Bars, an organisation that helps prisoners adjust to life on the outside.
He said he has heard from current inmates in Yaroslavl that the most brutal beatings have started to stop since the release of the Makarov video last year.
I talk to people in prisons across the country, from Vladivostok to the Caucasus and Chechnya. Last year’s video was like a sort of explosion that’s changed things around the country. The guards at prisons everywhere, they understand now that they cannot beat prisoners. They know about the videos in almost every camp in the country.