Ales Bialiatski: Prison system totally rotten, no political will to reform it
The leader of the Human Rights Center “Viasna” and former political prisoner Ales Bialiatski is critical of the conclusions voiced by his colleagues from the organization Platforma Innovation following a series of inspections carried out in the country’s prisons and detention facilities, Radio Liberty’s Belarus service reports.
Ales Bialiatski served almost three years in a penal colony in Babruisk, and during the investigation he was held in Minsk’s pre-trial prison. According to him, the observations and conclusions made during his time in prison are fundamentally at odds with the things reported by the human rights activists of Platforma Innovation after visiting Belarusian colonies since the end of last year, when the Department of Corrections authorized the inspection.
- My overall comment is that I definitely do not agree with the key conclusions made by Alena Krasouskaya-Kaspiarovich, who argued that the detention conditions in Belarusian prisons had improved. I do not see any improvements so that it could be argued that the conditions of detention have improved and the whole prison system in general.
First, I will mention that human rights defenders had never been allowed there. We still remember all attempts by human rights activists to arrange visits to these places over 20 years. It was OK in the 1990s, but in the 2000s it declined sharply, and as a result the mechanism of public control over the penitentiary system in Belarus is not working. There are these regional commissions, which are partly composed of representatives of non-governmental organizations. But almost nowhere, except for the Mahiliou commission, there are any representatives of human rights organizations, and these commissions do not really work almost anywhere. The system is very closed. When the Interior Ministry authorizes a certain organization to visit these places, and it does not recognize the problems, without making sure that such a visit is part of a response to civil society, I have certain questions. Why such authorization was obtained by this very organization, not another, who also asked to give them that opportunity? For example, I’m not talking about Viasna, which is not registered by the authorities, but the Belarusian Helsinki Committee has never received such permission.
- And without a permit, no way?
- In our country - no. In many post-Soviet countries it’s different. In Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine or Moldova, human rights defenders have the right to visit such places, at any time, especially to do the monitoring of this system. Which, by the way, is based on the prepared theoretical basis. After all, just visiting the colony is ridiculous.
I served three years in jail and I know that there is no warden who is ready to show what is actually happening in prison. And no commission, let it be from the Department of Corrections, or even from the top agencies, can see anything of real life there. Because they will not be allowed to see anything.
I remember these commissions, which came to us in the Babruisk colony, for example, from the Department. We were warned that there would a commission on that day – there was slimy language – go make order here and there, clean up here and there. All prisoners are locked in a recreation room, where TV-sets are kept, to wait until the commission is gone. Everyone must stay in one’s room, God forbid, someone is seen anywhere else, he can be immediately punished.
I’m not talking about any kind of normal contacts with representatives of these commissions. Any prisoner who would want to have such a contact will definitely have trouble with the administration of the colony. For the rule “no dirty linen in public” is an ironclad rule today. People who tried to write a complaint to the Department or even call them were severely punished.
When I was in prison, there was one person and a few of which I was told who were placed in solitary confinement for many days just for the fact that they tried to pass a complaint against the conditions in the colony. At the same time I know that the Babruisk colony is not the worst in Belarus.
The complaints are stopped abruptly by the administration, so these visits without research methodology, without an anonymous survey of prisoners - this is the Potemkin village or worse. When visitors are shown what they want to show, and if they do not want to, then they show nothing.
- Can a prisoner with the status of “crowned thief” complain without interference about the conditions to a member of the monitoring commission?
- Well, what crowned thief will want to talk to them? And in general, how can a prisoner be allowed to freely talk to the monitors, especially in private?
I had two meetings in detention.
First, when there came the Regional Public Commission after a complaint. My colleague complained that her letter did not reach me, and a representative of the Commission came to listen to me and receive an answer. Our meeting took place in the presence of the colony’s deputy chief.
The other meeting was with the Apostolic Nuncio Claudio Gugerotti, it took place in the presence of a representative of the Department from Minsk. We talked with the Archbishop, and the Colonel listened.
Therefore, we can’t say that the prisoners are serious about these commissions. I believe that the Department and the Interior Ministry are not ready to allow a control and monitoring of the prison system.
And for what is it done? To rehabilitate it in the eyes of the Belarusian and international community.
- Why are you skeptical of specific examples of improving conditions that were reported by the visitors? Here they got modern TV-sets with plasma displays, is it bad?
- Yes, they saw these plasmas. But did the visitors ask what money was used to purchase these TV-sets? Was this money collected from the prisoners? Was this voluntary or involuntary?
Meanwhile, TV-sets, as well as fridges, are bought mostly on the money of the prisoners themselves, and we can only guess whether they are allowed or not.
I can give you hundreds of examples of silly restrictions that have no explanation.
For example, in pre-trial jail in Valadarkski Street we had to cook food, because what we were given was impossible to eat. Even bread could only be eaten selectively, pasta – no, soup - no. Porridge - only if you dress it with something that you have, but without it - it is impossible to eat, as they give such porridge to pigs, not to people. They have always did and are doing it now.
So we cooked soup in a plastic bucket, because metal dishes are prohibited. And why? Because you can probably make something out of this metal to injure yourself. As a result, we cooked it in a plastic bucket, and you can imagine what quality of water we had.
I’m not going to talk about the terrible overcrowding in the Valadarkski Street prison. There, next to us there were cells with 10 beds for 20 people, people slept in turns, and because of this there were skin diseases, cases of tuberculosis.
In my squad in Babruisk one guy who had served 5 years was taken to hospital with tuberculosis, a detachment was under quarantine.
It’s all because of overcrowded cells. For example, in our section there were 15 people - is this normal? Perhaps because if there is fresh air, if there are vitamins. And if there is an obvious lack of vitamins, and people, as we used to, work in two shifts to earn their pennies? So can a commission see it? Of course, no.
- You say they work in two shifts? There is evidence that the colonies do not have enough work for everyone. How does this match up?
- In fact, this is forced labor, because you have no right to refuse to work. I received a dollar and a half or two dollars a month from my salary of $ 7-8. The rest went to pay for food. And how could I buy vitamins, apples or onions, or buckwheat for the money? And if you don’t get any help from outside? How can you improve your diet with 1.5-2 dollars? That’s impossible.
But it is not only material problems that humiliate your dignity. And what about those piles of s##t that are in the toilets? When there are only four holes in the toilet for 116 people. Can you imagine what piles of s..t lie there, in the toilet, and how can a person feel after that?
- Can a visitor see it with his own eyes?
- Of course not. All is removed, cleaned up, and the next day, when the commission is gone, everything is repeated. After all, all’s just a show.
- And repairs – are they also a show?
- Repairs are done mainly at the expense of the prisoners. I was released in the summer of 2014, and the year before that we did repair in our section. All the colony gave us was a bucket of paint, the prisoners had to get the rest themselves. Buy something, or exchange.
We just pooled a carton of cigarettes each, including me. Although I was not told about it, because all contacts with me had been banned, but everyone chipped in and I did it quietly. I gave it and warned not to tell anyone. So we gave a carton each, it’s about 10 bucks, and cigarettes in prison are like currency. And for the currency the industrial area made us boards for the wardrobe, repaired a table and so on.
But I will once again emphasize that the material condition of the colony is just one of the components of detention conditions, and often not the most important one. The most important thing is the protection of human dignity, which is totally absent there.
After all, today, both prison rules that apply to all colonies and the Penal Code have such vague and inaccurate statements regarding the prisoners that the administration can either keep you the way it keeps all the others, or create unbearable conditions for you. They will charge you with one abuse after another, will deprive you of food parcels and visits.
And this applies not only to political prisoners, but to all those who are trying to behave with dignity, not squealing, not cooperating with the administration. The administration is trying to break such people. It is these laws and documents that give the possibilities for this.
And the way in which, for example, Statkevich found himself in prison, why Alinevich does not get out of the punishment cells - the same tools are used against ordinary prisoners. They just took these tools and are using them against the political prisoners.
- Why, in your opinion, the process of reforming the penitentiary system in Belarus is so slow?
- In my opinion, the whole system is flawed, it is not aimed at the rehabilitation of the person. Instead, squealing is promoted, people are taught to deceive and hide these deceptions, and a person is released from prison with such baggage of worst qualities.
And there are basically young people there. For example, in my detachment of one hundred people there were just 3-4 men in their fifties, all the rest were 20-25 years old. And now they are trying to trim them, completely suppressing human dignity.
What kind of education in this system can we ever talk? This system requires a very serious reform for which we need political will.
If we lack it, and what we have are only questions why the floor is not painted here or the grass is not cleaned up as necessary, then nothing will change.
And so I think the system will remain the way as it was formed in the Soviet times. After all, all the diseases of today’s Belarusian prisons have roots back in Soviet times.