There are thousands of Muslims from the North Caucasus being held in the Russian penitentiary system who are, according to human rights activists, one of the most vulnerable and discriminated groups in the Russian prison population: they are more likely than others to be beaten or tortured, their right to freedom of religion is more likely to be violated, and it is more difficult for them to get parole.

This kind of attitude can be associated with ethnic and religious intolerance and the fact that many employees of the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) are veterans of the armed conflict in the North Caucasus and remain suspicious if not outright hostile towards Caucasus natives.

After the emergence of the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS, or Daesh)1 which mobilized tens of thousands of people from almost 80 countries around the world, many countries have been confronted with the problem of the increased popularity of ultraradical ideologies in prisons. ISIS mobilized over 3,000 Russian nationals of various ethnic backgrounds, but since North Caucasus natives have traditionally constituted the majority of those sentenced under articles related to armed activity or terrorism in Russia, the FSIN has further increased its attention to this category of prisoners.

The Muslim North Caucasus inmates face the same challenges as prisoners from other Russian regions and of other confessions. Russia has one of the highest number of prisoners per 100,000 of the national population in the world. As of March 2021, there were almost half a million people being held in Russian penal colonies, prisons and pre-trial detention centers (SIZOs). According to human rights activists, although Russian FSIN is the richest prison agency in Europe, in 2018 the daily costs associated with one prisoner in Russia were 2.5 euros while the European average was 128 euros. The rate of recidivism among Russian prisoners is high: 54% of inmates have had at least one prior conviction, and 36% have been convicted three or more times.

Human rights defenders regularly document various forms of violations, inhumane and cruel treatment of prisoners. The violations begin from the moment of arrest: restricting access to lawyers, providing a biased lawyer, denying family visits, parcels, and access to necessary medical care, and subjection to beatings and torture. According to human rights activists, torture is widely used during preliminary investigation in the North Caucasus, often before the detainee is officially processed.

Torture and beatings are pervasive in penal colonies as well, and they are committed not only by members of FSIN staff but also fellow inmates, so-called “activists,” who get better treatment and benefit from prison administrations in return. Placing prisoners in isolation cells for spurious reasons or without any legitimate grounds is another form of pressuring and intimidating them. Impunity fuels the use of illegal violence: it is extremely difficult to protect the rights of prisoners and it is even more difficult to prosecute those who committed crimes against them.

Human rights organizations receive numerous complaints about inadequate medical care, lack of medications, arbitrary refusals or severe delays in medical treatment. Prison medical stuff are dependant on prison directors, as a result they often refuse to document the beating of a prisoner who has just arrived or has been beaten inside the prison.

Informal prison hierarchies become an additional source of vulnerability, violence and stress. In many prisons, there is a strict hierarchy among male inmates that divides them into several suits (or castes). Prisoners belonging to the lowest caste are often humiliated, abused, and forced to do most of the dirty work. Loss of status is common and usually happens as a result of violating the informal prison laws (понятия) while upward mobility in the hierarchy is nearly impossible. There is no strict division into castes in women’s penal colonies; however, there as well some inmates are more privileged than others.

Depending on the group that informally controls men’s prison, places of detention are divided into “black” (controlled by criminals) or “red” (controlled by the prison administration and prisoners it has recruited). Since the early 2000s, the existence of “green” penal colonies that are informally controlled by Muslim inmates has been discussed. It remains unclear whether “green” penal colonies are a myth or a reality.

While pre-trial detainees are more frequently tortured in the North Caucasus than anywhere else in Russia, penal colonies in the North Caucasus turn out to be much more comfortable than penal facilities in many other Russian regions. Experts believe that this is due to the fact that their prison staff are locals. If unlawful violence is used, prison staff may be held accountable by the prisoner’s family and thus do not feel impunity. Penal colonies in the North Caucasus are free from religious or ethnic discrimination, and informal prison hierarchies are either absent or non-decisive. This shows that under certain mechanisms of social control, a degree of humanization of the penitentiary system happens automatically.

The report is based on interviews with 30 recently released prisoners of various ages,

socioeconomic and professional backgrounds from Chechnya, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria. They received sentences ranging from seven months to 10 years imprisonment for various crimes, such as fraud, rape, murder, robbery, extortion, facilitating bribery, participation in an illegal armed group, and illegal purchase and possession of drugs, among other charges. Our respondents served their sentences in settlements and general or high-security colonies across different regions of Russia.

Our interviews show that the first several weeks or months constitute the most difficult period of inmates’ adaptation to their life in prison when they have to get used to captivity, poor living conditions, lack of privacy and their new status as a convict or a detained suspect. During that period, prisoners also adjust emotionally and learn to cope with fear, despair or shame. Female prisoners find it much harder to adapt as they lose their families, their children, almost all their social ties and property. Psychological adaptation was the most challenging for those who say they were sentenced unjustly or convicted on fabricated charges.

All our respondents had to take informal prison hierarchies and behavioural norms into account and largely follow the informal prison law. Muslim prisoners from the North Caucasus usually stayed together and sometimes formed religious-based jamaats which often operated outside of the informal hierarchy, or in some cases, dominated it. Where forming a jamaat was not an option or the prisoner did not want to join, sticking to other North Caucasus natives still helped one secure protection in the criminal system. Some of our interviewees claimed that they were subjected to cruel and or very cruel treatment by FSIN officers; one woman told us that the director of her penal colony had sexually harassed female prisoners.

First and foremost, all of the respondents said that what helped them get through their time in prison was faith, communicating with their family members, reading and receiving parcels from home. Most reported that their faith in God was strengthened in prison but they did not use this time to better study religion due to feeling lazy or uninterested. With regards to their freedom of prayer in prison, our respondents reported various attitudes: from prison officials being openly negative or even placing them in a punishment cell for disrupting the prison timetable, to providing with prayer rooms and inviting imams and organising outings for Friday prayers at the village mosque. Many said that while reading was one of the most popular activities behind bars, most of the books in prison libraries were old, from the Soviet times, and the choice was very limited.

The opportunity to stay connected to family members through phone calls and visits, as provided by law, was open to everyone who was interested except for those placed in punishment cells for long periods of time; in those cases, there is no access to communications and visits are banned. Some prisoners served their sentences thousands of kilometres from home and they either did not see their relatives at all or saw them very rarely as visits put a financial strain on their family.

The overwhelming majority of prisoners claimed they were not interested in the social activities organised by the prison, they considered them useless and only done “to tick the box.” In Chechnya, meetings with religious leaders or with law enforcement were organised on a regular basis, however our respondents said that the speakers were not an authority for them. Several people who served their time outside the North Caucasus reported that no activities had been organised at their institutions.

The experts we interviewed said that the process of radicalisation into violent ideologies in prison is well established, while former inmates stated that although this problem does exist, its scale and significance are exaggerated. According to experts from the Federal Penitentiary Service, the existence of prison jamaats is one of the main indicators of radicalisation in prisons. Many former inmates who served sentences both in the North Caucasus and in other regions of Russia confirm that jamaats exist in prisons. However, they all stressed that prison jamaats are associations of practicing Muslims rather than radical Islamist cells.

According to the respondents, one of the reasons for setting up jamaats is the desire to stick together for protection. For this reason, they sometime attract inmates who convert to Islam in prison so that they are protected from informal prisoner hierarchies, bowing down to crime bosses and paying financial tribute to them. At the same time, experts, including the independent ones, believe that jamaats can sometimes be radicalised. More often than not, radicalization largely depends on the leaders in a given group.

It is widely believed among the prisoners that the factors of radicalisation in prison are similar to those that exist on the outside and that Muslim prisoners rarely change their views while inside: radicals remain radicals, while others do not tend to get radicalised. They named violence and injustice as the main drivers of radicalisation, as well as unresolved armed conflicts in Chechnya and the North Caucasus, religious ignorance and despair. Some FSIN researchers also see the problem of human rights violations as a factor associated with radicalisation in prisons. According to the former inmates we interviewed, those most vulnerable to radicalisation in prison are the wrongly convicted, those who have nothing to lose, those who were left alone with their problems, and young girls who do not have parents or other relatives and who know little about their religion. Most often, radical religious influences in prison come from other prisoners or, in rare cases, via the internet as internet access in many prisons is limited or non-existent.

Almost all the former inmates we interviewed said that people with radical views have a very difficult time in prison: they are ‘preventively’ isolated in a punishment cell on spurious grounds for a long time, placed on a special register, often transferred to a high security facility, and they are constantly under surveillance. At the same time, none of the prisoners we interviewed who had been sentenced for participation in illegal armed groups could tell us anything about de-radicalisation work that would have been done with them inside the prison.

After being released from prison, to some extent men from the North Caucasus find it easier to reintegrate compared with many prisoners from other regions of Russia. They return to a large family that welcomes them back and are able to rather quickly restore social ties. All of our respondents except for one had a place to return to, housing, and the society’s attitude towards them was quite loyal.

Things are much more complicated for women. The husband usually has a new family. If they have children, they are often prejudiced against their mothers. Even parents sometimes reject their daughters. Social networks collapse. Newly released women soon discover that the only stable environment they have is prison. It is difficult for them to survive outside the prison and sometimes there is simply nowhere to go. According to experts, during this period many become severely depressed and some even attempt suicide.

Almost all former prisoners agree that finding and keeping a job is the most difficult problem during their reintegration as most employers are reluctant to take on staff who have a criminal record. The problem is aggravated by the fact that the ex-prisoners who had been incarcerated for serious crimes or who got administrative penalties during their time inside are assigned administrative surveillance which involves restrictions on changing their place of residence. The court determines the territory where the prisoner can live and they can only leave this designated territory if they are granted permission by police officers due to exceptional circumstances. Among the men surveyed, the most successful were those who were able to start a business on their own or with relatives or become self-employed, especially if they had skills that were currently in demand.

The state offers very little social assistance to former prisoners, and they are often unaware that any such opportunity exists as there are very few non-governmental organisations that help recently released prisoners. As a result, getting back on track can be very difficult. According to our respondents, lack of employment opportunities is the reason that the elated joy they feel after getting out is replaced with crisis and depression, which even pushes some ex-prisoners to reoffend.

In the North Caucasus, the relationship between prisoners who have served time for participation in illegal armed groups and law enforcement agencies is particularly important in the post-release period. Our respondents in this category reported being very fearful of being rearrested, tortured, and that a new criminal case would be opened against them. Those who had survived torture during preliminary investigation said that in the first few months after their release, fear for their safety dominated their lives.

A third of the inmates we interviewed said they needed psychological support but none of the men received any. This is partly due to the fact that many men believe that getting help from a psychologist is a sign of weakness, while others say that there are no sufficiently qualified professionals in the region.

None of those sentenced for participation in illegal armed groups were able to say anything about any de-radicalisation work or about getting help with reintegration after release. Moreover, they do not believe that the authorities aim to help them change their views and support their reintegration; rather, they prioritise punishment and control.

Support for resocialisation, deradicalisation and personal growth is the most important task of the modern prison system which, in today’s Russia, has been largely unmet, at least in relation to the North Caucasus Muslims.

Humanising the penitentiary system and reducing the level of serious-crime recidivism in Russia are not possible without creating a professional, safe and fair environment in places of detention, as well as without a meaningful, not simply declared, shift in priorities towards the correction, resocialisation of inmates in prison and their reintegration after release.

In Chapters III and IV, an overview of some of the international approaches and programmes related to resocialisation, maintaining family ties, deradicalisation, and post-release adaptation and reintegration assistance is provided aimed to put the issues analysed in this report in the international context and to familiarise the reader with attempts to embrace them in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

1 The organization has been labelled as terrorist and banned in Russia.

Read the rest of the report here