TYUMEN, Russia — On February 14, Igor Sovchuk, a prisoner at prison IK-6 in the city of Tyumen, Siberia, complained repeatedly of a headache. After being told repeatedly to shut up, the guards finally agreed to take him to the medical unit. He was given an injection and sent back to his cell.
Almost immediately, he began to feel ill. His speech was slurred, and he began drooling uncontrollably. His movements became awkward and uncoordinated. The next morning, he filed an official request to see his wife. The prison administration began taking steps to prevent such a meeting. Prison doctors admitted Sovchuk to the medical ward and gave him another injection, after which he had difficulty breathing and was unable to get out of his bunk.
A prison employee, alarmed about the case, notified human rights activist Vladimir Osechkin, who runs the prisoners’ rights portal Gulagu.net.
Osechkin, as he often does in such cases, filed a complaint with the Tyumen prosecutor’s office and the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN). Osechkin alleged that Sovchuk had been dosed with haloperidol, a powerful, psychotropic drug used to treat delirium, acute psychosis, hallucinations, schizophrenia, and other serious conditions.
Sovchuk’s case, activists say, is far from uncommon. “It is no secret that [prison officials] use psychotropic drugs to pacify malcontents,” Irina Zaitseva, an expert with the nongovernmental organization For Prisoner Rights, told RFE/RL. “Any person in this country can be shut away, declared incompetent, and simply destroyed. I have heard of many such cases.”
The difference in Sovchuk’s case, however, is that local prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation into his allegations, which activists say is practically a unique instance in modern Russian history.
The Tyumen Oblast prosecutor’s office and IK-6 prison officials declined to comment for this story.
Osechkin says, however, that the prison authorities are not taking the matter lying down.
After prosecutors opened their probe, Sovchuk was allegedly summoned to the office of a prison administrator named Konstantin Dolgykh, who threatened the prisoner with solitary confinement and other retribution if he did not withdraw his complaints.
Dolgykh allegedly warned that Sovchuk might find himself involved in physical confrontations with other prisoners or lose the right to visits from his wife and three children.
“Seventy to 80 percent of prisoners who make such complaints withdraw them for one reason or another,” Osechkin told RFE/RL, even when the convicts file their complaints after they get out of prison.
“They are afraid that some drugs will be planted on them and they will be sent back to prison,” he explained. “The fact is that the police and the penitentiary service are intertwined and if a convict lives in the region where he served his time, he will receive warnings.”
The former Soviet Union was reviled by the international community for its use of punitive psychiatric “treatment” against dissidents, whose anti-Soviet views were regarded as prima facie evidence of mental disorder.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, activists say, prison officials continued to use prison psych wards as convenient places to keep unruly prisoners out of sight during punishment.
“It is very difficult for human-rights advocates and even for officials from the Investigative Committee to get inside these facilities,” Osechkin said. “If an investigator wants to gather information, he must file a request with the security department of the FSIN. All the prisons have video cameras and if some investigators or prosecutors are passing through the control checks, the right people get informed immediately. They can order that a particular cell be cleaned up quickly and that a particular prisoner be taken away.”
He describes the prison medical system as “a black hole in which personalities disappear — losing their reason and the ability to think.”
Under the one-term presidency of Dmitry Medvedev, some effort was made to improve the situation. Prison medical personnel were placed under the direction of the medical department of the FSIN, instead of answering to local prison administrations. However, over the last few years, this reform — like almost all of Medvedev’s innovations — has been quietly undone.
In 2017, an audio recording came to light in which the head of a prison medical facility in Krasnoyarsk named Vladimir Elyart was heard cursing and berating his subordinates at a department meeting.
Among other things, he is heard to remark that he is fully aware that the common practice of listing “heart failure” as a cause of death was just a way of covering up that a prisoner had been beaten or tortured to death. Elyart was also heard ordering doctors not to diagnose — or treat — any new patients with tuberculosis, because prison officials had ordered that the number of TB cases be reduced.
Although the Elyart case did not involve psychiatric “treatment,” the tape was clear evidence of the nefarious connection between prison management and medical personnel. Elyart was fired because of the scandal, but the FSIN did not acknowledge a systemic problem.
Activist Zaitseva says the problem is further complicated because many of the doctors working in prisons “have lost their licenses or have forged qualifications.”
Osechkin recalls a scandalous case from Moscow’s Butyrka Prison in 2012.
“They have a special building there that is called the ‘cat house’ because the prisoners there are literally clawing up the walls,” he said. “Staff members there told us that guards brought in ‘inconvenient’ or complaining prisoners and ordered doctors to fake their documents. Our independent investigation found that the doctors are often under the complete control of the guards. Prisoners are subjected to legalized torture because the doctors write down that the prisoner needed a certain medication.”
Because of the scandal, Butyrka got a new director and the number of complaints about the goings-on in the “cat house” declined.
“This isn’t because of some sort of humanitarian improvements,” Osechkin said, “but because they didn’t want any more attention.”
“Now they use hospitals in other regions for intimidating and breaking prisoners,” he said.
‘Turned Into A Plant’
Natalya Dochinets has been trying to get her son, Artyom, released from involuntary psychological confinement for four years. In 2015, Artyom — a student at a local theological institute — got into a fight with a teenager who was drinking beer in the children’s playground outside his building. The teenager’s little finger was broken and police opened a criminal case against Artyom on charge of “intentionally inflicting grievous bodily harm.”
Dochinets said her son had a “nervous breakdown” when pressured by police.
“I was afraid for my son and took him myself to the psychiatric hospital in Omsk,” she told RFE/RL. “He hasn’t been out because a court ordered him involuntarily confined.
She says her son has been beaten and overmedicated during his confinement.
“When I visited him for the first time, I couldn’t recognize him,” she said. “This young man who had been an athlete could hardly move. His head was shaking. I have no idea what they were injecting him with.”
“Now Artyom no longer wants to live and has begun refusing to eat,” she added.
Aleksandr Byelov is a former prisoner at OIK-36 in Krasnoyarsk. He was released in 2017 and has been suing the regional branch of the FSIN for using punitive psychiatric “treatment” and for refusing to provide necessary medical care. He said that he had tuberculosis while in prison and that non-tubercular prisoners were often forced to share a cell with him as a way of intimidating them.
“These practices continue to this day,” he told RFE/RL.
Byelov says his treatment in the tuberculosis ward was so inadequate that he signed a document agreeing to be transferred to the psychiatric ward.
“By the beginning of the new year, I had been turned into a plant,” he said. “I could not raise my arms and food was falling out of my mouth. I remained in that condition until the end of my term in February 2018.”
“I was released from the prison at 6 a.m. and had to make my way home by foot,” he added. “For two months, my mother had to feed me from a spoon and bathe me. I had to take medication to stop my tremors.”
Byelov says he didn’t file a criminal complaint because in Russia “a prisoner is a nobody.”
Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL Siberia Desk correspondent Ksenia Smolyakova.