Prison Overcrowding Violates Human Rights in Russia

The issue of prison overcrowding plagues many of the countries where crime is rampant and justice is swift. The United States is forced to accommodate prisoners as a result of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders and other strict sentencing guidelines for criminals, which accumulate millions of prisoners throughout the country. However, have the conditions and overcrowding ever become so onerous that it warrants a possible human rights violation? In Russia, Mr. Aleksandr Anatoyevich Dmitriyev believed so and used his case to bring some attention to the issue.

After his conviction, Mr. Dimtriyev was brought to Tomsk prison, a remand prison, which was a temporary holding facility for prisoners who had case hearings to attend and their main facility was too far for travel. While his intermittent stays were only temporary, totaling to about 2 years and 3 months, his stays was by no means comfortable with a 14 square meter transit cell equipped for 4 three tier beds and a population that varied from 9 to 12 inmates. The cell had only one window and each prisoner was only allowed about an hour of free time outside, behind immense walls preventing their escape. His complaint to the regional prosecutor was duly noted and the regional prosecutor acknowledged that the prison was overcrowded. This led to a civil suit against Russia for violations of Article 3 of European Convention on Human Rights, for subjecting an individual to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment and article 6, which entitles everyone to a right to a fair and public hearing by tribunal.

Much of the case was dismissed on procedural grounds, such as failing to adhere to the six month statute of limitations given to prisoners to bring causes of action, but the article 3 violations were upheld and Mr. Dimitriyev was eventually awarded damages in the amount of EUR 5,000. The court noted that such extreme overcrowding is sufficient in of itself to establish an article 3 Convention violation and that the merits of the claim do not really have to be examined. The court held that the prison conditions constituted inhuman and degrading conditions and warranted relief. Prisoners are subject to a lot of problems while in the prison system. While they need to be held accountable for their actions and it is their own fault for being put into their situation, they are still entitled to basic human rights. Overcrowded prisons can cause issues with sleep, comfortable accommodations and the peace of mind needed to carry out their sentence with as little problems as possible.

While Mr. Dimitriyev only stayed in the Tomsk prison for short periods of time, the overcrowding could have exacerbated his issues with the prison and caused more problems than solved. Equally important is the remedy, which does not adequately address the bigger issue of prison overcrowding. While Mr. Dimitriyev did receive compensation for the article 3 Convention violation, overcrowding in Russia, specifically the Tomsk prison, is and has not been solved.

How should countries handle prison overcrowding? Should countries take more proactive stances on providing adequate facilities for their inmates? Are their laws in effect that make overcrowding worse? Are more prisons necessary to defeat this issue?

Source:  HUDOC

Picture: Huffington Post


  1. I think each country has to “triage” its criminals, in effect, in order to compensate for overcrowding in prisons. It is necessary to keep the most violent and serious offenders in prison, while perhaps sentencing, the lesser violent offenders to house arrest, or other alternative programs, such as, probation, parole, or substance abuse programs. Not every criminal can be sentenced to jail for minimal violations or non-violent crimes.

    I think another remedy for courts to consider is the availability and amount of bail. Again it is certainly necessary to keep the worse violent offenders in jail; however, it would free up space in the prisons if the non-violent offenders, or offenders without priors, who are not flight risks were able to make bail. This would require bail to be set at a reasonable amount.

    Lastly, the most obvious solution would be to build more jails. I believe that this is a very expensive solution, especially for taxpayers in the area that it would be built. It would probably be best and most reasonable if courts tried to rectify the situation with sentencing and bail, before constructing brand new jails.

  2. Overcrowding and inhumane prison conditions are a worldwide problem. There exists a stigma against prisoners that they are less human than the rest of the law-abiding citizens, which can lead to their mistreatment. I firmly agree with Mr. Pedraza that while Mr. Dimtriyev was awarded monetary relief, there should have been some sort of injunctive order to improve prison conditions. All the case does is open the doors to further lawsuits from individual former inmates instead of tackling the root of the problem.

    While prisoners do need to be punished and do their time in prisons, overcrowding may result from harsh sentences on minor offenses, such as certain drug crimes. More productive mechanisms should be used such as Judicial Diversion Courts, also known as Drug Courts, where drug offenses can be offset by a probationary-like procedure that deals with the individuals’ problems instead of throwing them in jail.

    One country that has dealt with prison overcrowding in a productive manner is Brazil. Their efforts are highlighted in a previous PILR Blog post tilted: “Brazil’s Prisoner Incentive Program” and discusses the prison system’s implementation of a plan that reduces prison sentences based on participation on career and literacy projects.

  3. It’s not surprising that prison overcrowding is a worldwide epidemic. In democratic countries the reality of the matter is that fighting for prisoners rights does not win a lot of votes for politicians. That is not to say that the average citizen does not “care” about the matter, but just that it’s not a high priority. Certainly, it’s not as high of a priority as the “noble” issues of funding education, healthcare, etc. It is easy to see how prisons, strapped for funding, can quickly fall into a state of disrepair with rampant overcrowding. I don’t think the blanket answer of “criminalize less” is an adequate response here. The legality of an action should not be contingent upon how inconvenient it would be to punish the wrongdoer. That is not to say that I think every law on the books right now is a good one, but in my opinion we should not rewrite our laws based on the state of our prisons. If an action is wrong, it should be punishable. Lawmakers who control the pursestrings are just going to have to step up and make the unpopular decision to fund prisons appropriately. In the Unite States, some prisons have even gone private. Time will tell how well that works.

  4. The last thing on most people’s minds or the government’s to do list is to make prison more confortable. Citizens are upset that their tax money goes to housing, feeding and educating criminals as it is. Prisoner’s rights are minimal in the United States and around the world. But I believe that more prisons are necessary to overcome the overcrowding problem because shortening sentences to even minor offences will negatively affect the deterrence of crime.

    The 14 square meter transit cell in this case equipped for four three-tier beds and a population of nine to twelve inmates within it is inhumane. I am not surprised that the prisoner won in his civil suit against Russia for violations of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Prisons in every country should be better equipped to house these inmates properly so as to not impede on their human rights in the process.

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