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Window on Eurasia — New Series: TB Epidemic of 1990s Suggests Coronavirus Hitting Russian Prisons Harder than Moscow Admits, Pallot Says

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Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 14 – Many expected that prisons would be hotspots for the spread of the coronavirus in Russia just as they were for tuberculosis in the 1990s, but the Russian penal authorities insist that the rates of infection have been low and that it is the jailors rather than prisoners and the general population that is at risk, Judith Pallot says.

            A leader of the GULAG ECHOES project at the University of Helsinki, she says that there are differences between tuberculosis and the coronavirus and between the Russian penal system in the 1990s and the same system now (

            But she says that even allowing for that, the experience of Russian prisons in the 1990s during which in some places as many as seven percent of prisoners were infected suggests that the figure for coronavirus now is far higher than the FSIN has released and should be a cause for concern.

            An additional reason to suspect that is this: “the FSIN has been even more than usually secretive” about prisoners’ health since the pandemic struck. The prison medical system is better than in the 1990s although it still suffers from many problems, and the prison population has been halved allowing additional space for their housing.

            But “prisoners in Russia are still accommodated in dormitories and multiple-occupation cells and transported long distances in enclosed railway carriages and prison vans that place them in close contact with an ever-changing population of other prisoners from all over the country,” Pallot says.

            Moreover, she continues, “The pre-existing health of the incarcerated population leaves them vulnerable to infectious diseases. The underlying health risk factors of prisoners to COVID-19 are not just Tuberculosis and HIV-AIDS, but also the widespread occurrence of pulmonary disease.”

Window on Eurasia — New Series