COLUMN ONE : Jailed but Not Proven Guilty : Nearly a quarter million Russians languish in miserable pretrial prisons. Officials admit the nightmarish conditions are the broadest human rights abuses in post-Soviet era.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the jail known as Sailor's Rest, every detainee looks exhausted.

Every dim cell is a dormitory crammed with bunk beds, each bed shared by up to four men. They sleep fitfully, in shifts, while others must stand. Cigarette smoke and clotheslines full of graying underwear add to the dank, unbearable closeness. The toilet, behind the curtain in the corner and nothing but a hole in the floor, fuels the stench. Only the cockroaches thrive.

"I see everything as through a fog. Most of the time I am not sure whether I am asleep or awake," says Vladimir A. Kopylov, on trial after 4 1/2 years in Sailor's Rest for alleged default on a Soviet bank loan. "We breathe like fish out of water. For lack of oxygen it's sometimes hard to light a match.

"My reserves of endurance are gone," the frail, 47-year-old businessman adds in a courtroom interview. "I cannot imagine I will ever leave this hell."

Kopylov is one of nearly a quarter million people in Russia who are imprisoned but not proven guilty, and their ranks are swelling as overworked police and judges wage a crude, uphill battle against crime. Officials acknowledge that the long wait for trial and the nightmarish conditions behind bars are the most widespread human rights abuses of Russia's post-Soviet era.

Visits to two pretrial prisons, in Moscow and Tula, offered a look at the overcrowding and its effects--spreading disease, shortages of food and medicine, the suffocating stink. Officials in both prisons said they feel powerless to improve things and fear a summer of unrest.

In interviews elsewhere, former inmates and prisoner rights advocates described frequent, if not systematic, beatings by guards. They said many inmates are disciplined by being stripped to their underwear in cold isolation cells, where there is even less food and no bedding.

Physical punishment is also reported in Russia's labor camps, which hold about 650,000 sentenced convicts. Labor is still compulsory, but camp conditions have improved since Soviet times; they are less crowded and more humane than pretrial prisons--so much so that some detainees confess to crimes they didn't commit just to move from hell to purgatory.

Russia's treatment of prisoners is not exceptional on a global scale. It cannot be compared to the terrors of Stalin or the abuses in many countries run by dictators or brutalized by war. Some jurisdictions in the United States and Western Europe also impose harsher conditions on arrested suspects than on convicted criminals.

But Russia has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, and the lot of its prisoners is a volatile, if hidden, indicator of progress from Soviet dictatorship to the rule of law. By its own measure, President Boris N. Yeltsin's government is faltering.

"To be quite frank, the conditions of our pretrial detention centers, by international standards, may be classified as torture," Maj. Gen. Yuri I. Kalinin, the Interior Ministry official who oversees most of Russia's prisons, admitted in an interview. "It is deprivation of sleep, air, space.

"In fact," he added, "there isn't a single detention center in the country with the elementary conditions required by our law."

"Prisons are a cursed thing," Czar Peter the Great said of Russia's 18th-Century forerunners of the Soviet gulag. Today's reformers have let in Russian Orthodox priests to set up chapels and sprinkle holy water. Yeltsin's 1993 constitution proclaims that a person is innocent until proven guilty.

But post-Soviet legal reform has barely touched the country's 164 pretrial prisons. The simplest of cases can drag up to 18 months before trial and a year or more in court. The prosecutor or judge during that time may deny visitation rights to a suspect's lawyer or family.

Few suspects go free before trial. The collapse of the omnipresent Soviet state has made judges reluctant to release prisoners to the custody of an employer or social organization. A bail system exists, but capitalist ownership rights are not entrenched, so the use of private property for bail is limited.

As a result, pretrial prison populations are growing. By law, a cell must have at least three square yards of space for each inmate; by that measure, the limit for all 164 prisons is 165,000 inmates. As of March 1, they held 240,657. Sailor's Rest, with a limit of 3,050, holds about 6,200 inmates, 2,000 more than it did a year ago. The place has 510 officers and guards, and 140 other employees.

"This is not a hotel," said Nikolai S. Barinov, the director of Sailor's Rest, named for the street it once shared with a naval barracks. "We cannot hang out a no-vacancies sign."

It's not a restaurant either. The standard meal is soup with a thick layer of grease. The average food budget for each of Russia's prisoners is 40 cents a day, Kalinin said, but Russia's financial crunch cut it to about 30 cents a day last year. Prisoners at Sailor's Rest have gone four months without sugar.

Part of the crowding problem is that many pretrial prisons were abolished in the late 1950s, after Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev declared that a crimeless, classless society was at hand. About two-thirds of the prisons remaining in Russia were built before 1900. Last year, a wall collapsed at one in Siberia. Kalinin says 20 are so decrepit they must be torn down.

"This was built as a prison in 1751 under Czarina Elizabeth," Col. Yevgeny G. Mityayev informs visitors to his dungeon in Tula, 125 miles south of Moscow. "It hasn't changed much since."

Here, too, the cells are dark and overcrowded, but the strongest impression is the putrid odor--a blend of low-grade tobacco, urine, sweat and the grime of ages. Prisoners get a shower once a week and fresh air one hour a day, in rooftop "exercise" cages just big enough to pace around in. There is one light touch: Mityayev allows pet cats.

As Russia grapples with organized crime, the colonel struggles to guard, feed and care for 2,100 criminal suspects, mostly the disorganized kind. Nikolai N. Nizhelsky, 32, landed here after the drunken January evening when he encountered a stranger and helped him lock a pig in a shed. The pig, it turns out, had been stolen.

"I didn't steal anything. I'm not pleading guilty," Nizhelsky protested. But justice is slow, and he's suffering heartburn and a skin rash he never had before, for which "all they give me is herbs." Asked why Nizhelsky cannot go free on bail, the colonel said with a shrug, "All he owns is a pair of trousers."

If he were to plead guilty, Nizhelsky could move to Tula's labor colony, a short walk and a world away.

There he might serve up to five years, but at least he would get more sunlight through bigger windows and his own bed. He would walk from classroom to lunchroom to factory, assembling electric heaters for a modest wage. He could even try out for the prison rock band. If he behaved, he could go home for periodic 12-day vacations, as 33 prisoners have done this year.

"You don't see that terrible closed door all the time," said Sergei V. Spiridonov, 26, who spent eight months in the Tula dungeon before being sentenced for hooliganism to 3 1/2 years in the labor camp.

All prison officials deny beating inmates. But Alexander A. Dmitrichenko, 16, interviewed in a juvenile labor camp, said he and his cellmates were often clubbed at random by drunken guards in the Tula dungeon until his 1993 conviction for stealing food.

Vil S. Mirzayanov, the dissident chemist who spent 27 days this year in Sailor's Rest, said he watched similar, pointless beatings. Kopylov, the businessman held in the same prison, told of being clubbed for refusing to share a cell with dysentery patients.

Such brutality is rarely prosecuted. But human rights organizations say it is not as prevalent or intimidating as the density, decay and disease in every pretrial prison.

Summer brings scabies, a skin rash spread by parasitic mites. Tuberculosis, incurable in damp cells, infects and kills prisoners at many times the rate in Russia as a whole, says Natalia Vezhnina, a prison doctor in Siberia's Keremovo region.

"Every day I pray for bad weather, because when it's too hot, epidemics and deaths are unavoidable," Col. Gennady N. Oreshkin, then director of Moscow's Butyrskaya pretrial prison, told the Moscow City Council last year.

"When it's raining, water runs down the walls and conducts electric current because the wiring is totally rotten," he said. "The sewage system gets blocked up every day. . . . An ambulance has to be called two or three times a day for heart patients."

There is no relief in sight.

In February, the Parliament voted an amnesty that by autumn will free about 26,000 teen-age, elderly, female, ailing and white-collar criminal suspects. But by then, prison officials estimate, 60,000 new suspects will be behind bars--the flotsam of Russia's rising crime wave.

The overload is a sudden challenge for a criminal justice system in flux, torn between its libertarian constitution and its Soviet instinct to diminish the individual.

Issues familiar in the West are just emerging here: Prison directors fault judges and judges fault police for piling on too many cases. Everyone blames Parliament for not voting enough money to fight crime. Police want more jails. Reformers want swifter trials and easier conditions for pretrial release.

Under enormous political pressure to catch criminals, police often forgo real investigation, beat prisoners into signing Soviet-style confessions, throw them in jail and hope the charges stick, according to judges and other officials. Nikolai K. Baranovsky, chief justice of a Moscow district, said 10% of his defendants claim that their confessions were physically coerced.

Baranovsky has a staff of 12 judges, 47 other employees who work 10 hours a day, two broken computers, some ancient typewriters and a leaky courthouse roof. They cannot keep up with a growing caseload of 150 jailed suspects. One case involving nine accused thieves has been in court since 1991, delayed by periodic measles and scabies quarantines in their cells.

"They want the trials to be over fast, and so do we, but we cannot do anything unless the laws are changed" to streamline trial procedures, the judge said. "But the lawmakers don't seem to worry about this problem."

Since its December election, Parliament has shown concern in two ways but so far has changed nothing. It voted in April to launch a six-month study of pretrial prison conditions, which nobody doubts are horrendous. And it voted down a bill to improve those conditions, on the grounds that the bill didn't do enough to guarantee prisoners' rights. The bill is back in committee.

Perhaps the most promising improvement so far is the gradual opening of the system to outside scrutiny. Kalinin, the national prison chief, cooperates with human rights advocates. Letters from inmates denouncing abuses are read on radio and printed in newspapers, even if they are not acted upon.

But many who ran the Soviet gulag are still on the job--"jailers accustomed to total freedom from control by the outside," says Sergei V. Sirotkin, deputy chairman of Yeltsin's Human Rights Commission.

Alexander Karagodov, an ex-convict who wrote a prison memoir titled "The Right Only to Die," believes that the men who have cracked five of his ribs since his release are Interior Ministry thugs who feel threatened by the book's reformist mission.

"It took seven decades to build this system, and it will take even longer to destroy it, because we will do it not by terror and shooting but by democratic means," says the 35-year-old author, who spent nearly half of his life behind bars for vagrancy, robbery and trying to kill a prison guard.

For now, the immediate problem is keeping all those crowded prisons from exploding. Thousands of inmates in Yekaterinburg and Orenburg have staged hunger strikes in recent months to protest harsh conditions, and Deputy Interior Minister Pyotr G. Mishchenkov warns that "a tiny spark could turn a trivial conflict into an outbreak of rioting."

At Moscow's Butyrskaya prison, Col. Oreshkin once resorted to a desperate method to ease the pressure--one that worked but eventually ended his law enforcement career.

Like other prisons, Butyrskaya buys food on the open market with its cash allocations from the Interior Ministry. With tension rising last summer, the prison ran out of cash, and the suppliers halted food deliveries. While urgently lobbying his superiors for more money, the colonel called in five mafia bosses, all former prisoners, and appealed for help.

"When you were inside, the state was interested in keeping you alive so you could work," he recalls telling them. "Now you see that the state simply doesn't give a damn about those whom it no longer needs. So please, have mercy. They are your people as well as mine."

The next morning a truck pulled up to the prison gate and unloaded 15,000 cans of corned beef and 500 cans of condensed milk, along with wholesale quantities of cheese, soap and cigarettes--enough to supply the 6,000 detainees for five days, free of charge.

Sergei L. Loiko, a reporter in The Times' Moscow Bureau, contributed to this report.

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