Content warning: This article discusses torture and sexual assault in prison and includes graphic descriptions.
“They told me to take [their genitals] into my mouth, to suck,” an inmate from one of Russia’s correctional colonies told Novaya Gazeta in a recent interview. “They would say: If you don’t—we’ll burn you and blame [your death] on a heart attack. At night, I mostly cried from emotional rather than physical hurt.”
The anonymous inmate, who was raped by his fellow inmates at the incitement of law enforcement personnel, hasn’t been the only victim of sexual abuse in Russian detention facilities. On October 5, the human rights group Gulagu.net published footage of torture and sexual abuse in multiple Russian prisons. Gulagu.net says it has 40 gigabytes of clips, documents, and pictures of incarcerated individuals being raped and tortured. A former inmate, Vladimir Osechkin, leaked the files after working as an IT specialist and coder on the CCTV networks inside the Federal Penitentiary Service’s Regional Tuberculosis Hospital No. 1. Upon his release, Osechkin smuggled out a USB drive with more than a thousand videos and gave it to Gulagu.net, which started to release clips this month.
Sexual abuse as a means of torturing inmates for information or for the authorities’ sadistic pleasure isn’t just an issue in Russia. Jen Modvig’s World Health Organization’s report on violence, sexual abuse, and torture in prisons estimated that about 20 percent of inmates suffer sexual violence at the hands of other inmates and about 25 percent do so at the hands of the authorities. Modvig’s report relies on the 1996 WHO analysis of violence in correctional facilities. The United States–based Just Detention International, a campaign aiming to bring prisoner-survivors into the #MeToo movement, describes the prevalence of sexual abuse use as torture in detention facilities as a “global human rights crisis.” Many remember that CBS published photographs of abuse inside the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq obtained by a whistleblower in 2004.
The Russian leak is a terrifying case study of the ways sexual torture can be used inside a prison system. The videos show humiliating rituals, inmates being forced to abuse other inmates, and authorities raping the prisoners to make them incriminate themselves or for information. In some cases, the officers rape one inmate to scare others into submission.
One man who was incarcerated described the way he was put in a dress and makeup, forced to go to the women’s restroom and sit on the toilet while peeing, and raped. He wasn’t being asked for anything—just mocked by Russia’s Correctional Colony No. 15 administration for seemingly no reason.
“They undressed me, took me into a bathroom, shaved off my brows and hair,” he told Novaya Gazeta. “They would put me in a dress…. They would force me to shove up my anus rolled up stack of A4 papers wrapped in a plastic bag. It wouldn’t fit. It bled. My head would then start spinning. They would stand there and yell, ‘Go on, bitch, shove it in, faggot, if you can’t—we’ll put a 1.5-liter bottle in there.’ I pushed it all the way in.”
Videos on the Gulagu.net show inmates forced to hold each other’s genitals, masturbate each other, and perform oral sex on other inmates or the authorities. Many were raped and gang-raped by law enforcement until they signed confessions, regardless of their actual involvement in the crime.
The effects of rape in custody are not just physical. According to Christopher J. Einolf, a former legal advocate for survivors, short-term effects of sexual torture include “shock, denial, fear, confusion, anxiety, shame and guilt, and distrust of others.” Long-term effects appear more extensive, ranging from “depression, generalized anxiety” to “suicide, diminished interest in or avoidance of sex, low self-esteem, and self-blame.” In a 1993 research paper, researchers Stuart Turner and Caroline Gorts-Unsworth argue that sexual abuse has a greater psychological impact on an inmate than any other form of torture. They write that it’s the hardest to categorize in medical terms and often leads to questioning the “purpose of existence itself.”
What needs to happen to eliminate sexual torture not just in Russia but everywhere? First, we need to end “regular” torture. Governments often treat prison facilities as de facto lawless zones. Some law enforcement agents explore their sadistic inclinations through tormenting helpless detainees. Others try to fulfill a quota of confessions by beating them out of inmates. Stopping torture in prisons has to be one of the key focuses of our society’s fight for human rights and dignity.
Second, the public needs to know about the abuses and to keep the pressure on politicians and governments. After Gulagu.net released the videos, the government launched an investigation into the horrifying events. Whether the inquiry leads anywhere may depend on how well the international community pays attention.