Sunbeds coming to notorious Moscow prison

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Inmates at an infamous Moscow prison where a lawyer died one year ago in a case that sparked global anger are to receive comforts including sunbeds to improve conditions, officials said Wednesday.

The chief spokesman for Moscow prisons said the improvements at Butyrka prison also included Internet telephony and access to better medical services and drugs.

Sergei Tsygankov told AFP that the sunbeds would be made available only with the prior approval of the prison warden while the telephones would be provided for convicts and not anyone still under investigation at the jail.

"This is all normal practice," said Tsygankov.

But the information was received with a heavy dose of scepticism by the Russian media and penal system experts. "Is Butyrka turning into a sanatorium?" the mass-circulated Komsomolskaya Pravda daily asked in a headline.

"Butyrka's inmates will now be able to brag about their suntans on Skype," the Business FM website said in reference to the Internet telephony system.

The improvements were initiated after the death last year in Butyrka of Sergei Magnitsky -- attorney for the Yukos oil giant founded by the jailed former billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky whose assets were seized by the state.

The 37-year-old's death on November 16 from untreated illnesses prompted a furious reaction from Western capitals and a new drive by President Dmitry Medvedev to institute long-overdue prison reforms.

"A sunbed is not a priority need. This looks like some kind of joke," said New Times weekly penal system correspondent Zoya Svetova. "The first thing they need to do is switch on the hot water."

Svetova noted that the ancient prison was actually hooked up to hot water. But prison officials simply refuse to switch it on.

"They explain that there are 20 inmates to a cell -- there used to be more -- and that if everyone started using the hot water, the place would get flooded and the place would collapse."

She noted that Butyrka also had awful medical conditions and that any improvements along those lines would be made on a for-pay basis.

Svetova said she had spoken to one of the prison's inmates about the proposed changes and that he was furious. News about the sunbeds and Skype first reached the inmates on Tuesday evening.

"He told me that what they should instead be doing is letting people use the baths more than once a week," Svetova said.

The prison currently has a strict showers policy in which inmates are allowed to use the baths on one specific day a week.

"They have to wait until the second week if they had a court date on washing day,"said Svetova.

She said that inmates also complained of stifling heat in the summer and unbearable cold in the winter months -- conditions that have not changed at the building since it was erected in 1879.

Butyrka has always carried frightening connotations in Russia. It has been home to political opponents since the Tsarist era. More recently it included Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky -- who later became a top Israeli politician -- and independent NTV television founder Vladimir Gusinsky.

The death of Magnistky sparked condemnation across the world and group of US lawmakers even suggested imposing travel restrictions on officials linked to the incident.

Medvedev for his part conceded in an interview for the last New Year that "our system of the execution of punishment has not changed for decades" and that it was time to institute "order."

© 2010 AFP

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