The prosecution wants to send Alexey Navalny to a ‘special regime’ prison colony How do they differ from other kinds of colonies?

What’s going on?

State prosecutors have requested a 20-year prison sentence for politician Alexey Navalny in the “extremism” case against him. Navalny has been charged with seven counts under six articles of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation. Prosecutors want the politician to serve his sentence in a special regime penal colony.

What’s a special regime colony?

“Special regime” colonies are the correctional institutions with the harshest conditions in Russia. According to Article 58, paragraph 1, of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, men serving life sentences and “particularly dangerous repeat offenders” are usually sent to them.

And who are these ‘particularly dangerous repeat offenders’?

Two types of criminals fall into this category:

  • The first are convicts who receive a full sentence for a serious crime, and who have already served two sentences in a penal colony for crimes of similar gravity.
  • The second are people who have committed a particularly serious crime and have been convicted twice before for a serious crime, or at least once for a particularly serious crime.

Is Navalny ‘particularly dangerous’?

Technically, yes, according to Russian law, he is a “particularly dangerous repeat offender” of the second type. A year ago, Navalny was sentenced to nine years in prison for fraud and contempt of court. Earlier, he received a suspended sentence for “embezzling” 55 million rubles (about $578,000, based on the current exchange rate) from the company Yves Rocher Vostok. Both sentences are considered “serious crimes.”

So Navalny is definitely going to a special regime colony?

Not necessarily. According to a former investigator for especially important cases from the Main Investigative Directorate of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation, the court will decide whether Navalny’s actions constitute particularly dangerous recidivism. Depending on the outcome, the judge will determine where Navalny serves his sentence.

Another former investigator who spoke to Meduza noted that those convicted under the “extremism” article are very rarely sent to special regime colonies: according to the statistics of the Judicial Department of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation, there were only five such convicts in the whole of 2022.

However, Navalny’s associates predict the worst — in their opinion, the court, as often seen in political cases, will fully support the prosecution and will not choose more lenient conditions for the politician to serve his sentence.

How often are people sent to special regime colonies?

According to the Judicial Department of the Supreme Court, the number has been increasing over the last three years:

  • 6,488 convicts were sent to such colonies in 2020;
  • 7,054 in 2021;
  • 7,245 in 2022.

And for what crimes?

According to the same Supreme Court data for 2022:

  • crimes against property (theft, mugging, and robbery) made up 52.5% of those cases;
  • crimes against public health (drug trafficking) — 18.3%;
  • crimes against life and health (murder) — 18%;
  • crimes against sexual inviolability and sexual freedom of the individual (rape) — 3.9%;
  • the remaining 7.3% are for violating other articles of the Criminal Code.

What about political prisoners?

The more public figures in political trials before Navalny’s weren’t sent to special regime colonies. According to lawyers from the organization Department One, most well-known political prisoners are in general-regime correctional facilities: for example, Alexey Gorinov, Andrey Pivovarov, Ilya Yashin, and Lilia Chanysheva. Several people have also been sentenced to serve in strict regime colonies, in particular, Vladimir Kara-Murza, Nariman Dzhelyalov, and Alexander Shestun.

What does ‘special regime’ mean? Will it be harsh?

Yes, but specific conditions can differ. There can be ordinary, light, and strict conditions within a special regime colony.

  • Under ordinary conditions, a prisoner lives in a dormitory with other convicts and can spend 7,200 rubles (about $75) a month on shopping in the colony store, and also has two short and two long visits a year. In addition, he has the right to receive three parcels and packages per year, says a former investigator for particularly important cases from the Main Investigative Directorate of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation.
  • Under light conditions, a prisoner also lives in a dormitory and can spend 7,800 rubles (around $82) a month; he is given three visits of both types and is allowed to receive four parcels and packages a year.
  • Under strict conditions, inmates are kept in cell-type facilities. They can only spend 6,600 rubles (around $70) a month, receive one parcel per year, and have two short and one long visits during the year. Walking time is limited to 1.5 hours a day.

Is that it? Or are there further restrictions?

That’s not all. Unfortunately, there are many other restrictions. According to one of the former investigators interviewed by Meduza, convicts in special regime colonies can be deprived of the right to talk to cellmates, additional bars can be installed on cell windows and doors, and walks take place in a closed courtyard with no sunlight. Additionally, prisoners have to move in a bent-over position with handcuffs behind their backs, in a convoy of several guards on the territory of the prison colony.

Do we know what conditions Navalny will be facing?

No, but his associates expect the worst — strict conditions in a special regime colony. Such a decision may be related to the wording of paragraph 5 of Article 124 of the Penal Enforcement Code of the Russian Federation:

Those convicted of premeditated crimes committed during the period of their imprisonment shall also be placed in strict conditions upon arrival in a special regime penal colony.

As Navalny’s associate Ivan Zhdanov explained, the “extremist” case contains episodes that relate to Navalny’s time in prison, meaning he’s very likely to be placed under strict conditions “for having led an ‘extremist’ community while serving his sentence.”

Does Russia have many special regime colonies? Where could he be sent?

According to a former investigator interviewed by Meduza, there are at least 30 special-regime colonies in different regions of the Russian Federation. The most famous of them are:

  • the Mordovian colony (“Yedinichka”);
  • Black Dolphin in Sol-Iletsk, Orenburg region;
  • Polar Owl in the settlement of Kharp above the Arctic Circle;
  • The White Swan in Solikamsk;
  • Vologda Pyatak in the Belozersk District of the Vologda region;
  • Torbeyevo Central in Mordovia, where convicts usually serve before being sent to their final place of incarceration.

Is there any way to relax the conditions and achieve a transfer to a strict regime colony?

Technically, this possibility exists. You can ask the court for this after serving half your sentence (Article 78 of the Penal Enforcement Code of the Russian Federation). A former investigator who spoke with Meduza, says that, in practice, a prisoner may only get a positive decision in such a situation if the colony administration approves it. If the federal correctional officers have a positive view of him, the court is more likely to grant the convict’s request.

Navalny can hardly count on the administration’s leniency: correctional officers have regularly imposed penalties on him during his imprisonment, usually by sending him to a punitive isolation cell.