Russia: human rights activists have spent 30 years fighting for better privacy and cleaner facilities, but ‘holes in the floor’ persist

In recent weeks, the Russian authorities arrested thousands of demonstrators at protests across the country, sentencing hundreds to several days or weeks in jail. For many of these people, behind bars for the first time in their lives, state custody was a uniquely upsetting experience — particularly the “hole-in-the-floor” squat toilets located in plain sight of all the other cellmates. Meduza special correspondent Maxim Solopov looks at Russian jails’ failure to keep pace with modern comfort and privacy when it comes to pooping and peeing.

“A hole in the floor instead of a toilet, surrounded by a waist-high wall and dead-center under a surveillance camera.” That’s how one woman jailed in Sakharovo, outside Moscow, described the facilities in her cell. Another detainee, 23-year-old Emin Kerimov, told the news outlet Mediazona that going to the bathroom in his jail cell was a public spectacle.

The jail-cell toilet also shocked Sergey Ukhov, the regional coordinator for Navalny’s campaign office in Perm: “It wasn’t a hole, but a steel bowl cemented into the floor, separated from the rest of the room only by a short partition 1.5 meters [five feet] high — not nearly high enough to conceal me. To go to the bathroom, you go up three steps onto a pedestal where you are visible from the waist up. That’s the most humiliating thing [about being in jail]: having to go to the bathroom right in front of everyone. There’s also the dreadful stench.”

Ukhov also described some of the time-tested tricks prisoners utilize to reclaim an ounce of humanity in these conditions: “To block the odor, there’s a string tied to an old half-liter cup of sour cream that they’ve filled with something heavy. It’s all wrapped up in a plastic bag. Every time you go to the bathroom, you’re supposed to pull the cord and remove the ‘plug’ and then stick it back in, when you’re done. These ‘plugs’ have been hanging there for years and years — they’re completely black.”

The squat toilet – sometimes called a “Genoa bowl” — has endured in Russian detention centers because of its durability against vandalism, says Andrey Babushkin, the honorary chairman of Moscow’s Public Monitoring Commission, a watchdog group that oversees the treatment of prisoners. “It’s practically impossible to break a Genoa bowl,” says Babushkin, “but it’s relatively easy to break a toilet. Vandal-proof toilets first appeared only 30 years ago. No such thing existed 100 years ago. If you install a normal toilet in a prison, there will be nothing left of it within a month.”

Babushkin says the Russian authorities also prefer squat toilets because they encourage inmates and detainees to be more efficient when relieving themselves. When the prison system had one latrine for every 25 people, “the time required for defecation played a major role in providing toilet access,” says Babushkin, adding that today’s standard of one latrine per 15 inmates wasn’t adopted until 1985.

In an audit conducted in November 2018, the Samara district attorney’s office discovered that 10 of 14 prison wings in the area failed to comply with the Justice Ministry’s toilet protocols, in some places offering as little as one toilet for every 100 or more inmates. The investigation went to trial and a court ruled in February 2019 that the Federal Penitentiary Service’s sanitary guidelines allow for either standard toilets or “Genoa bowls” in jail cells.

Last year, a court outside Yekaterinburg awarded 25,000 rubles ($340) to a prisoner named Dmitry Matsiletsky for the conditions he endured in detention, where he and his 170 fellow inmates had access to just two squat toilets and two modern toilets. In his lawsuit, prosecutors painted a grim picture of the jail cells’ bathrooms: “In addition, the bathrooms had no privacy. The toilets and genoa bowls were separated with a one-meter-high partition. There was no running water in the toilet, creating a blockage of sewage. On September 22, 2017, Matsiletskiy was late for morning exercises while waiting in line for the toilet. As punishment for being late, he was put in solitary confinement for 15 days.” Human rights activists have been campaigning since the early 1990s to replace the squat toilets at Russian detention centers with modern facilities. “Here in my hand are the collective recommendations of our 1995 roundtable meeting on prisoners’ rights, made a quarter-century ago,” Babushkin told Meduza. “I remember recommending the replacement of Genoa bowls back in 1991 when I was chairman of the Mossovet [Prisoners’ Rights Commission].” He says lobbying by activists has pressured remand centers in Moscow to install modern toilets in most holding cells, but police departments and temporary detention facilities still lag behind.

The reason for this is simple, says Babushkin:“If someone at a remand center kicks or shakes a toilet, their cellmates would easily know exactly who’s to blame, and they’d let that person know how angry they were. At police stations, people are held for a maximum of 48 hours, while it’s just two or three days at temporary detention facilities. In these [latter] conditions, it’s hard to figure out who broke what. The system uses the Genoa bowl so it doesn’t have to replace the toilets every month.” But squat toilets don’t accommodate everyone. “If people have broken bones, spinal problems, musculoskeletal injuries, or vestibular-system complications, using a Genoa bowl can cause undue suffering, demand unreasonable agility, or be downright impossible,” argues Babushkin.

In some cases, this has led to court-ordered compensation for prisoners. One inmate in Kaliningrad who injured his leg while trying to escape was later able to sue the state for damages (winning 10,000 rubles — about $135), due to his jail’s failure to offer bathroom facilities for disabled people. A man jailed in Nizhny Novgorod, meanwhile, managed to win 2,000 rubles ($25) for enduring his remand center’s squat toilet, despite a spinal injury that required him to wear a back brace and rely on a cane for mobility.

“The cell was a horrid mess. Cockroaches and rats the size of slippers crawling right out of the [Genoa] toilet. There weren’t enough mattresses for everyone, so we slept on our jackets and padded coats. Our belongings were always damp, so there were lice and bedbugs,” the former prisoner recalled in his lawsuit.

Defecating into a hole in the floor is no picnic, but Russian inmates also complain about the lack of privacy and the putrid stench that accompany squat toilets. Courts across the country have received countless complaints about these conditions, but the authorities rarely respond with any action.