MOSCOW -- In February, Irina's son -- who is serving a term in a prison in Novosibirsk Oblast -- fell seriously ill. Despite a persistent cough and a steady fever, he was unable to see a doctor for days. And when he did, the prison pharmacy was empty and the doctor was unable to give him anything.
"I went through a circle of hell to get him some medicine," Irina -- who asked that her real name not be used -- told RFE/RL.
"He became ill on a Friday. He managed to see a doctor on Wednesday, and the doctor gave him a prescription. I took him the medicines, and he got them several days later, but only after I called the doctor to find out what had happened to them."
Now that Russia -- like much of the rest of the world -- is battling against the spread of the coronavirus, activists warn the roughly 875,000 people being held in Russian prisons and pretrial-detention facilities -- and the hundreds of thousands of people who work in them -- could be in particular danger.
"My son says that little has changed at his prison because of the coronavirus," Irina said, adding that a general disinfection was carried out in communal areas, but not in the prisoners' barracks.
Yulia Kirkach, whose husband is serving a sentence in prison in the Komi region, says his situation is practically the same.
"Prisoners were given a packet, including a toothbrush, toothpaste, a small piece of soap, and a small roll of toilet paper," she said. "The soap doesn't last long, and my husband has to buy more at the prison store. The doctor's office works as usual -- long lines and no medicine. No one is measuring the prisoners' temperatures regularly."
Although Russia has significantly reduced the number of prisoners in recent years, many facilities remain overcrowded. Disproportionate numbers of prisoners suffer from chronic illnesses, including tuberculosis, hepatitis, and HIV infection. They sleep in open barracks and eat together in large dining halls. A prison with 1,000-1,500 prisoners generally has a single doctor overseeing a ward with about 20 beds, said activist Leonid Agafonov, initiator of the Women In Prison project.
"How might the virus spread in pretrial-detention facilities and prisons," speculates epidemiologist Anna Klimenko, who works with the Charitable Fund for Prisoners and their Families. "We can only guess it could be 0 percent or 100 percent. If there are no cases, there are no cases. But if there is an outbreak, everyone will get it."
"One major problem is that all the prisoners go to the dining hall at about the same time to eat," he told RFE/RL. "Any infection that gets in there will run through the entire prison."
As of April 16, Russia had officially registered 27,938 cases of coronavirus infection nationally and 232 fatalities.
On March 31, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin ordered the government to immediately provide the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) with coronavirus tests, necessary medical equipment, and personal protective equipment (PPE).
On April 3, the FSIN reported that it had organized "constant monitoring and control" over the epidemiological situation in Russia's prisons. In addition, prison authorities said all prisons had stockpiled the medicines recommended for the treatment of coronavirus infections, as well as all needed disinfectants, thermometers, and PPE.
A few days later, the agency reported that a "sanitary day" had been held at all prisons.
But on April 1, activists relayed unconfirmed reports that an undetermined number of prisoners at Moscow's Matrosskaya Tishina remand prison were suffering from "high fevers and symptoms like pneumonia."
Activist Klimenko told RFE/RL that the situation there is "similar to a catastrophe," although officials have not reported anything and independent monitors have not been able to investigate.
On April 5, activists published a report from the IK-5 prison in Ryazan Oblast. Former Ryazan Mayor Valery Ryumin, who is serving a seven-year term on a bribery conviction, said a prison official with the surname Barinov returned from a vacation in Thailand on March 15 and worked at the prison from March 17 to March 30, before he tested positive for the coronavirus.
"He was twice on 24-hour shifts, during which he was responsible for everything," Ryumin claimed. "During those shifts, he inspected every facility at the prison, including the dining room, the kitchen, the library, and the barracks.... He is now in an infectious-disease hospital in Ryazan and his wife and children are quarantined at home."
Ryumin reported that he and former Kirov Oblast Governor Nikita Belykh, who is also serving time at the prison, were tested for the coronavirus on April 3, but their results were unknown. He reported that 16 prisoners had been hospitalized with "flu-like symptoms." On April 4, at least one seriously ill prisoner was moved to the nearby IK-2 prison.
"In Ryazan, they moved sick prisoners from IK-5 to IK-2," Klimenko said. "We've been told the guards who transported them simply disappeared afterward. Of course, this needs to be verified, but the general picture is alarming. The situation is made worse by the fact that many prisons have simply gone silent -- letters from them don't come regularly and phone calls are rare."
Epidemic 'Practically Inevitable'
Shortly after Ryumin's statement was made public, prison officials in Ryazan issued a statement acknowledging that one prison worker had tested positive for the virus.
Earlier this month, the Moscow Helsinki Group launched an online petition calling for a quick and broad amnesty because a COVID-19 epidemic in the country's prisons is "practically inevitable."
"This is a major risk group," Institute of Human Rights Director Valentin Gefter told the BBC. "And we need to think about how we can reduce this risk -- most importantly, in pretrial-detention facilities."
Many countries around the world -- including the United Kingdom, Iran, India, Germany, and Canada -- have announced amnesties or have released defendants awaiting trial on bail as part of their coronavirus responses.
But Russian prison officials remain tight-lipped about the COVID-19 situation in the prisons and have prevented independent monitors from reviewing the situation.
"We get most of our information from relatives, lawyers, and, surprisingly, sometimes from anonymous reports we believe are from prison workers," Klimenko said. "Most likely they too are nervous about the situation."
"Of course prison officials say they are taking everyone's temperature," Agafonov added. "But what is really going on in the prisons -- God only knows."