Yulia Ilchenko hasn’t seen her imprisoned husband since March, when Kazakhstan locked down its 82 penitentiaries as part of nationwide measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
Her husband is in a prison in the southern city of Taraz at which several inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 in recent months.
Ilchenko fears he could also be infected as he shares an overcrowded cell with some two dozen others.
“The prisoners don’t get masks [and] no sanitary cleaning is carried out,” Ilchenko says. “There are up to 25 inmates sharing one cell.”
Prison officials have suspended family and other visits since the pandemic began, and only allow occasional phone calls.
According to several inmates’ relatives who spoke to RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service, some prisons no longer allow prisoners to exercise or walk outside every day.
The measures have effectively left Kazakhstan’s estimated 30,000 inmates confined to their cells.
Partial or full prison lockdowns have become a new reality in many countries in the era of COVID-19.
But in Kazakhstan, activists say that many penal institutions didn’t meet international standards — in terms of living conditions and upholding prisoners’ rights — even before the pandemic and certainly fall far below acceptable levels now.
Rights activist Yelena Semyonova has criticized the prison conditions in Kazakhstan.
They add that the lockdown measures further violate the inmates’ rights and put their physical and mental health at risk.
There are ongoing calls by human rights advocates for Kazakhstan to offer a special amnesty to prisoners and detainees because of the high risk of coronavirus infections in prisons.
Lawyer Abzal Kuspan was among the first to call on President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev to grant an early release to the most vulnerable groups of prisoners — such as the elderly, women, and teenagers — as well as those convicted of minor offenses.
“Also, the detainees who haven’t yet been found guilty of any crimes could be transferred from pretrial detention facilities to house arrest during the pandemic,” he suggested.
But the Prosecutor-General’s Office has rejected all of the appeals.
Kazakh officials have refused to say how many coronavirus infections have been discovered among the country’s prison population.
As of September 14, there have been more than 106,000 coronavirus infections officially reported in Kazakhstan and some 1,634 deaths.
But several investigative reports by media organizations suggest that both numbers are grossly underreported.
Old Cells With No Sunlight, Fresh Air
Kuspan, who has worked as a defense lawyer for a decade, says most Kazakh prisons don’t meet the standards set by international organizations.
The cells are old and cramped, he said, and a living space designed for four inmates is often occupied by eight people.
He adds that no fresh air or sunlight reaches the cells and inmates often have to eat their meals near the toilets inside their cells in what the lawyer said is a degrading and unhygienic situation for so many prisoners in Kazakhstan.
Kuspan said previously in April that prisons could become a hotbed for infectious diseases such as the coronavirus.
Some families of some inmates say they even send clean bedsheets to their incarcerated relatives because they don’t get them in prison.
Albina Kishtai, a resident of Taraz, says she sends face masks, sanitizers, medication, and foodstuffs to a family member who is serving a prison term.
Confirming an account repeated by many relatives and lawyers, Kishtai said her relative is being held in an overcrowded cell.
Kazakh officials insist all measures are in place in prisons and detention facilities to protect the staff and the inmates from the coronavirus.
They say doctors routinely check anyone newly admitted to a detention center before they are sent to jails and prisons.
Lawyer Abzal Kuspan (left) says most Kazakh prisons don’t meet the standards set by international organizations.
Anyone who shows any COVID-19 symptoms is placed under a quarantine, officials say. Those who get sick will be transferred to hospitals.
“Our facilities have coronavirus test kits. We’ve installed sanitizers. Our staff also undergo tests,” said Zhandos Murataliev, the head of Almaty city police administration.
But some defense lawyers tell a different story about how their clients have got infected in pretrial detention facilities.
In the capital, Nur-Sultan, Asel Toqaeva says that one of her clients developed COVID-19 symptoms on June 19, a month after he was detained.
It took the authorities four days to allow the detainee to take a test and another 20 days to give him the results. The detainee tested positive for COVID-19 but wasn’t taken to a hospital, she says.
Instead he was “treated” in the jail with medication provided by his family.
In Almaty, lawyer Aset Berdaly says that one of his clients recently tested positive for COVID-19 while in pretrial custody.
The detainee was transferred to an infectious disease hospital but the following day was brought back to jail with medication paid for by his family.
“They didn’t even isolate him in the jail. He was placed back in a common cell, with at least four other detainees,” Berdaly says.
The lawyer appealed to a court to release his client on bail so he could get proper treatment for COVID-19. But the court rejected his request.
During the pandemic lockdown, detainees aren’t allowed to meet with their defense lawyers in person. Instead their meetings take place via video links.
Lawyers and right advocates fear that under such circumstances authorities can easily record or monitor confidential conversations between lawyers and clients.
Activists also criticize the ban on family visits in which there is not any physical contact.
Before the pandemic, such visits often occurred with a glass partition between the prisoner and the visitor.
Activists say family visits should be reinstated because there is no physical contact between the parties.
Some critics say Kazakh authorities have banned the visits because they don’t want the outside world to know how inmates are being treated during the pandemic.
Kazakh prison officials are not handling the criticism very well.
Activist Yelena Semyonova has even been sued by several prison administrations for her public criticism of the conditions, authorities’ mishandling of the situation during the pandemic, and what she described as the mistreatment of prisoners.
It remains unknown when the pandemic-related restrictions will be entirely lifted in Kazakh prisons.
Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service