By Xenia Dennen, Keston News Service

The situation in Russian prisons is getting worse, a missionary in Moscow told Keston on 2 December. STEVE REUTER, president of the Moscow mission 'Liberty through Jesus', said that he was particularly concerned about the spread of tuberculosis, which according to a Russian assistant director of prisons has reached epidemic proportions.

The Protestant missionary's concerns were echoed by FR GEORGI EDELSHTEIN of the Russian Orthodox Church's Diocese of Kostroma, about 200 miles north-east of Moscow, who told Keston in a 7 December telephone conversation that he met prisoners with tuberculosis every day. 'There is indeed a tuberculosis epidemic, I would say a serious one', he said. He regularly visits a strict-regime penal colony in the Kostroma region, and there he has met many inmates afflicted with this disease.

Pastor Reuter gave Keston excerpts from a letter from the Russian prison official, whose identity he withheld. The letter states: 'The disease of tuberculosis is out of control, and constantly growing in prisons. In 1995 tuberculosis grew by 38%, in 1996 by 31%, in 1997 by 13% and in the first six months of the current year by another 29%. The occurrence of tuberculosis in prisons is five times higher than the norm in Russia.' There are no resources to fund medical treatment, claims the writer, and in his region 2,500 prisoners have tuberculosis. 'Actual analysis shows that in our region, 17% of prisoners have tuberculosis. In other words, one in every six.' Pastor Reuter is now appealing to the west for help.

On 9 December Fr Georgi came to Moscow to try to get medical supplies and met a Keston representative there. He listed the following prisons in his region: a sledstvenny izolyator (sizo) or isolation prison, a youth reformatory (ispravitelno-trudovaya kolonyia) and a strict-regime camp, all in Kostroma city; a women's prison in the village of Pribezhny; and finally an ordinary-regime prison camp in the village of Ponazerovo. According to ALEKSANDR KHOMYAKOV, a prisoner with tuberculosis in the strict-regime camp hospital, whom Fr Georgi saw on 8 December, 100 inmates have the illness. Most have tuberculosis of the lungs but some have other types. They are released from the prison just before they die so that the prison's statistics can look presentable, i.e. without a long list of deaths. Now two prisoners have arrived, said Khomyakov, who have both tuberculosis and AIDS and are being kept in a separate wing.

Fr Georgi described how he and some of his parishioners had been visiting the youth reformatory where 400 boys between 14 and 18 years old were being held. Many of these had no parents, he said, or had parents whom the courts have deprived of their parental rights, and thus were never visited at Christmas or Easter. Fr Georgi takes clothes in and makes sure they are actually received by the orphans rather than stolen by staff or other inmates. Last Easter, after encouraging his parishioners to decorate hundreds of eggs as is the custom in Russia, he took them in two enormous baskets and distributed them to the boys.

About five miles from Kostroma is a so-called sanatorium for tuberculosis cases containing 'not less than 100' desperately sick men, released from prison because their condition is considered hopeless, Fr Georgi said. The buildings housing the patients are in an appalling state. One of the doctors from this hospital came to the priest recently 'and begged me to help because he had no medicines, no food' for these men. 'The situation there is terrible, and the West meanwhile is sending humanitarian aid to the Communists which will help them gain votes,' said Fr Georgi.

Pastor Reuter's 'Liberty through Jesus' mission publishes a newspaper which uses prison slang and is called 'our newspaper' by many prisoners, the pastor told Keston. The mission also distributes religious literature and has organised a correspondence course for prisoners. By now 200 groups of converts are meeting regularly in prison. The mission is part of the Association of Independent Churches which became the first group, as well as the largest, to join SERGEI RYAKHOVSKY's Russian Union of Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians, which was registered in March.

On 10 December, Keston spoke by telephone to MIKHAIL PERIN, head of the medical department of the Main Administration for Prisons - who refused to acknowledge that there was a tuberculosis epidemic and would give not figures or any other information on the subject. (END)