What is a Life Worth?

What is a Life Worth?

What is a life worth? Precious little if you’re a prisoner in Russia.

Published: June 20, 2013 (Issue # 1764)

A human life has been valued at a few hundred dollars by a St. Petersburg judge. That was the sum awarded last month to the father of a prisoner who died of tuberculosis in the Russian prison system. The court ruled that prison doctors had “provided flawed medical care that indirectly led to the death of the patient.”

That patient was Vyacheslav Korolkov, who met his end in a penal colony in St. Petersburg in May 2010.

Vyacheslav, HIV-positive and a former drug addict, was serving a sentence for drug dealing. A post-mortem investigation revealed that he had been suffering from tuberculosis for many months, although his condition was not diagnosed until a few days before he died.

Vyacheslav’s father, Sergei Korolkov, had been pursuing a legal case against the authorities for most of the last three years, alleging criminal neglect by prison medical staff. This long-running struggle achieved its first victory this month in the shape of an order for a miserable amount of compensation. The prison hospital has been ordered to pay Sergei compensation of 10,000 rubles for the death of his son, and the penal colony must pay a further 5,000 rubles. That adds up to less than $500.

During the three years since Vyacheslav’s death, medical experts and analytical tests have uncovered a series of medical missteps. For example, he never received the twice-yearly chest X-rays to which he was entitled. Nor, until shortly before his death, had the doctors carried out other diagnostic tests for tuberculosis, despite severe symptoms. Often the action taken over his condition involved little more than transferring him back and forth between the penal colony and the prison hospital.

A week before Vyacheslav Korolkov died, he was tested for tuberculosis at the prison hospital after complaining about his health. The doctors failed to carry out any effective treatment there and sent him back to the colony, where he died.

Throughout Korolkov’s long ordeal his father fought to get any useful information about his son’s condition. The legal case has also been a struggle for the father, not least because vital documents were lying scattered and ignored in various places.

Vyacheslav Korolkov’s tragedy is far from unique.

A recent report by the Russian Public Chamber, a governmental oversight body, says that over the past year alone court hearings have been postponed on more than 1,500 occasions because suspects are too weak or ill to attend. Pressure groups claim that this prolongs the duration of investigations and results in these people spending even longer periods in detention.

According to government statistics, Russia spends 2,750 rubles per month on the average suspect while he or she is held in detention. Of that amount, only 166 rubles ($8) is spent on the detainee’s health care.

You can’t prevent or cure tuberculosis, or curb the spread of HIV, on that kind of funding. For any individual, infection is a risk because even if he starts out in good health, he will be held in the same wards as those already infected. Worse, say human rights advocates, they have received complaints from some suspects that they have been threatened with deliberate infection with tuberculosis or HIV if they do not confess to crimes they’ve been charged with.

The many who do get infected in prison never receive compensation: it’s widely regarded as a misfortune or just one of the hazards of being locked up.

According to a prosecutor’s office report in 2010, about 90 percent of Russia’s prisoners have some kind of disease, often a “socially significant” one such as tuberculosis, hepatitis, or HIV.

In the case of Korolkov it is incomprehensible to see doctors coming out of this drama unpunished and the prison authorities being ordered to pay such laughable sums.

If certain doctors were indeed guilty – and this is strongly implied by the court ruling – then surely some punishment is in order, and a much more substantial financial award should be made to the family of Vyacheslav Korolkov.

In an interview with the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, Sergei Korolkov said he first noticed tuberculosis symptoms in his son more than a year before he died.

“When I visited my son, I noticed that he coughed a lot, and I asked him if he was getting any treatment or if any tests had been arranged – and he said no,” he told the newspaper.

“He also told me that it made no sense complaining about the doctor, and he asked me not to interfere. I did meet the doctor and got his promise that my son would be admitted to the hospital and checked. But nothing happened for months, and even a brief look at Vyacheslav was enough to tell you that he was gravely ill.”

Compare the miserable 15,000 rubles compensation to the hundreds of thousands that are routinely awarded in accidental-death cases. There may be no fixed price tag for the loss of a life in such circumstances, but lawyers say that awards rarely drop below 100,000 rubles ($3,300). In what way was Vyacheslav Korolkov less of a Russian citizen than those people?

Sergei Korolkov says that his crusade was never really about the money. He sought justice on the grounds that the doctors had failed in their duty to give proper care to a patient in a dreadful and painful condition.

The degree of justice he obtained was surely minimal, bearing in mind that it took three years to win such a paltry and even insulting sum in compensation. So Sergei Korolkov is not giving up. He is planning to appeal.

This column first appeared on Transitions Online, an award-winning analytical online magazine covering Eastern Europe and CIS countries, available at www.tol.org.

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