Today I was pleased to meet with the delegation of the Russian human rights activists who traveled to Washington, DC as a part of USAID Conditions of Confinement project. Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Deputy Administrator Don Steinberg met with this group as well.

These are individuals who have chosen to devote their professional careers and talents to strengthening human rights protections for ordinary people in Russia. What is particularly impressive about this group is that they work on protecting the most fundamental human rights of a particularly vulnerable and often overlooked group, the inmate population. They do it because of their deeply held belief that even those who have committed crimes and are incarcerated should have their human rights and dignity protected. I would like to applaud these advocates for their efforts in this important humanitarian work.

The conditions in Russian prisons drew international scrutiny after the death of Sergey Magnitsky several years ago. Sergey Magnitsky, a 37year-old Russian attorney who was arrested after alleging wide-scale tax fraud against police and tax authorities,was denied medical treatment for a severe illness that he developed while spending almost a year in a pre-trial detention facility in Moscow. Magnitsky died just days before the one year limit that he could be held without trial would expire, serving a total of 358 days in prison. This tragedy galvanized the attention of the human rights community in both Russia and abroad. However, there are likely many more individuals facing similar mistreatment and abuse who need help. Human rights advocates like the ones I met today work tirelessly with the Government of Russia to prevent similar tragedies from happening again and help people in need.

At USAID, we believe that our assistance is most effective when and where the need is most pressing, where the political will is present and determined individuals are in place who will work hard to make real changes. The Conditions of Confinement project is a good example of a well-targeted activity, poised to yield positive results.

In the aftermath of Sergey Magnitsky’s death, the Government of Russia adopted an amendment to the law on prison oversight, which enables existing Public Oversight Commissions to access pre-trial detention facilities at any time and without prior authorization. This case represented an opportunity for USAID to work with the Commissions and civil society organizations on how to make sure that this law is used to provide effective oversight of prisons by civil society. A month after the amendment was adopted, a dozen prominent Russian human rights advocates traveled to Washington, DC to meet with their American counterparts as well as the U.S. Government officials whose responsibility is to ensure that the constitutional rights of the U.S. inmate population are properly protected.

Over the past twelve months we have sought to build on this effort of facilitating the dialogue between the Russian and American human rights activists. This week is the third time this group has met.

Both our countries suffer from a similar problem: we have the largest per capita prison populations in the world. Our project aims to develop tools and mechanisms that would allow  the laws that are in place to better protect human rights. This includes prison standards, complaint mechanisms, and effective advocacy tools for human rights activists.  Here in the U.S., we have accumulated a substantial amount of expertise in this area over the past forty years. We can share our knowledge with this group of dedicated and determined human rights and prison reform advocates from Russia.

What makes the conditions of confinement project so promising is that it builds on the approach of the U.S. Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission (BPC) Civil Society Working Group (CSWG). The CSWG created a forum for our two nations to engage in a frank discussion on a  range of important topics. The idea behind this approach has been that our societies have many common challenges that may require common solutions. By allowing our governments and civil societies to have a frank discussion, we would be able not only to solve the challenging problems in front of us, but also to bring our nations closer together.

Following this model we have brought together human rights activists from both the U.S. and Russia for the first time ever to talk about the issues they encounter while defending the rights of inmates. This has been a fruitful dialogue that highlighted the similarities of the problems that exist in both countries. We are confident that this dialogue will continue.

This exchange visit will also produce recommendations that may be integrated into the parallel U.S.-Russia government-to-government (G2G) dialogue under the CSWG Prison Reform Working Group. The close collaboration between a grass-root civil society dialogue and the G2G efforts are potential assets for improving prison conditions in both Russia and the U.S.

We are proud to be a part of this important initiative and I am looking forward to the prison reform recommendations that both U.S. and Russian human rights advocates are preparing for our governments to consider.