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Russia: Prison Reform Moves Forward, Slowly

  • John Varoli

St. Petersburg, 3 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- In deciding two days ago (Sept.. 1) to transfer jurisdiction over prisons from the Interior Ministry (MVD) to the Justice Ministry, Russia made a major step toward reforming its prison system. Such a reform was one of the conditions for Russia's acceptance into the Council of Europe in 1996.

Human rights advocates have welcome this development, but said much work remains to be done.

"The transfer in itself does not mean a big change," said Diederik Lohman, director of Human Rights Watch (formerly Helsinki Watch) in Moscow. "But giving the Justice Ministry jurisdiction is an improvement because it takes the prisons out of the hands of those whose main concern is to have good statistics on the number convicted."

But there are still many obstacles to overcome before Russia's 985 correctional facilities, holding more than 1 million prisoners, effectively move into the jurisdiction of the Justice Ministry.

The whole process looks set to drag on to early 2000. "We plan to make the prison system more humane," said Vladimir Vasyukov, head of the Justice Ministry in St. Petersburg and the Leningrad region. "But Reforming it will be a long process."

According to MVD Major General, Vladimir Spetsnadel, the top local official for the prison system in St. Petersburg and the Leningrad region, the process will last until 2000.

One substantial problem complicating the transfer is the fact that the MVD's prison system is a bureaucracy that dwarfs the whole existing Justice Ministry. The latter needs to create the necessary bureaucratic infrastructure, and be allocated the necessary financing.

The roots of the problem go back to 1922 when control of the Russia's prison system passed from the then equivalent of the Justice Ministry into the hands of police officials.

In the early 1930s, the NKVD, a predecessor to the MVD and KGB, created Russia's sprawling penal system that then became known as the Gulag, or Main Inspectorate for Penal Correctional Facilities.

During the Stalinist era, Russia's inmates played a key role in building the Soviet Union, as well as earning hard currency for the country by exporting the fruit of their labor such as cut timber and mined natural resources.

While the prison camp system was a lucrative commercial enterprise during Soviet times, today it is more a financial burden. Yet, officials hope to once again make it profitable--- but this time for the mutual benefit of both state and inmate.

Officials said that the federal government was sending local prisons only 65 percent of the promised funds, and only 45 percent of the necessary medication. Spetsnadel described the life of inmates as poor, and that they go without uniforms and basic consumer items, which must be sent by relatives.

"We must make money ourselves," said Spetsnadel. "A labor program for inmates already exists, but currently only 20 to 30 percent of prisoners are working. We need to get them jobs so that they will not get lazy and lose their qualifications, ending up as homeless upon release."

Spetsnadel said that convicts earn between 200 and 800 rubles a month, in one of 17 professions. The money is placed in their bank account, with their families given access to it.

But one of the most serious tasks to be tackled is prison overcrowding. The city's and region's prison population of 28,000 fits into 16 prisons which were meant to hold 22,000. The worse offenders are the remand prisons, such as the infamous Kresti, a red brick Tsarist-era structure near the Finland Station, on the Neva river. Built to hold 3,300 prisoners, it now holds 9,121, according to the MVD.

Since bail is a rare occurrence in Russia-- as bond prices go as high as 40,000 rubles (about $4,000) --most prisoners, even those who have stolen a sack of potatoes have to wait up until 18 months for a trial.

"Our main task is to get the remand prison population down," said Vasyukov. "And we think it is a good idea to further the develop the bail system."

Vasyukov also said that overcrowding was also a result of the burden on the Justice Ministry's underfunded, overworked court system.

"The main thing is to change the policy of taking people into detention," said Lohman. "If the Prosecutor's Office, which is a separate agency, keeps sanctioning detention and arrest for meager crimes and the time needed for getting a court hearing continued to drag on for over a year, then we will not see any major improvement in the prison situation."