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The East: Prisons: Soviet Era Labor Camp System Verges On Collapse

  • Ben Partridge

London, 1 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Penal reformers say Russia and other former Soviet republics face a desperate crisis in their prisons, requiring a new approach to overcome problems of overcrowding, disease and lack of resources.

But they also say that well-meaning foreign specialists without understanding of the Soviet-era prison system and its history, can do more harm than good with their advice.

Dr. Andrew Coyle, director of the International Center for Prison Studies at King's College, London, says the penal system in the former Soviet Union faces two monsters: inhumane conditions in pre-trial prisons, called sizos, and a collapse of the labor camp system.

Coyle says gross overcrowding is the problem at pre-trial prisons like Butyrka in central Moscow, built in 1771. There, says former Governor Gennadi Oreshkin, prisoners often collapsed from lack of oxygen or swollen legs. On a visit in 1994, a delegation from the Duma, the Russian parliament, found that cells designed for 28 people were housing up to 110 prisoners.

Coyle also is a former prison governor, in his case of one of London's largest prisons. He says that he regards prison conditions as a human rights issue. Major cities across the former Soviet Union have Butyrka-type prisons.

"Every major city has one. Where the prisons are in a room this size and we would be told that it was built for 20 people. There are 40 beds in it, and there are 90 people in it, and they are locked up 24 hours a day. When you open the door, they're all standing there. This is why TB and disease are rampant because people will be there for up to two years."

The U.N. special 'rapporteur' on torture, Professor Nigel Rodley, of Britain's Essex University, who visited two pre-trial prisons in Moscow in July 1994, called the conditions there infernal.

Pre-trial prisons hold about a quarter of Russia's prisoners. Partly a legacy of the monolithic character of the Soviet system, similar prison conditions still exist in many areas of the former Soviet Union, particularly in the Central Asian republics.

Traditionally, conditions were better in the work camps, or labor colonies, of the countries of the former Soviet Union. Inmates were sent there from the pre-trial prisons after conviction. Many were basically factories making everything from clothes to furniture.

Vivien Stern, secretary general of the prison-reform group, Penal Reform International, says these work camps reflect the major difference between the Western and Eastern traditions of treating convicted criminals. In the Western tradition, big prisons are located in towns so that citizens will see the fearsome portals and be deterred from crime. In the Eastern tradition, prisoners are exiled far from the main centers of population. Often, they are sent to the places where minerals -- gold or diamonds -- need to be dug out of the ground, or to the frozen north where dams and railways must be built. Inmates also worked handling dangerous chemicals.

Zdenek Karabec, director of the prison service in the Czech Republic until 1995, points out that in every former communist country prisoners were used as cheap labor. The planned economy depended on their labor. They were given work which other citizens refused because health and safety conditions were so bad. Prisons had the appearance of concentration camps.

This Gulag system was ubiquitous. Many prisoners were sent to the Central Asian republics, particularly Kazakhstan which had a particularly high proportion of labor colonies. Still Coyle, the Kings College penologist, says that the Soviet-era factory camps are preferable to pre-trial prisons.

"At one level it's certainly much more tolerable than the sizos. The factories would work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 12 -hour shifts, but for the other 12 hours they were left to their own devices. They went back to the hostel inside the perimeter fence. They wrote their books, sang their songs, or whatever."

Stern says many visitors from Russia coming to see prisons in the West, whilst impressed by the physical conditions and the educational opportunities offered to inmates, prefer the model of the Russian labor camp, seeing it as less inhumane.

(Third of four parts)