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Russia: Government Seeks Solution To Prison Overpopulation

  • Sophie Lambroschini

Russia's overcrowded and tuberculosis-infested prison system has won the attention of President-elect Vladimir Putin's government. Russia has the highest incarceration rate in the world -- more than 10 times average European levels -- and the Justice Ministry is pushing for a reform aimed at reducing the prison population by one-third. But the Duma, which was due to consider a bill on the issue this week, has again delayed consideration until next month. RFE/RL correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports from Moscow that laws alone won't be enough to change the deeply ingrained idea that every thief should be behind bars.

Moscow, 26 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The average inmate in Russia's jails has a living space smaller than the size of a coffin -- about 60 square centimeters. Prisoners take turns lying or sitting on bunks. The overcrowding has helped fuel a tuberculosis epidemic touching every tenth prisoner in Russia. But some die before their lungs waste away. In St. Petersburg's Kresty jail last year, 56 inmates died of asphyxiation in packed, stuffy cells.

Of the 1 million people currently incarcerated, almost one-third are defendants still waiting for their trial.

The Justice Ministry has been pushing for a reform of the criminal justice system to reduce the number of crimes punishable by jail terms. Under current laws, a person can serve jail time for petty offenses such as petty theft.

Prison reform has been an issue for Putin since last October, when as prime minister he put the topic under his personal control. Visiting the old Kresty prison, a decrepit 19th century building that houses 10 times more inmates than the two-per-cell ratio under the czars, Putin commented: "You don't even have this kind of crush in China."

A reform project was hammered out jointly by the Justice Ministry and the non-governmental Society for Prison Reform. It was due to be considered by the State Duma this week, but deputies, citing legislative backlog and upcoming holidays, put off the first reading until later next month.

Society for Prison Reform Director Valery Abramkin argues that Russia needs a prison reform, just like the United States. But since Russia can't afford to spend billions of dollars building new jails, it must find another way -- reducing the number of inmates.

The bill before the Duma is intended to reduce the prison population by one-third, says Aleksandr Zubkov, head of the Justice Ministry department for overseeing prisons. He says that a prison term should be an "extreme measure" for only serious crimes.

Duma deputy Viktor Pokhmelkin is also lobbying a similar legal reform. He told RFE/RL the current system is too harsh.

"I think the problem is that our penal policy, our policy regarding punishment, hasn't seriously changed since Soviet times. A jail sentence is still considered the paramount and effective way of combating crime, and that's why it's used a lot in practice even when it's not necessary."

He also says that the reform should focus on reducing pre-trial detention. Right now, those accused of crimes sometimes spend several years in jail before their case even comes to trial.

"Pre-trial detention is often used as wrongly without any justification but with the aim to squeeze evidence out of the accused or the suspect."

In a typical example, one young man has been in jail 18 months awaiting his trial for running a scam involving dice at a local market. He has already caught tuberculosis.

Society for Prison Reform Director Abramkin told RFE/RL that Russia's laws condemn small-time thieves to stays in prison that will only turn them into hardened criminals. He says that about half of Russia's inmates are charged with burglary. And most of these thieves were caught stealing small amounts of food -- a sack of potatoes out of a basement or a chicken out of a barn. In poverty-stricken Russia, he says, anyone could potentially end up in jail.

The Justice Ministry's reform provides for fines and property confiscation instead of prison terms for petty theft. It also puts a one-year limit on pre-trial detention.

However, as Abramkin points out, it is an uphill task to win support for reform -- not only from the general public but also from legal professionals.

Duma deputy Pokhmelkin agrees that changing attitudes among judges and prosecutors will be the hardest task of reform.

"[The Justice Ministry's] project doesn't solve all the problems. Of course we can and have to amend the penal legislation and improve the inmates' conditions. But the most important thing is to bring about a change, a revolution in the professional conscience of judges, prosecution employees, of all those who bring to life [Russia's] penal policy."

Some Russian legal scholars say the judges are too strict. One study showed that only 8 percent of murder trials resulted in an acquittal.

One of Russia's most prominent judges and an author of the judicial reform plan, Sergei Pashin, has written extensively on the problem of the harshness of Russian judges. Pashin says the Russian justice system operates like a coin toss. Heads is a conviction with a jail term. Tails is a conviction without a jail term. So when does the judge acquit? Only if the coin lands on its edge, Pashin remarks wryly.

And to counter those odds, the judicial system needs more than a few amendments.