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Russia: The State Of Prisons: Barter To Survive --> "I work my life away in here and for what? Some stale bread, a bowl of 'kasha' [porridge]. I don't feel reformed. I feel overworked." -- prisoner, Omsk region of Russia.

The Russian penal system is undergoing long-awaited change. The old gulag prison guards with their Stalinist methods of doing things are slowly being replaced by more Western oriented prison wardens and administrators who are seeking ways to allow prisons to survive and possibly even become prosperous enterprises.

While some critics, like Amnesty International and Russian human rights organizations, claim that many of the old brutal ways are still present in many prisons, change is nonetheless evident. Whether change equals reform is another matter altogether.

Russia has the second-largest prisoner population in the world after the United States. With 968,000 prisoners as of March 2002, or 670 per 100,000 people, Russian prisoners are held in three basic types of facility:

* Remand prisons (SIZO) numbering 184.
* Prison colonies numbering 749.
* REGULAR Prisons numbering 13.
There are also 64 prison colonies for juveniles.

The 1997 Penal Code of the Russian Federation decentralized the administration of prison colonies. While the federal government continues to provide subsidies to the prisons, the regional governments now have a substantial say over the administration of prisons located on their territory.

Russia's prisons and labor colonies subsist, by and large, not from those subsidies provided by the Federal Prison System, which still has overall responsibility for maintaining the penal system, but by selling or bartering inmate labor to nearby companies and local communities in need of cheap workers. The local companies and communities, in turn, supply the prison population -- the prisoners and guards -- with goods.

Thousands of men, some of whom are being forced to work against their will, are involved in this symbiotic relationship. Laura Piacentini, a lecturer at the University of Stirling in the United Kingdom, has published an insightful study of this barter system in her article, "Barter in Russian Prisons" ("European Journal of Criminology," Vol. 1, 2004.

"In many regions, prison labour is necessary if the prisons, and the prisoners themselves, are to survive. Although prisons are expected to rehabilitate prisoners as well as punish their law-breaking behaviour, a prisoner in Russia has to work in order to live, and not for the sake of the national economy, as historically was the case.... Every prison I visited utilised a system of barter to provide these extra items. For example, a local farmer may require repairs to his/her farming equipment. The farmer will visit the prisons and offer dairy products from his/her farm in exchange for repairs to the equipment."

Barter Problems

While these barter arrangements are not illegal, they are creating a number of possibly negative as well as positive results. On the positive side, Piacentini points to the rehabilitative effect of prisoners working and to the contractual arrangements that can serve them once they leave the colony and reenter the labor force.

"Working to live threw up a whole range of feelings and opinions from staff and prisoners that were not entirely negative.... Indeed, in most cases, prisoners stated that the work undertaken was 'realistic.' Working to survive gave prisoners a sense of purpose and identity."

A prisoner from the Omsk region told Piacentini: "Those who work the hardest are given the most respect from the officers and from the 'zeks' [prisoners]. They are the strongest." "It's better to know that this day you will work to produce something for the local farmer, than to have a situation where you make toys just to fill in some target sheets," another prisoner from a prison colony in Omsk told Piacentini.

On the negative side, the author sees the distinct possibility that the symbiotic relationship between cheap prison labor and local businesses can become so beneficial to private businessmen and regional leaders that it might foster a tendency to keep prison populations growing. Early release programs for skilled workers might be scrapped in order to keep on the prison work force. As one prisoner from the Smolensk region told Piacentini, "I am working to keep the prison working. That is it, I am working to keep myself in prison!"

Much of a prison colony's barter trade is arranged by "blatmeisters," usually guards who are responsible for making arrangements with potential customers. In some instances, prisons advertise in local media describing the services they offer.

Piacentini describes an unusual incident that took place in a penal colony when one of the blatmeisters saw a circus convoy stranded on the road because one of the vans had broken down. He arranged with the owners of the circus that the prison colony would fix the van in return for a performance inside the colony for the convicts and guards.

Redefining The Prison Brand

In Russia, prison labor is sometimes the only way to keep prisoners fed and the barracks heated. If the initial barter deals are successful, they can lead to bigger and more lucrative projects. This type of prison capitalism has encouraged prison administrators to use western terms when discussing their barter deals.

"We use the English term 'marketing' because we think like capitalists now. Marketing is an international business word that everyone identifies with. We are free to look at marketing books. I am keen on branding. The idea of creating a prison brand is intriguing," one prison administrator told Piacentini.

However, there is a downside. Jobbing Russian prisoners do not have the right to strike, are not paid normal wages for their labor, and cannot quit their jobs. These barter practices are in seeming violation of Article 23 of the Forced Labor Convention ( and other codes of conduct that identify prison labor along with indentured labor and bonded labor as forms of forced labor that are prohibited.

Russia is not the only country where prison labor is widespread: in the United States, tens of thousands of prisoners are employed by private contractors to manufacture goods for wages far below the minimum wage. And in Mexico, prison authorities openly advertise their prison populations as a source of cheap labor for U.S. manufacturers. Is this method of teaching criminals a "work ethic" just old-fashioned exploitation? Who stands to benefit most from this practice, the prisoners in Omsk or local manufacturers?


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