MOSCOW (Reuters) -- Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has ordered his officials to reform a prison system that is chronically overcrowded with inmates who are mostly ill or serving harsh sentences for minor offenses.
Decades after the Soviet Union's gulag prison camps were abolished, Russia still has a vast network of penal institutions housing nearly 900,000 prisoners -- the world's second-highest rate relative to the population after the United States.
Medvedev is a former corporate lawyer who has spoken often about the need to respect human rights since he took over the presidency from former KGB officer Vladimir Putin last year, though campaigners say they have yet to see real change.
The Russian leader chaired a meeting with senior officials from the prison service after visiting a penal colony for young offenders in the Vologda region, northwest of Moscow.
"We should be able to achieve the necessary level of humanity in the prisons system, an improvement in the conditions for those who are held there and bring...this system into line with international standards," he said in televised remarks.
Prison reform campaigners say huge numbers of Russian inmates are suffering from tuberculosis and other illnesses related to poor living conditions and inadequate medical care.
They say that many people -- in particular young offenders and women -- are given lengthy prison terms for minor offenses which could be punished with noncustodial sentences, and too few people are granted bail before their trial.
Campaigners also say the penal system is failing to rehabilitate prisoners. Official figures show that nearly half of inmates have already been in prison at least once before.
Medvedev said possible changes could include encouraging courts to impose lesser punishments for minor offenses, locking up fewer people before trial, and helping released prisoners adapt to life outside jail.
"Conditions in penal institutions...should be acceptable and civilized. And those who have served their sentence should be ready to return to a full and normal life," said Medvedev.