Florence, December 12 – Although many Moscow media outlets have been worrying about the impact of the impending release of a large number of violent criminals from the 1990s, Russia’s prison population has surged by 140,000 over the last three years alone and now again totals more than 900,000.
That has resulted in serious overcrowding, more frequent acts of violence by both prisoners and guards, and new discussions by experts and politicians of the possibility of using other forms of punishment, according to a report by the “New Region” news agency (www.nr2.ru/society/210462.html).
In many Russian prisons as a result, inmates now sleep in three-level bunks, much as they did in Stalin’s time. Moreover, there are not enough guards, and many of them, veterans of fighting in Chechnya, are inclined to use violence, especially against Chechen nationals. And as a result, Russian penal institutions do almost nothing to rehabilitate inmates
Not surprisingly and especially given the current financial crisis, ever more officials are exploring ways to reduce the prison population. Last week, Russian justice minister Aleksandr Konovalov called for imposing fines rather than prison sentences for many crimes, an idea that President Dmitry Medvedev supports and the Duma’s security committee is now considering.
These officials are impressed by new data collected by Russian criminologists who found that only eight percent of those sentenced to alternative forms of punishment later commit new crimes as compared to 43 percent – more than five times as the share -- of those who served time in prisons and camps
But even if Moscow moves in this direction, there are three problems with Russia’s penal system that are likely to continue to fester for some time to come. First, conditions in many prisons and camps remain sufficiently bad that more prisoner revolts like the ones that have taken place this year are likely.
Second, unless something changes dramatically, Russia’s prisons and camps are likely to remain incubators of diseases like antibiotic resistant tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, illnesses that are many times more frequent among inmates than among the general civilian population and that are spread as prisoners are released.
And third, there is a serious problem with the guards and their approach to the prisoners. Earlier this week, the Memorial human rights organization released a report about the way the guards, many of whom served in the force structures in Chechnya, mistreat prisoners from that north Caucasus republic (www.newizv.ru/news/2008-12-09/102905/).
Svelana Gannushkina, the author of the Memorial report, said that “the discrimination, denigration and violation of the right to life of Chechens in prisons … represents a big problem” because “as a rule, those from Chyechnya are a apriori considered particularly dangerous criminals” especially by guards who have served there.
And the attitudes of the guards, she told “Novyye izvestiya,” are reinforced by the actions of the Russian penal authorities. In violation of existing Russian law which prescribes that those sentenced to prison or camps serve their time within 300 kilometers of where they committed their offenses, Chechens are forced to serve “thousands of kilometers away from home.”
Indeed, she said, “the decision about where they serve their sentences is taken in Moscow,” and as a result, it is difficult if not impossible for their relatives to maintain contact with them or ensure that their lawyers know what is going on. As a result, the experience of Chechen prisoners often further alienates them from Russian life.
No one is talking about releasing the Chechens now serving time in many cases on the basis of trumped up charges, and few in the West are complaining about what is inflicted on people who Moscow has convinced the West are “Muslim extremists” even though how a society treats those it most despises is perhaps the best measure of what kind of a society it is.