Vienna, December 2 – Criminals who terrorized Russian cities in the 1990s are now completing their 10 to 15 year sentences and being released in large numbers back into society, a move that is generating fears among some that they will spark a new rise in crime and create serious public health problems as well.
In an article in “Rossiiskaya gazeta” today, journalists Vladislav Kulikov and Mikhail Falaleyev report that officials in Russia’s special services and law enforcement agencies are concerned that these violent career criminals will return to their life of crime and lead to the expansion of gangs and racketeers (www.rg.ru/2008/12/02/osugdennye.html).
Russian government analysts told the two journalists that their fears on this account are a reflection of “the sad consequences of the mass amnesties in 1917 and 1953,” when in the first instance, the Provisional Government released tsarist prisoners and when in the second, the post-Stalin leadership released non-political convicts.
And because of the danger that there could be a repetition of such problems in possibly a more violent form, officials at the interior ministry and in the penitentiary system “have been considering special measures” to prevent those who have completed their sentences from “returning to criminal ranks.”
Among the measures being considered are special programs to match prisoners to job openings, enhanced administrative supervision of those released, and even “free treatment,” including presumably psychological counseling, all things Russian regimes have traditionally ignored or skimped on.
But now the government has popular support for such efforts because many people remember the “wild 1990s” when those being released “held Russian cities in fear” by their violent actions. No one wants to see that happen again, especially after the greater physical security many urban Russians have felt over the last decade.
Kulikov and Falaleyev, however, suggest that even such programs may not be enough to cope with this wave of newly released convicts. First, they say, the economy has changed since the 1990s and is now in recession, making it even more likely that the former prisoners will find it hard to fit in.
Second, while the street level criminals were tried and sent to prison in the 1990s, their leaders were not until much later if at all. Consequently, there may be a Darwinian struggle among them as the newly released attempt to recreate the kind of structures they were familiar with earlier.
And third, where gangs with criminal leaders continue to exist, the newly released prisoners may either join them and make them more threatening or challenge them and thereby generate more violence as each group seeks to defend or take its “territory,” a struggle that could dramatically expand the level of violence in Moscow and other Russian cities.
The “Rossiiskaya gazeta” article focuses on the implications of the release of these prisoners for the level of crime and violence in Russian society, but there is likely to be another and perhaps equally serious consequence of the re-entry of the prisoners into the broader community: the spread of serious diseases.
Russia’s prisons and penal camps have long been infamous as breeding grounds for tuberculosis and especially its extremely dangerous anti-biotic resistant strains and HIV/AIDS, diseases that occur among prisoners at risks an order of magnitude or more than in the broader population.
Indeed, if the recent drawdown in the number of prisoners that Vladimir Putin ordered to reduce overcrowding and save money is any guide, the epidemiological consequences of those who have been confined since the 1990s are likely to be severe even if, unlike violence, they are likely to be more difficult to link directly to the prisoners’ release.