Saturday, October 5, 2019

Sacking of Russian Prisons Head Sparks Proposals for Change

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 3 – In the wake of scandals in the Russian prison system including torture, lack of medical care, and other kinds of abuse, Vladimir Putin has fired the system’s head, FSB general Gennady Korniyenko,  an action that has sparked numerous proposals for change and intense skepticism that the Kremlin will make any fundamental changes.

            The most comprehensive discussion of possible reforms is to be found in a 55-page report prepared by Olga Shepeleva of the Center for Potential Administration Decisions (Преступления и наказания.Что не так с российскими тюрьмами.pdf ) which is summarized at

            The legal scholar notes that the Russian prison system is enormous, with more than 3.5 times as many people incarcerated per capita than in Europe. More than half of them are recidivists, and almost a third are behind bars for what some call “victimless crimes” like drug use.

            One of the reasons the prison system has grown so large is that Moscow spend far less than European countries do on prisoners, only two percent as much as they in fact.  Every fifth complaint to ombudsmen in 2018 was related to the lack of timely medical care or other shortcomings in basic services for prisoners.

            Almost no money is spent on rehabilitation, and the militarization of the prison system militates against that as well. Shepeleva says that one of the first things that has to be done is to take the prisons away from the force structures and the management of them away from FSB officers and put them in civilian hands.

            Two other major problems which need to be corrected as soon as possible include long pre-trial detentions which leads to overcrowding and the exposure of many who may be innocent to criminals and the failure of the judicial system to use other forms of punishment than incarceration and its unwillingness to release people early.

            Such changes, however, would be both expensive and requires a fundamental change in culture not simply among jailors but among the political elite which makes use of them and sets the tone for their actions.  As a result, many commentator say that no change in Russian prisons is likely  anytime soon (

            Gennady Gudkov, a former Duma deputy and opposition politician says, that Russia’s prison system is “a horror and shame to Russia. This would be a shame for any state which respects human rights and even elementary human norms.” What exists in Russia today is a system which has survived from a time when those behind bars weren’t treated as people.

            “But,” he adds, “I do not believe that there will be any changes while Vladimir Putin is in power. It seems to be that the Federal Penal System is an instrument of political clout and repression. And I do not think that anyone is seriously interested in a significant reform of this system,” at least not anyone who has the power to do something about it.

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