Friday, January 18, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Prisoner Revolts Call Attention to Serious Problems in Russia’s Penal System

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 18 – Even Russia’s Federal Penal Service admits that penal reform has failed, according to a report in this week’s “Argumenty nedeli,” but its officials say that it is “impossible to stop” the reform plans, even though they will cost enormous sums of money and are “condemned to failure” in advance.

            The reason, Denis Terentyev says, is that “it is useless to build new prisons with individual cells and introduce contemporary systems of video surveillance if the Penal Service remains a system closed off from society” and thus an enormous place “where every kind of misuse is possible” (

            The Federal Penal Service generally has been able to hide what is going on behind the walls and fences, Terentyev continues, but demonstrations and revolts by prisoners which took place “almost every month in 2012,” have lifted some of the veil of secrecy the service has been to accustomed to acting behind.

            On November 24, for example, several hundred convicts went up to the roof of the building in which they are housed and unfurled banners saying that they had been subject to torture and extortion by prison guards. Immediately, the authorities sent in the special forces even though the prisoners had not attacked anyone.

            Iosif Gabuniya, a lawyer who is on the human rights council of St. Petersburg, notes that “20 years ago, guards beat and tortured inmates in order to maintain their power.” But now, “most of these crimes are committed in colonies” where they are no trusties because “almost every inmate has either money or property which can be taken from him.”

            But the most serious crimes, at least in terms of the ruble amounts involved, involve misappropriation by officials of some of the enormous sums Moscow now spends on the penal system. Many guards and commanders appear to see it as their right because their budget has gone up only 40 percent since 2009 while other MVD directorates now get 300 percent more.

            The average pay of guards in the Russian penal system, Terentyev says, is “about 15,000 rubles” (480 US dollars). The finance ministry currently says it is ready to increase their pay by 2.5 times, but it insists on cutting the total number of guard staff by 15 percent. So far, the prison administrators are ready to cut it back by “only five percent.”

            Corruption is rampant, the reporter says. Some officials list payments to suppliers that are two to three times what the same goods would cost on the open market. Several of those involved have been arrested and charged with misuse of “hundreds of millions of rubles” of budgetary funds.

            One small-scale but appalling example of what the prison administration has done,Vitaly Kashchuk, a human rights activist told Terentyev, is that prisoners have continued to grow food supposedly for themselves as they did to survive the 1990s, but guards have sold it and forced the prisoners to buy food at artificially inflated prices in order to eat.

            “But,” Terentyev points out, “it is impossible to obtain any information about the movement of money” within the Russian penal system.  By a tradition dating from Soviet times, such data are “closed” to all outsiders. But as bad as things have been and are now, the journalist says, the penal administrators have even bigger plans for misappropriation in the future.

            The prison administration wants to do away with the camps and build instead prisons with one-man cells and a universal surveillance system.  They estimate that the cost of doing those two things for the 800,000 inmates would be 16 billion rubles (500 million US dollars), and the real cost would almost certainly be higher.

            If the Russian government goes ahead, no one will ever know precisely how this money is spent or how much of it is diverted, Terentyev says. For things to get better, he argues, the system will need to become more open and the penal system put under the control of officials not  in the current command who can impose punishments on “sadists in uniform.”

            That last is especially important, the journalist says. Not long ago a public commission visited a “model jail hospital” in Tatarstan. Its members noted something truly awful: the guards had forgotten to hide a baseball bat which was clearly not being used for sport. According to an inscription on it, the bat was being used on the prisoners as “an analgesic.”

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