Staunton, Sept. 30 – The recent decision to allow prisoners to work in Russian cities in order to reduce the country’s dependence on migrant workers has opened the question of just how much money prisoners and the prison system have been earning from the work that inmates do.
The federal penal authorities are reluctant to release any information about this, fearful perhaps either that many free workers will find out that prisoners are competing against them or that prisoners are being abused in yet another way, forced to work but receiving only a small share of what the camps earn for contracts.
But several court cases in which prisoners have complained about pay and occasional discussions at the regional level are pulling back the curtain that has covered this part of the economy, and Inna Malysheva of the Znak news agency describes a system in which the camps earn enormous sums and prisoners in some cases are actually well-paid (znak.com/2021-09-30/uralskie_kolonii_zarabatyvayut_sotni_millionov_na_trude_zaklyuchennyh_kak_ustroena_rabota).
`She gained access to data about the economy of the more than 20 corrective labor colonies in Sverdlovsk Oblast, a network that houses approximately 17,000 people. Of these, Malysheva says, about half are capable of working; and work they do producing all kinds of goods on contract for the government or business.
Corrective Labor Camp-12 in Nizhny Tagil is one of the largest and most productive in this regard. Over the past five years, this camp alone has had contracts with the government to produce goods valued at “more than 2.2 billion rubles” (30 million US dollars). Some of the money earned goes directly to the camps. But workers get some too.
While there have been complaints that they are underpaid, some prisoners receive 20,000 to 25,000 rubles (300 to 350 US dollars) a month, have enough money in earnings to send some home to relatives, and can use their labor successes to gain early release, which in the case of this camp approximately one in three do.
Although Malysheva does not have data showing how much goes to the state and how much to the people who do the work, it is likely that the share of the latter is relatively high. It is also likely that precisely because this sector is not covered by the media on a regular basis, corruption is even higher there than elsewhere.
But however that may be, labor camps now like labor camps in Soviet times remain a significant segment of the economy, reducing the costs to the government of building and maintaining prisons and boosting the income of prison administrators and guards, Malysheva’s article suggests.