Russia: new report offers government think-tank perspective on reforming the prison system

On October 3, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an order allowing the head of Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service to retire. Shortly beforehand, a report titled “Crimes and Punishments: What to Do about Russia’s Prisons” was published to detail the current state of the country’s penitentiary system. The report’s author, Olga Shepeleva, is a project leader at the Center for Advanced Governance, a newly formed Russian government think tank. Meduza summarizes her perspective on prison reforms below.

Current problems

Russia has too many prisoners — more than 543,000, the largest imprisoned population per capita in Europe. Twenty-eight percent of Russian prisoners are behind bars for drug-related crimes, more than those imprisoned for either robbery or murder. Most of those individuals are drug users, not drug dealers.

Another problem is the hypercriminalization of economic activity in Russia: Even typical business practices are frequently classified as crimes. In half of the country’s financial crime cases, the damages involved were less than 122,000 rubles ($1,872). A quarter of cases addressed damages of less than 19,000 rubles ($292).

Sentencing guidelines are dictated by the Criminal Codex, which has been edited constantly and unsystematically since the mid-1990s. More than 1,500 amendments have been made in total to the document’s 360 articles. The Criminal Codex includes penalties for actions that cannot be considered criminal in terms of the danger they present to society. In addition, the maximum sentence it provides for murder is the same as the maximum sentence for, say, counterfeiting money as part of an organized group.

Problems have plagued the Russian penitentiary system since the Gulag era. The locations of correctional facilities align with the economic realities of the 20th century, meaning that these facilities are located far away from urban areas. This complicates the transport of prisoners, limits opportunities for prisoners to work, inhibits contact between prisoners and their families, and hinders human rights monitoring. Correctional infrastructure has also remained unchanged for decades, and it does not correspond to contemporary standards.

Meanwhile, Russia’s spending on the prison system is greater than that of all the European Union countries. This is despite the fact that holding a single prisoner in Russia is 50 times cheaper per day (2.5 euros) than it is in Europe (128 euros).

Imprisonment does not lead to improvements in individual cases: about a third of convicts in Russia are recidivists. In the first year after their release, up to 34 percent of convicts commit another crime.

Recommended solutions

  • Reducing prison occupancy: prisoners should automatically be granted parole after they have served half of their sentence if their crimes are classified as misdemeanors or minor felonies.
  • Simplifying health care procedures: Currently, if a prisoner must be sent outside their colony for medical treatment, they are required to meet an enormous number of requirements. These requirements are a headache for prison administrators and doctors. For example, any “civilian” doctor, even one who agrees to treat a patient within a penitentiary facility, must receive a special pass to enter the facility. In addition, every prisoner who leaves their colony must be escorted at all times by a convoy, among many other rules. Telemedicine procedures should be developed to simplify these tasks, and legal changes should be introduced that make it easier for prisoners to receive treatment.
  • Turning the Federal Penitentiary System from a security agency into a civilian one: Appointments for management positions should be competitive, and pay for rank-and-file employees should be reasonable.
  • Setting new objectives: The Federal Penitentiary System’s effectiveness should be gauged according to convicts’ quality of life and their success in the resocialization process.
  • Changing the Criminal Codex: Certain nonviolent crimes should be decriminalized, certain financial crimes should be punishable by fines rather than prison terms, and the state should stop imprisoning drug addicts.

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