Russian History



In the 1980s, the Soviet Union had few conventional prisons. About 99 percent of convicted criminals served their sentences in labor camps. These were supervised by the Main Directorate for Corrective Labor Camps (Glavnoye upravleniye ispravitel'no-trudovykh lagerey--Gulag), which was administered by the MVD. The camps had four regimes of ascending severity. In the strict-regime camps, inmates worked at the most difficult jobs, usually outdoors, and received meager rations. Jobs were progressively less demanding and rations better in the three classifications of camps with more clement regimes. The system of corrective labor was viewed by Soviet authorities as successful because of the low rate of recividism. However, in the opinion of former inmates and Western observers, prisons and labor camps were notorious for their harsh conditions, arbitrary and sadistic treatment of prisoners, and flagrant abuses of human rights. In 1989 new legislation, emphasizing rehabilitation rather than punishment, was drafted to "humanize" the Gulag system. Nevertheless, few changes occurred in the conditions of most prisoners before the end of the Soviet period in 1991.

In the post-Soviet period, all prisons and labor camps except for fourteen detention prisons fell under the jurisdiction of the MVD. In the early and mid-1990s, the growth of crime led to a rapid rise in the number of prisoners. Because of overcrowding and the failure to build new prison facilities, conditions in prisons deteriorated steadily after 1991, and some incidents of Soviet-style arbitrary punishment continued to be reported. In 1994 a Moscow prison designed to hold 8,500 inmates was housing well over 17,000 shortly after its completion. Many prisons are unfit for habitation because of insufficient sanitation systems. In 1995 Nezavisimaya gazeta reported that the capacity of isolation wards in Moscow and St. Petersburg prisons had been exceeded by two to two-and-one-half times. Observers claimed that some prisons stopped providing food to prisoners for months at a time, relying instead on rations sent from outside. The lack of funding also led to a crisis in medical care for prisoners. In 1995 Yeltsin's Human Rights Commission condemned the prison system for continuing to allow violations of prisoners' rights. The report cited lack of expert supervision as the main reason that such practices, which often included beatings, were not reported and punished.

In 1995 conditions in the penal system had deteriorated to the point that the State Duma began calling for a transfer of prison administration from the MVD to the Ministry of Justice. According to Western experts, however, the MVD's Chief Directorate for Enforcement of Punishment has been prevented from improving the situation by funding limitations, personnel problems, and lack of legislative support, rather than by internal shortcomings.

By the mid-1990s, Russian penal legislation resembled that enacted in Western countries, although the conditions of detention did not. Post-Soviet legislation has abolished arbitrary or inhumane practices such as bans on visitors and mail, head shaving, and physical abuse. Also, prison officials now are required to protect prisoners who have received threats, and freedom of religious practice is guaranteed. Prisoners are rewarded for good behavior by being temporarily released outside the prison; in 1993 the MVD reported a 97 percent rate of return after such releases. However, the penalty for violent escape has increased to eight additional years' detention. In 1996 the function of guarding prisons was to pass completely from the MVD to local prison administrations, and a complete restructuring was announced for that year.

Although conditions in the labor camps are harsh, those in pretrial detention centers are even worse. According to the Society for the Guardianship of Penitentiary Institutions, the government's inability to implement a functional system of release on bail meant that by the end of 1994 some 233,500 persons--more than 20 percent of the entire prison population--were incarcerated in pretrial detention centers, sometimes for a period longer than the nominal punishment for the crime of which they were accused.

In 1994 the total prison population was estimated at slightly more than 1 million people, of whom about 600,000 were held in labor camps. Of the latter number, about 21,600 were said to be women and about 19,000 to be adolescents. Among the entire prison population in 1994, about half were incarcerated for violent crimes, 60 percent were repeat offenders, and more than 15 percent were alcoholics or drug addicts.

As in the Soviet period, corrective-labor institutions have made a significant contribution to the national economy. In the early 1990s, industrial output in the camps reached an estimated US$100 million, and forest-based camps added about US$27 million, chiefly from the production of commercial lumber, railroad ties, and summer cabins. Because the camps supply their products to conventional state enterprises, however, they have suffered from the decline in that phase of Russia's economy; an estimated 200,000 convicts were without work in the camps in early 1994 (see Economic Conditions in Mid-1996, ch. 6). In 1995 the chief of the Directorate for Supervision of the Legality of Prison Punishment reported that the population of labor camps exceeded the capacity of those facilities by an average of 50 percent.