Prison Reform Still Lags

In the world, Russia still occupies first place for the number of its citizens behind bars. According to Alexander Zubkov, deputy head of the prison department at the Justice Ministry, a planned amnesty conceived last summer is to be more comprehensive than the previous one in 1997, in which some 16,000 inmates were freed. The new amnesty, approved by the State Duma over the summer, should ultimately free 100,000.

So who are the prisoners to be amnestied? First they will be prisoners of pension age and older - women 55 and above, men 60 and above. People with specific disabilities will also be freed. Women and children will luck out under this amnesty: First-time offenders and people sentenced to 5 years or less will be freed. Pregnant women and women who have children younger than 18 will also be released. Perpetrators of so-called crimes of carelessness will be released, as will those who have already served a third of their sentence in labor camps. These amnestied prisoners have been trickling out of the prisons for the last five months.

In effect, all of these changes are the result of the Department of Corrections' departure from the Interior Ministry to the Justice Ministry. Having considered the complexity of the prison system's problems and the protests of human rights groups, this new agency has decided to take a more or less liberal track. But as Zubkov is quick to point out, the amnesty doesn't make conditions any better for those left behind. In fact, prisons are so overcrowded that the 100,000 to be freed are just a drop in the bucket. According to Zubkov, 50,000 new prisoners were added to the bursting system during the first half of 1999 alone.

Because of this, the Department of Corrections has to deal with building more jails. But this is expensive. For now, the Ministry of Justice has undertaken to refit old military bases that have been decommissioned with military downsizing. The barracks will be re-equipped as cells.

To get a clearer picture of prison life in Russia, we can take the example of Moscow's Butyrsky Prison. Built 200 years ago by Catherine the Great, the prison was meant to hold 2,500 inmates. At present, it is stuffed with 5,500. Cells meant for 20 hold 70. Tuberculosis and malnourishment are rife.

The Justice Ministry is currently waiting for the Duma to approve 60 amendments to the criminal code. The task of reform is to unload the prisons. One of Zubkov's most radical proposals is to free people who are still awaiting trial and whose cases are still under investigation. In Russia, the system of bail and releasing suspects on their own recognizance is rare, even though the Constitution guarantees the presumption of innocence. Were this to be observed, Zubkov said, another 100,000 people could be released from jails.

Naturally, such proposals have opponents. Primarily, objections come from the court system and the prosecutor's office. One such opponent is Moscow City Prosecutor Vladimir Ovchinnikov. According to Ovchinnikov, one-third of the crimes committed in Moscow are committed by people who are not officially Moscow residents - and often are from former Soviet republics other than Russia - and therefore pose a flight risk if let out on bail.

Perhaps the main stumbling block to prison reform is that the system as it has developed over 70 years has gained an almost unshakable foothold in the courts and with law enforcement officials. As a result, every reform takes decades to implement.

But the courts, the prosecutors' offices and the police are precisely where the changes have to come from. Prosecutors must do something to staunch the unending flow of inmates into Russia's prisons. Police investigators have to learn to conduct their investigations objectively. And the courts must quit operating on the formula that if there is a law, then they will find a person to prosecute with it.

Mumin Shakirov is a correspondent for Radio Free Europe. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.