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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

New Jailer to Take On Overcrowded Prisons


An article should have said the amount set aside for the reform of the penitentiary system is 1.5 trillion rubles per year until 2005.

In an attempt to make its overcrowded, disease-ridden prisons conform to European human rights standards, Russia is preparing to shift responsibility for its prison system from the police-oriented Interior Ministry to the civilian Justice Ministry.

Russia promised to make the transfer when it joined the Council of Europe, the continent's main human rights organization.

"In all European countries, the penitentiary system is under the jurisdiction of the Justice Ministry," Justice Minister Sergei Stepashin said at a news conference Tuesday. "It is a legal anomaly when one and the same agency is in charge of detecting crime, of investigation and administration of punishment."

But one high-ranking prisons official said the lack of money would still plague the system, and some prison reform advocates expressed doubts whether anything would improve.

President Boris Yeltsin signed the transfer decree Thursday, the day before leaving for a Council of Europe summit in Strasbourg, France.

Stepashin called the move "a change of ideology." He said the complicated transfer will cost 8 trillion rubles ($1.3 billion) and is to be completed by 2005. It will involve a division of property, passage of reams of new legislation and the retraining of staff in both ministries.

The Interior Ministry has come under fire for the shocking state of Russian prisons. Prisoners languish in a vast network of Dickensian institutions, some 60 percent of which were built between the 17th and 19th centuries. A quarter of the prison population has not even been convicted and are awaiting trial in congested detention cells. Some have been there for as long as six years.

Chronic overcrowding has inevitably given rise to the spread of infectious disease; some 75,000 inmates have tuberculosis and there has been a four-fold increase in the number of prisoners infected with HIV over the last year.

In a letter last month to Yeltsin, seven prominent human rights advocates requested the "immediate" transfer, saying that Interior Ministry control of prisons is "unnatural" and that the threat of prison becomes a powerful tool for intimidating suspects held in custody.

The letter's signatories also cited the Interior Ministry's poor record in solving contract killings as evidence that the pretrial interrogation and investigation apparatus "is in a state of decline" and the pre-arrest investigation apparatus "that was once strong appears not to exist at all."

The process of governing an enormous network of complicated institutions has prevented the Interior Ministry from fulfilling its main duty: protecting the country from criminals, they said.

Russia undertook to transfer when it joined the Council of Europe, in January 1996. The move is intended to bring Russia into line with the rest of Europe where search and investigation bodies exert no control over the penal system. Russia also agreed to give up the death penalty.

"The European standpoint is that all penitentiary systems should be under the control of a civil authority," said Dmitry Marchenkov, a spokesman for the Council of Europe. "The Russian Interior Ministry is not considered a civil authority."

Yet Major General Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov, head of the Interior Ministry's prisons department, said Tuesday that the catastrophic situation in Russian prisons was a result of "chronic underfunding." Only 36 percent of funding requested for 1997 was paid out by the government. "This will remain a problem no matter who administers," he said. "We just carry out the will of the state and judges."

And it is not only the prisoners who are suffering. The numbers of guards who had contracted tuberculosis from infected inmates had risen two-fold over the past year.

"The situation, of course, is terrible," he said. "It is hard to know who suffers the most."

Ovchinnikov said reforms initiated by the Interior Ministry over the past five years had prompted a three-fold decline in the prison murder rate and an overall drop in prison crime by a factor of 2.5.

He also said that Russia would have to move at its own pace. "We have our own experience and will move slowly to European standards."

Stepashin dismissed outright rumors of conflict over the transfer between himself and Anatoly Kulikov, Russia's interior minister. "We have known each other well for a long time," he said. "We are working together."

Prison officials also hope an amnesty of people convicted of or on probation for petty crimes will help relieve the burden by releasing about 40,000 prisoners.

But Valery Sergeyev, acting director for the Center for Prison Reform, was skeptical about the Justice Ministry's ability to improve Russian prison conditions. "We are not strong supporters of this step," he said. "The Ministry of Justice doesn't have enough practice and experience in running this huge, complicated system."

Among many obstacles to be overcome, Sergeyev said, is the mentality of 310,000 prison staff, who will suddenly find themselves subordinate to a new ministry. "It is difficult to imagine how the Justice Ministry will swallow this amount," he said.