Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ministry Ready to Take On Prisons

Russia is on track to transfer its penal system to the Justice Ministry's control by early next year, in an effort to improve conditions in the country's squalid, overcrowded prisons, officials said Tuesday.

"The ultimate goal of reforming the penal system is to bring it as close as possible to international standards," Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov said at a joint press briefing with Justice Minister Sergei Stepashin.

The prisons have been administered by the Interior Ministry since 1917, but Russia was obliged to transfer them to civilian control after joining the Council of Europe in 1996.

The move is intended to bring Russia into line with the rest of Europe, where police exert no influence over the penal system.

If legislation gets smooth passage through parliament, the transfer will begin this summer and be completed by January 1999, as ordered by President Boris Yeltsin.

The complicated transfer will involve division of property, comprehensive changes to legislation, and staff retraining. Unsure of what the future holds when their new employers take command, prison staff are deserting in droves. Some regions, Kulikov said, are reporting an 18 percent rise in staff resignations, while recruitment has dropped 26 percent.

Stepashin promised a more humane prison system Tuesday. He said he would tackle the problem at what he considers its roots -- Russia's network of overcrowded pre-trial detention centers, where 96,000 suspects are held in appalling conditions.

"This is the most serious problem," he said.

The Justice Ministry hopes the establishment of 158 new pretrial prisons will ease overcrowding. In some prisons, cell space has dropped to a mere half a square meter per prisoner. Elsewhere in Europe, prisoners are routinely allocated four square meters of cell space.

Stepashin said overcrowding could be further reduced by slashing the number of suspects held in pretrial custody. Many spend years behind bars before ever being brought to trial, but the justice minister said the Russian Criminal Procedure Code allows for some suspects to remain free until they are found guilty.

Prisoners also are increasingly falling victim to tuberculosis. The number infected has tripled over the last four years, leading Stepashin to identify it as the second largest problem confronting his ministry.

Some 78,000 inmates are now infected. Of these, almost a quarter share cramped quarters with the non-infected.There are also no separate cells for the 1,500 prisoners registered as HIV positive.