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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

SAY WHAT? :Even Going To Jail Means Paying Bribes

The press secretary of the Justice Ministry department that supervises all St. Petersburg jails smiled at me from across his shabby desk. He had just informed me that he is a rock'n'roll fan - a piece of information I considered to be a tribute to my pair of Doc Martens.

"I give you a 100 percent guarantee that you and your photographer will be given an opportunity to go to the juvenile prison," he said. His smile then faded, and he began to look concerned. "But this American reporter ... what's his name ... I am not so sure about him."

The press secretary studied the fax I had sent him the day before. In that fax I requested a visit to a juvenile prison for myself, our photographer and my colleague from an American paper's Moscow bureau. I knew my colleague's citizenship could raise some questions, and I did my best to explain that he is officially accredited with the Foreign Ministry.

Suddenly, the press secretary's facial expression changed from concerned to enlightened.

"You know, we only receive about 40 percent of the funding we are supposed to receive from the federal budget," he said. "So we have set up this non-budgetary fund. We encourage people and organizations to make donations to this fund, and we spend the money from the fund at our own discretion."

My heart sank. I knew my Moscow friend wanted to go to the juvenile prison - and I also knew he would never forward money to the Justice Ministry slush fund so they can spend it "at their own discretion."

"You look puzzled," the watchful press secretary said. "All right, let's make the donation minimal: $100 in ruble equivalent. Your friend will keep the receipts."

I still was not particularly fond of the suggestion. How about, I said, we buy $100 worth of fruit - I don't believe the run-down prison treats its teenage convicts with lots of vitamins - and bring the fruit to the juvenile convicts.

The press secretary was visibly upset. "This is a fresh idea - I would even call it a modernistic idea," he said. "But look at this press center. We don't even have a computer!"

Here was a man whose job it is to help reporters get information. I assume that his salary is not exactly satisfactory; I don't think anybody in Russia who is paid from the federal budget can boast a satisfactory paycheck. Besides, there is never too much money, right?

But I would like to remind the reader that this man works at the Justice Ministry, an organization which supervises the penitentiary system and the court system. The name of the ministry alone suggests that it is a lawful establishment.

But apparently, justice evaporates as soon as there is money to be extorted - and it is common for Russians to consider foreigners to be a gold mine.

Imagine a judge telling a defense lawyer whose rich client is accused of murder: "Look at my courtroom. It doesn't have a computer and my chair is so old and squeaky that I'm afraid to sit on it. How can I possibly carry out a fair verdict in these circumstances? However, a donation made to our 'non-budgetary' fund would radically change the situation. One hundred dollars minimum, please."