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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Duma Approves Amnesty of Convicts

The State Duma voted Friday to approve a long-delayed amnesty intended to release 94,000 prisoners - just under one inmate in 10 - in an effort to reduce overcrowding in Russia's disease-ridden, underfunded prisons.

The amnesty, approved on a vote of 400 to zero, goes into effect as soon as it's published. The exact release dates depend on the speed with which prison bureaucrats process the paperwork.

It would free up to 12,000 pretrial prisoners first, a Justice Ministry spokesman said.

Release of those already convicted and serving time in prisons - pregnant women and mothers of young children, elderly, disabled and tuberculosis-infected prisoners, and others who committed minor crimes - should come later.

One prison official reacted cautiously.

Valentina Savvina, director of Women's Colony No. 5 in Mozhaisk, said she breathed a sigh of relief when she heard the amnesty had passed - and then held her breath, waiting to see what it actually said.

"Of course, we are happy, but the prisoners don't want to be happy about nothing," Savvina said by telephone. "They don't know how this is all going to proceed, they haven't seen the text, and they don't know what crimes fall under the amnesty. So we can't say anything about it yet."

"For now I can't even say how many women will get out," she added.

Many of Savvina's roughly 1,100 charges have committed serious crimes - including assault, robbery, and murder - and she said at most 100 would be released. Her colony was built for 650 inmates and includes a special home for the convicts' young children.

The Justice Ministry desperately needs to ease the financial burden of holding prisoners and improve Russia's human rights record, which has been stained by overcrowding and disease in the prisons, where inmates are fed on only a few rubles a day.

"There is no danger in this, and we don't expect an explosion of criminality," Justice Minister Pavel Krashenennikov said Friday. "The people amnestied do not present a big threat to society."

The Justice Ministry is betting on a 3.5 percent recidivism rate among those released - 10 times lower than the national average.

Under amendments introduced by liberal Duma Deputy Valery Borshchyov, the amnesty also covers those convicted for deserting from the army, where conditions of service are brutal and hazing of conscripts is common.

"The most important thing is that we were able to point out the problem of violence in the army," Borshchyov said.

Prison authorities must now sort out amnesty candidates who are guilty of bad behavior while in prison - a process that could reportedly reduce their number to 80,000.

Russia's prisons and jails hold more than 1 million people.

The amnesty has raised questions among deputies as to where the amnestied inmates could go to live, and who would deal with the aftereffects of prison life - such as drug-resistant tuberculosis - when housing and medical care are not always available even to law-abiding Russians.

Savvina said she could not simply release convicts to an unknown fate: At the very least, she said, the authorities should make sure released convicts had somewhere to live - as long as they had held onto their housing until they committed their crimes.

"Many of them simply drank it away," she said.