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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Amnesty Is Little Help to Swamped Jails

Touted as a panacea to Russia's overcrowded prison problem, the recently passed amnesty will do little to ease the burden on Russian jails, top prison officials said Wednesday, announcing that the incarcerated population had shot up by 42,000 in the first five months of 1999.

Alexander Zubkov, deputy head of the prison administration, said at a news conference in Moscow's infamous Butyrka jail that only a radical change of the criminal justice system will ease overcrowding in prisons and pretrial detention centers

Russia has more than 1 million prisoners, the highest per capita level of any country. Many institutions are overcrowded, and prisoners are forced to take turns sleeping. Butyrka, for example, is meant to hold 3,500 people, but today holds 5,692. That breaks down to about 65 square centimeters per person, Butyrka director Rafik Ibragimov said.

The State Duma, the lower house of parliament, passed an amnesty on June 18 that would free 94,000 people, including first-time offenders and those guilty of petty crimes. But the amnesty f which Zubkov estimated would actually free 60,000 to 70,000 after subtracting those disqualified for bad behavior in prison f is unlikely to make a dent in any one institution.

In Butyrka, for example, Ibragimov expects to release only about 50 people under the amnesty.

"Penal institutions and pretrial detention centers have not only exhausted their possibilities, but have overstepped all reasonable boundaries," Zubkov said. "Either we build new institutions, expand this system, or we change the system of punishment."

The overcrowding has led to a chronic lack of funding, Zubkov said, adding that prisons never receive more than 60 percent of what they request from the budget. After last year's ruble crash, they did not receive any budget money for 2 1/2 months, when less than a ruble a day per prisoner was allotted for food. The food allotment should be about 13 rubles (50 cents). In Butyrka today, it is around 10 rubles.

The Justice Ministry, which oversees the prison administration, has drawn up suggested criminal justice reforms aimed at limiting the prison population. The Federation Council, or upper house, is due to consider them this week, after which the council is expected to send a bill to the Duma.

One of the key changes would allow more people to await trial outside of jail. Zubkov also said there should be a limit to the time spent in pretrial detention, where suspects can wait for years before having their day in court. Such measures would decrease the prison population by about 350,000, he estimated.

Prosecutors are expected to be the main opponents to such reforms.

Vladimir Ovchinnikov, in charge of pretrial detention centers for the Moscow Prosecutor's Office, criticized Zubkov's proposals, adding that they would favor suspects over victims.

"The law exists to protect victims and not those who are arrested," Ovchinnikov said, adding that there is no way to insure that out-of-towners will show up for trial other than to detain them.