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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lack of Rehabilitation Fills Jails

For MTNot able to return home, Apenit has found happiness in Sochi with Alyona.
Alexander Rysyev, a penitentiary system official in Krasnodar, was shocked when a former prisoner released two months prior came to him and asked to be imprisoned again.

Though his request was a rarity, ex-convicts returning to prison are not. Each year 230,000 are convicted of crimes after having served time, according to Federal Prison Service data. With almost a million people behind bars, a record high, there are no state-supported rehabilitation programs for ex-convicts, said Alexander Chuyev, an initiator of social rehabilitation legislation recently submitted to the State Duma that would create 100 centers nationwide to help freed prisoners re-integrate into society.

About 70 percent of ex-cons lose their social connections, and almost half of them also lose their homes and documents while in prison. Their homes are sometimes sold by relatives and their documents lost by penitentiary system bureaucrats, Chuyev said. Without proper identification, they are unable to work legally or receive medical care.

The man who made the unexpected plea, Pavel Apenit, 23, was imprisoned for three years in the Khadyzhenskaya prison for stealing a blanket and a television from an inn. He said that when he was released in December 2005, he had 100 rubles ($4) in his pocket to start over. Without proper identification, except a sheet of paper stating that he had been released from prison, no one was interested in hiring him. He found neither opportunities nor assistance in this pursuit. Instead, he sought the help of Rysyev, his former captor.

"There are two options for these people -- to become homeless or to become criminals again," Chuyev said.

Nearly half of the 889,598 prisoners, including the 1,620 in pre-detention, are repeat offenders, said Vitaly Polozyuk, one of the new legislation authors and head of the Federal Prison Service's department of social, psychological and educational work with convicts.

The total number of prisoners in the United States is about 2.2 million, which equals 737 per 100,000, while in Russia it is 624 per 100,000, according to Vlast magazine.

Left without work, these people turn to lives of crime. According to data on the Supreme Court's web site, the number of cases for those committing subsequent crimes increased by 24 percent last year, and 25 percent of freed prisoners in Russia commit crimes again.

The experience of imprisonment, the lack of life skills and the obstacles faced upon re-entry into society are major factors in crimes that prisoners commit following their release, Polozyuk said.

Apenit had never had a passport before, he said. His parents, who lived in Kazakhstan, had divorced when he was 8. He was then sent to St. Petersburg to live with his grandmother who shared an apartment with her elderly sister, who was never married and was not fond of children. When his grandmother died, her sister asked Apenit, then 16, to leave her home. By that time, his parents had new families and were not interested in his return.

Since he was originally from Kazakhstan, there was no chance to obtain a Russian passport.

"I worked in the market for kopeks and lived with a friend," Apenit said.

But when the friend's girlfriend moved in, he moved out. He decided to go to Sochi, where the weather was less severe during the winter. He worked illegally on a construction site, spending nearly all his wages renting a room in the suburbs. Due to the lack of money created by his desperate circumstances, he turned to crime.

His theft resulted in a conviction and in his serving three years in Khadyzhenskaya prison.

Kazakhstan, Apenit's homeland, would not permit him to return following his incarceration. He was stopped on the border and sent to Omsk to seek permission from the embassy. He waited for two months, half-starved, living at a railway station, only to discover that the permission would not be granted to him.

"I was broken. I felt like freezing on the street," he said, indicating that he was very near committing suicide.

People from local Protestant church bought him a ticket to go to Krasnodar, and there he went to Rysyev.

"Take me back to prison -- I hate being homeless," Rysyev recalled Apenit saying. The official could do nothing for him but send him to a local nongovernmental organization that helped teenagers in need.

"When Pavel came, he looked so desperate," said Tatyana Rudakova, head of the NGO Mothers for Convicts' Rights. She said there were about 600 letters requesting help from young people who will soon be released. They typically return home carrying all their old liabilities -- addictions, bad work habits -- and they bring new ones: the stigma of having been imprisoned and damaged relations with family, she said.

"There should be centers for these people with medical and mental health services, drug treatment and mentoring," Rudakova said.

She found a temporary, illegal job for Apenit, arranged for him to live in a shelter where he had no right to live and started the process of restoring his documents.

"Without state support it is hard to help many," Rudakova said.

During the Soviet era, there were quotas for job opportunities for freed prisoners and they were even urged to work under the supervision of their mentors, Polozyuk said. Today, while having no official right to refuse to hire ex-convicts, businesses still avoid them, he said.

The few NGOs that try to provide offenders with shelter and work have great difficulty surviving. Nikolai Libenko, who organized a farm for such people in the Tula region and successfully managed it for 15 years, cannot find any assistance to proceed and expand his work.

"I pledged to help open a woodshop so I could take on more people. But both the state and private enterprise were not interested in us," he said.

Some regional centers have been constructed in Samara and St. Petersburg, Rysyev said. In general though, people in this situation go to homeless shelters. In Krasnodar, where Apenit was released, shelters would not admit those who had committed crimes, Rysyev said.

While religious organization and NGOs do exist, they can help just a few, Rysyev said.

There are no accurate figures for how many ex-convicts come to Moscow each year, but some NGO experts say the number is around 40,000. Only half of all those imprisoned in the Moscow region Mozhaiskaya and Ikshanskaya prisons are Muscovites, Polozyuk said.

In Soviet days, Moscow prohibited repeat offenders, even Muscovites, from residing within a 101-kilometer radius of the city. Now, criminals of all sorts can easily come, and adequate resources to keep them from returning to lives of crime do not exist.

The Interior Ministry, the Prosecutor General's Office and the Justice Ministry contributed to the proposed legislation to create 100 centers for ex-convicts, Polozyuk said. Chuyev said he hoped it would be considered in the Duma this fall.

Apenit's life changed dramatically by chance -- he met a girl who fell in love with him. She did not know of his past at first, but when she asked him to travel with her, she was surprised to learn he had no passport. So, he told her everything.

"I was ready to be rejected and even insisted that we should forget each other," he said.

But Alyona, a psychology student in Sochi, did not leave him. In fact, she took his last name though they were not married to prove how serious she was about him.

"I felt that I had found a really good man who was struggling against his bad fortune," she said.

Despite her parents' opposition, she brought Apenit to her native city of Sochi. She even left the university so that they both could work and pay the rent for the little house they found in city's suburbs.

After two years together they dream of building their own house some day. Her parents accept their love now and approve of them getting married -- as soon as he gets a passport.