Russian Prison Reform: a B+ with promise but some concerns

Russia needs to incarcerate fewer of its citizens, and this is something acknowledged by the Kremlin and Justice Ministry on down. In March, Justice Minister Konovalov admitted that “people ending up in prison is not the answer” to crime. After all, prisons are expensive and unless run and resourced well – and frankly, Russia’s generally are neither – tend to do little to prevent recidivism, instead creating a marginalized, traumatized underclass that has only learnt how to do crime better. (It is no accident that one Russian prison slang term for prison is akademiya.) In Russia’s case they are also incubators for HIV and drug-resistant TB, which are then released into mainstream society with ex-prisoners. They are also incubators for violence, between inmates and by guards and suicides: in 2009, for example, 4150 prisoners died in Russia’s prisons from various causes, about 0.5% of the total (almost exactly double the USA’s figure, based on deaths in state prisons 2001-7).

In fairness, work has been done to address some of these issues. For much of the 1990s, the prison system received no more than 60% of the resources it needed just to survive, and while estimates vary, the figure is now closer to 90%, with some areas actually receiving enough of an excess to manage to build more modern facilities or upgrade existing ones. New medical treatment regimes have at least begun to slow the spread of TB according to the WHO. The culture of impunity for prison guards involved in extralegal violence has also been restricted, although while there have been prosecutions (especially if you beat a former FSB officer to death), there is still a long way to go. After all, given the overstretch facing the GUIN (Glavnoe upravlenie ispolneniya nakazaniya, Main Directorate of Administering Sentencing, but in effect Main Directorate of Corrections), prison officers often feel exposed and vulnerable, and resort to violence in part to assert their authority, a morally-reprehensible but frankly inevitable consequence. The same is true of the way that in some prisons, gangs of convicts are effectively handed de facto control of parts of prisons who then use violence and intimidation to maintain a form of order. Sometimes known as SPDs (Discipline and Enforcement Sections), this practice was formally banned at the end of 2009, but still persists in many cases. That even GUFSIN (the Federal Penitentiary Control Directorate) officers are now also sometimes being held to account, though, does suggest that change is on the way.

The basic problem, though, is that there are too many prisoners, something which is clearly not only inhibiting efforts to rehabilitate offenders and stop recidivism, but is also failing to deter crime. Furthermore, their sentences tend towards the longer: 61.8% serve 3-10 year sentences and less than 2.2% serve terms of under a year. This is especially significant as there is quite a body of literature suggesting that 3-4 years is the watershed at which the risk of increasing recidivism and rendering inmates less likely to be able to settle back into a law-abiding life is greater.

There is an awareness of the need to address sentence length. In March the Justice Ministry proposed reducing prison terms for many non-violent offenses or even replacing them with fines, house arrest and similar non-custodial sentences.

One of the basic problems is the continued corruption, politicization and arbitrariness of the Russian courts. As part of the process for scaling down the prison population, judges are to be given greater latitude in sentencing. However, the very real risk is that this will simply mean that the well-connected, the solvent and the dangerous will be able to massage down their sentences. Already, sentencing seems to be rather erratic. Political cases such as Khodorkovsky’s speak for themselves, but consider conversely the case of the Russian hacker who stole $9 million from RBS WorldPay: he received just a 5-year suspended sentence (conversely, he would face more than 20 years if extradited to the US and even according to the MinYust’s own guidelines he ought to have had to repay six times the damages caused to avoid prison).

There also seems to be a fundamental confusion or contradiction within the government. At the same time as it is formally committed to reducing the prison population, for example, the Kremlin – or at least Putin – seems to be smiling on a United Russia bill on a draconian anti-drug campaign that would see even small-scale users incarcerated.

On the whole, I think that Medvedev is genuinely interested in real legal reform and he has been consistent in his efforts to rationalize the laws and reduce needless and counter-productive incarceration. I think the problem is two-fold:

1. Medvedev does not have a free hand: Putin, Gryzlov and the rest of the socially-conservative, silovik homo sovietici may intellectually understand the case for lighter sentences and rehabilitation, but their gut instincts are heavier-handed, and at this time above all, he does not want to seem weak. Indeed, given that the MVD and the Procurator-General’s Office have both seemed to be working against liberalization (including eleventh-hour efforts to block the change to the law that removed pre-trial detention for white-collar economic crimes), Medvedev also has to battle institutional interests. I don’t think that Chaika’s and Nurgaliev’s recent reconfirmation in post demonstrate any conversion to the more liberal perspective…

2. The state of the judiciary represents a serious constraint on the effectiveness of liberalizing sentencing. Medvedev’s reforms doing away with minimum tariffs for many crimes are also proving an opportunity for corruption, as more serious criminals either confess to lesser crimes or pay police, prosecutors or judges to ensure that indictments are issued for lesser crimes. A classic example is aggravated assault leading to serious injury being prosecuted not under Article 111 of the Criminal Code as it ought to be, with a tariff of 5-12 years in prison (when carried out by a group) but as a series of hooliganism charges under Article 213, which can simply be punished with 180-240 hours of community service (itself sometimes carried out by a paid minion, or else noted as completed through the payment of a suitable bribe).

In the meantime, though, it is still important to stress that the trend is going the right way. The prison population is falling, conditions are slowly improving, prison guards’ excesses are being reined in and an awareness of the pathologies of prison is growing. However, this is a distinctly fragile process. Corruption and abuse still abounds within the GUIN, and while police officers are due to be paid a more reasonable wage to discourage bribe-taking and encourage the recruitment and retention of good candidates, this is not yet on the cards for the prison guards. Likewise, liberalizing sentencing, while in theory allowing judges to demonstrate flexibility for deserving cases, in practice further facilitates corruption. Political control of the outcomes mattering to the Kremlin or local administrations still seems unquestioned, and there is still scope for the more dinosaurian and populist wing of the part of power to push for more draconian sentencing. Overall, then, a B+ with promise for the future…

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