Russian prisons getting more lethal

Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'entrate?

Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’entrate?

To use the mildest of understatement, Russian prisons are not pleasant places. They are over-crowded, often antiquated, rife with violence, petty abuses and disease (including strains of drug-resistant TB). That said, the prison population has begun to fall, which is an encouraging sign, and there have been some limited efforts made to reform the system overall. So is the news good?

Not really. Let’s briefly unpick the depressing news that 4,121 prisoners died in prison or pre-trial detention in 2012. The combined prison and pre-trial detention (SIZO) population as of June 2012 was 731,000, suggesting a mortality figure of 564 prisoners per 100,000 inmates. If we look at US death rates as of 2008-9 (the last compiled by the Bureau of Justice Statistics), then the total death tally was 4,755 (admittedly from a substantially larger prison population), with a death rate ranging from 257/100k in state prisons, through 229/100k in federal prisons, to 127/100k in jails).

Given that the death toll back in 2010 was 4,150, then this might look like a slight improvement. But while the death toll has fallen just 0.7%, in that time the prison population in 746 corrective colonies, 230 SIZO, 7 prisons and 46 juvenile colonies shrunk by 17.5%. In other words, despite a falling prison population, some reform and more money, Russia’s prisons are getting even more lethal…

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  1. Okay, I don’t think this is a crisis at all; to the contrary, this is more or less precisely what we should expect given the general mortality situation in both countries.

    The death rate for American 25 year old males in 2010 was 0.001318; in Russia, the equivalent figure was 0.003383. That is a differential of 2.5x, which happens to virtually exactly match the situation in the prisons. This differential rises to 4x (0.001410 vs. 0.006282) by the age of thirty. In other words, a 30 year old Russian male in prison would be safer than his American counterpart relative to the mortality risks of their own society (presumably because the Russian prisoner won’t have easy access to vodka).

    The trend is of course bad, if it indeed becomes established as a trend, but it may well be a yearly fluctuation, as sometimes happens. What does the series for prison mortality look like across the past decade?

    • Mark Galeotti

       /  February 28, 2013

      This is a shrewd observation, but there are some additional factor which muddy the waters somewhat and also pushes the Russian figure back into noteworthiness. Russian prisoners tend to be younger. US detainees are twice as likely to be black or hispanic and black 25-year olds have a higher mortality trend than the US average. Finally, the substantially lower rate of deaths in US jails also skews the figures, as in Russia prisoners are more likely to be held in larger and more dangerous SIZOs than smaller local lock-ups. Such quibbles aside, though, I certainly agree that it is less horrific than the headline figure might suggest, but likewise the trend does appear to be upward or at best static, and that is despite reduced overcrowding and higher per capita expenditure, both of which ought to improve the situation…

      • Those are all fair points. I knew about the racial angle, but did not know that Russian prisoners are on average younger than American ones (though I suppose that would make sense, considering that Russian prison sentences tend to be far shorter… no three strikes laws, etc). Do you know by how much? If it’s a big difference, like 10 years or more, then that would indeed invalidate my thesis.

        I had a look and it appeared that mortality increased in 2011 as well, by around 6%. It’s indeed puzzling why that is happening. Maybe the HIV/TB situation is getting steadily worse and counteracts the effects of greater funding/less overcrowding? Another thing to consider is of course the characteristic profile of prisoners. For instance, it is likely that white-collar criminals have lower death rates in prisons than, say, child molesters. If you start imprisoning fewer white-collar criminals (as indeed seems to be the case now) then the hardcore convicts will come to constitute a greater share of the prison population, and as such we can expect the prison per capita (if not absolute) mortality rates to go up.

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