March 23, 2010
"Russia to Alter System of Penal Colonies"
The title of this post is the headline of this fascinating piece from this morning's New York Times. Here is how it starts:
In Russian prisons, the inmates are divided into barracks housing a hundred or so men without regard to the severity of their crimes. At night, a guard locks the door and walks away, leaving first-time offenders and people convicted of nonviolent crimes to fend for themselves in a crowd of gang members, hit men and other career criminals.
Beginning this year, however, first-time offenders may no longer have to live in fear. In the first major effort to upgrade a prison system that has changed little since Stalin established it more than 70 years ago, career criminals will be separated from the general prison population and housed in new prisons with cellblocks, rather than barracks.
President Dmitri A. Medvedev, a lawyer by training who has championed an overhaul of the justice system, is pushing the measure to first break up the culture of barracks life and then to do away with common inmate housing almost entirely.
Common barracks are unusual outside the former Soviet Union and parts of Africa, according to a London-based advocacy group, Penal Reform International. Western European and American correctional institutions typically rely on large cellblocks, with a few inmates to a cell.
Yet the vast majority of Russian prisoners — 724,000 out of a total prison population of 862,000 — still live in freestanding barracks, rough-hewn, low-slung buildings of wood or brick encircled by barbed wire, usually in a remote place. Low-cost and high-volume, they are modest upgrades of the camps of the 1930s to 1950s and hold the second largest per capita inmate population in the world, trailing only the United States.
The overhaul calls for a three-stage unwinding of the barracks housing system and the abolition of all 755 penal colonies, what remains of Stalin’s gulag, by 2020. Under the plan, some sites will be renamed “settlement colonies,” a sort of minimum security prison. Hardened prisoners will be moved to cellblocks, though only just over 2,700 inmates live in cells in Russia today.
In the first stage, recidivists will be put in separate colonies apart from the general prison population. So far, officials have relocated 64,000 of 149,000 prisoners scheduled for transfer. By 2016, prison officials say, they intend to separate the most violent first-time offenders from petty criminals, and by 2020 move them and the recidivists into new prisons with cellblocks. After that, the category of “correctional colony” would cease to exist in the Russian penal system.
I will try not to forget the enduring campaign themes of hope and change while reflecting on the fact that Russian President Medvedev appears to be much more interested in prison reform than US President Obama. Of course, decades ago when the US prison population was much smaller than Russia's, perhaps this reality would not be so remarkable or telling. But the United States, a nation that Abraham Lincoln famously described as being "conceived in liberty," is now the world's leader in imprisoning its own population by a considerable margin. Consequently, it is hard not to be sad and disappointed that more prison change is being right now pioneered by Russia's president than by America's.
March 23, 2010 at 12:36 PM | Permalink
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