Russia's dead end prison system

Russia imprisons a proportion of its citizens higher than any other major country except the US. And with its sky-high rates of re-offending, the penal system serves as a stark reminder of what happens when a society prioritises punishment to the exclusion of rehabilitation. Svetlana Reiter investigates and finds small oases of hope for the future.

Svetlana Reiter
3 June 2011

In Russia there are a million people behind bars, 5,000 of whom are juvenile offenders. Some of them stole out of desperate need, others out of stupidity. Their families visit rarely, their friends even less. After serving their sentence, these children, the neglected products of impoverished families, are released into a world where no-one cares. The state locked them up and washed its hands of them. Other countries have rehabilitation services for young offenders, but not Russia. There are voluntary sector organisations trying to help, but their resources are limited. As a result, children turn into serial offenders. First you see them in juvenile detention centres, where they still resemble ordinary teenagers, then in adult facilities, where they turn into old men and women in front of your eyes. And it’s the girls you pity most.


Russia's penal system is striking for the lack of attention focused on rehabilitation.
Photo: Flickr / Still Burning

The Novy Oskol Detention Centre for Girls occupies the whole centre of the town. At present it has about 120 inmates, out of a maximum potential capacity of 510. In black quilted coats and ugly berets, they walk everywhere in single file, to and from school and the factory where they sew everything from guards’ uniforms to soft toys. At work they wear blue jackets and skirts; at school the same but green. In a small attempt at individuality, the girls get up at six, pluck their eyebrows with thread, put sparkle on their eyelids, give each other asymmetrical fringes and weave ribbons and slides into their plaits.

I went to Novy Oskol with Natalya Dzyadko, deputy director of the Criminal Justice Reform Centre, an NGO that has been helping offenders, both inside prison and after release, since 1988. Founded by former political prisoner Valery Abramkin, its simple message is that prisoners are people too. As Dzyadko told me: “In Russia everyone thinks thieves should be locked up. I don’t know how to deal with crime, but I do know that prison only makes things worse.”

The few organisations who work with girl prisoners
find that prison "breaks" them, destroying their
prospects of returning to normal life after release.
Photo: NG Foto / Grigoria Tambulova

Dzyadko brought two colleagues with her, Yelena Gordeeva and Valery Sergeev. As well as helping girls preparing for release, they distributed packs containing sanitary towels, shampoo and soap to all the inmates and medication for those who needed it. They also brought bags with clothes and shoes for the girls who were due to leave. Twenty or so girls had gathered in one room, all looking like figures from Manga comics with their heavily ringed eyes and sparkly eyelids. They kept asking to be photographed “to send to Granny”, and seemed ready to do anything to acquire two packs of multicoloured fairy stickers, rather than the regulation one. They attach stickers to everything: the more stickers you have, the higher your status.

The girls use every chance to cling to adults - clustering around, hugging them. For many, it is the first time in their lives that they have slept in clean sheets and had three meals a day. It’s rare to find children from stable families here. “There is the odd exception, of course,” says Gordeeva, “but in general it is dire poverty that drives them to theft. Before release we need to prepare them for normal life.” She contacts the girls’ families and tries to find school or college places for them. The girls themselves share their concerns: “I’m scared I’ll have nowhere to live - my parents haven’t paid their rent for a year”; “I’m worried my mum will get drunk and beat my little sister.”


Girls sewing in in a detention centre factory in
Ryazan. In detention, girls get used to functioning
as part of a brigade, operating collectively. When
they are released, the find it difficult to return to a
world where they must fend for themselves.

In another room Natalya Dzyadko asks a group of girls to write an essay on “What problems I might face after my release.” “The Soviet system still rules in detention centres”, she tells me. “Here you are not an individual and do not belong to yourself. Offenders get used to functioning as part of a brigade, and then they return to the real world, where it’s everyone for himself.”  When paper and ballpoint pens are handed out (not gel pens, which can be used for tattooing), Yulia K, who is serving a sentence for petty theft, asks whether “hostel” is spelled with an “e” or an “i”. Irina M silently covers her sheet of paper with regular, legible writing and her essay is by far the best.

Seventeen-year-old Irina is a special case here. She went to a good school, her spelling is perfect and she speaks reasonably good English. Until she was 14 she had no grades lower than “B”, but at 15 she was convicted of a particularly gruesome murder. She tells her story in a monotone: “When I was 15, a new boy, a year older than me, joined my group of friends. He didn’t like me at first, but I wanted him to be my boyfriend.” They did get together, and then they murdered another boy in Irina’s class: “Neither of us liked him.” They took four hours to kill him, in the forest: “He was in pain for the first hour; after that he was in shock and didn’t feel a thing.” The boy’s body was found in the forest with 165 knife wounds.  Irina’s co-accused - who called himself a Satanist – was sentenced to life imprisonment in a high-security psychiatric hospital, and she was given the maximum sentence for a minor – ten years in a youth detention centre. Before her trial she underwent two psychiatric assessments, and now considers herself sane. At first she had dreams about the murdered boy, but they stopped after a year, and now what worries her is that “my mum is very ill; after the trial she lost the use of her legs.” I ask her whether she was in love with her boyfriend and she answers firmly, “No.”  But on her hand there is a small four-letter tattoo, made with a green gel pen, which when spelled out means “I swear to love him forever.”

Girls walk in single file across the courtyard at
Novy Oskol detention centre for girls.
Photo: Ivan Mitin

In two years Irina will be transferred to an adult prison, but now she is in a brigade with Nastya from Perm, serving three years on a second count of mobile phone theft, and Olga from Cheliabinsk, here for two years after attempted theft of a Kawasaki motorcycle. The state obviously considers them just as dangerous as Irina, and they will serve their sentences together. “At the trial they ignore the details and send everyone to prison indiscriminately, including those who have no real need to be locked up”, says Dzyadko. Psychologist Dina Yoshpa, who also works at the Reform Centre, is more categorical. “99% of offenders present no danger to society. Take one of the girls in Novy Oskol, for example. When she was 14, her aunt’s boyfriend tried to rape her. By chance she had a kitchen knife in her hand and killed him with one thrust.  Now she says, ‘I can’t sleep, I dream about killing him. It would have been better if he had raped or killed me.’ She’s serving a ten year sentence. What danger is she to anyone?”

“At the trial they ignore the details and send everyone to prison indiscriminately, including those who have no real need to be locked up.” “99% of offenders present no danger to society.”

Yoshpa considers this girl’s life after prison. “She will be locked away for ten years. Her sexual orientation will probably change. She won’t have a husband or probably children either, she won’t find a job, she’ll be labelled a ‘con’, she’ll have no kind of life. Mature, psychologically stable men in middle life are not damaged by prison. But it breaks women and girls, both psychologically and physically. I work with women who have just arrived in prison – they don’t have a period for up to six months.”

“You criminal, you’ve ruined our whole lives!”

It is not just psychological problems that ex-prisoners have to deal with after their release. For the last three years the Criminal Justice Reform Centre has been working with the Moscow Patriarchy, whose employees meet newly released juvenile offenders and help them to sort out their ID cards and deal with other representatives of authority whom the most law-abiding citizen tries to avoid like the plague. Patriarchy employee Natalya Kuznetsova recalls a typical case. “He was a boy from an ordinary family. Then his mother died, his father took to the bottle, and the lad got sent down for robbery. He and his mate had been walking along a street and the other boy suggested they steal a man’s mobile phone. They grabbed the phone but didn’t touch the man, who was obviously tipsy. They moved off to examine the mobile, but the man came to his senses, ran after them, stumbled and fell. He called the police – he’s bruised, the lads have the phone, but they haven’t even run away; they didn’t even realise it was a criminal offence. The boy who started it got off with a suspended sentence, but ours was given the full whack – five years. The other boy had a normal dad who sorted everything out: negotiated with the lawyers, paid the fines. Our lad was sent to the Mozhaisk Detention Centre with his fines unpaid and remained there until he became eligible for parole.”

A touch of glamour: the statue by the entrance to
Novy Oskol's detention centre for girls is an
incongruous touch.
Photo: Ivan Mitin

Kuznetsova became involved with the case because the boy needed an ID card. “He arrived in the detention centre without any papers – no identity card, no birth certificate. In this country you can be sent to prison on a simple witness identification, but you cannot be released without proper papers. The detention centre couldn’t provide his birth certificate, and although we wrote several times to his local authority, they never replied. In the end I went to his family home on the outskirts of Moscow. I found out that his father had been killed in a drunken brawl, his grandfather had died, there was just his grandmother left, and she had dementia. I found his birth certificate in the sideboard, and we collected various documents for him and got him an ID card. In other words, we did what the statutory authorities should theoretically have done. The boy applied for parole – why not, he wasn’t really a bad lad. He had behaved himself inside, he had an ID card, he had somewhere to go. However, at the hearing it came out that he had unpaid fines, so he could forget about parole. He actually had money in his bank account, earned as he served his time, but no one thought to tell him. We made up the shortfall, paid the fines, and he was given parole.  

Boys at "school" at a detention centre in Mozhaisk.
Photo: prison.ru / Yaroslav Kuznetsov

Kuznetsova decided to escort the boy back to Moscow. “It’s a critical moment. There are people who hang around detention centres, ready to ‘celebrate’ a prisoner’s release with him, and you can imagine the consequences. He gets out, he gets drunk, he breaks the law again, and he’s back inside.” Kuznetsova managed to get the lad back to Moscow and even to the door of the family flat, but no one answered the bell.  “We rang for twenty minutes, then the boy said, ‘What if I just break in? The lock is useless, I installed it myself. I’ll fix it again afterwards.’ I shouted, ‘Don’t even think about it! You’re on parole! The neighbours will call the police.’ He’s like all ex-prisoners, they are completely unstable.  They have been in an institution where everything is decided for them, and lose the power to do anything for themselves, and usually the will, as well.  That is the problem with our correctional system – our prisons never rehabilitate anyone, they just destroy them.  The prisoner spends several years in a state of suspended animation, he loses contact with his family, meanwhile life on the outside changes, and he’s lucky if he even has somewhere to come back to.”

Getting an ex-prisoner into work in Moscow is a separate problem. No employer wants to take them on, and no one can force them to do so. It’s against the law to refuse someone work because they have a criminal record, but there is always an excuse: “We’ll phone you”, or “You won’t pass our security check.” Kuznetsova managed to get one young man a job as a garage mechanic on a self-employed basis, and another one as a cook on the same basis. But she had no luck with a third: “No one would take him, he started drinking, got into a fight and is back inside.” Sounding tired, she adds: “It’s always the same – there’s no-one to go with them, there’s no workplace quota, the social services won’t work with the families, whose  attitude is, ‘You’ve ruined our whole lives, you criminal!’ It’s not pleasant to be labelled ‘the family of a criminal’.  We need to establish some social intervention, take their neighbours, their local priests, to visit them, perhaps even their godparents. Although I’ve known a detainee to say, ‘My godmother was my partner in crime – she’s in prison herself’. “

“What idiots we were”

Last September I met up with Yelena Gordeeva and Larissa Y, from Perm, newly released from the Novy Oskol detention centre, at a Moscow railway station. The seventeen year old was keen to be photographed everywhere: outside the Balchug Hotel, beside a Ford Escort, outside the station and inside the metro. Larissa was passing through Moscow on her way home, and it was her first visit to the capital. Boyish looking in a tracksuit, black and green trainers and a baseball cap, she told us how she was “the best fighter“ in the whole detention centre, and showed us a ring she had bought to hide cuts on her index finger: ”I lost my temper one day, smashed my hand through a window.”  Larissa served two years for theft – “What idiots we were, we robbed a grocery shop and stuck sanitary towels to the shelves.”  She was given a suspended sentence, but  after a few more robberies it turned into a real one. She recalled her time in the detention centre warmly: “The girls cried when I left.” She was very polite to Yelena Gordeeva, and at lunch asked permission to take another slice of bread, another piece of butter, another glass of juice.  She said that she planned to go to live with her sister and get a job, and in the evening she took the train to Perm.

Later I heard how she was getting on from Lyubov Rozhneva, head of the Perm region youth department. “We organised a place for her as an apprentice painter and plasterer at the school in the village of Bershet. She’s learning well, she’s a hard worker, but she likes a drink. At the school they have their work cut out for them, of course: they have five correctional classes, with children coming out of care and juvenile offenders. I’m going there tomorrow with a drugs specialist and some people from the Prosecutor’s office; we’ll spend two lessons lecturing them on criminal responsibility.” I ask whether these lectures might, for example, help keep Larissa out of prison, but Rozhheva answers: “It’s all down to the family – no-one is looking out for her. The mother drinks, the older sister is a decent woman, but can’t be responsible for her. And the grandmother isn’t well.”

In Soviet times difficult youngsters were the responsibility of the police children’s department, who kept a register of juvenile offenders, and the Commission for Youth Affairs which examined their cases. This official structure still exists, but it has practically no input in the cases of young people who are given custodial sentences – on the contrary, their names are removed from the police register and they fall outside its remit. One of the few exceptions to this rule is Perm, where the local Commission for Youth Affairs runs a centre for “the rehabilitation of families of children at social risk”. While the young person serves his or her sentence, psychologists work with their family, and six months before their release the centre starts to liaise with all the necessary agencies. As the deputy director of the centre, Vera Terentyeva, explains, “If the youngster is of school age, then he should go back into school. If he completed his school studies in the detention centre, then the job centre needs to find him work.” In Terentyeva’s experience, many families are unwilling to work with the Commission: “They won’t open the door, or they behave aggressively, but inside they are uneasy – they don’t even want to accept what has happened to their children.” Nevertheless many parents give staff at the centre their mobile phone numbers and stay in contact with them. Of six young people on the Commission’s books at present, only one is back in a youth detention centre, although these figures may be misleading, since it’s common for re-offending juveniles to serve their second term in an adult facility.


Inmates relaxing amongst obsolete Soviet machines
and a speedboat in the central yard of a prison in
Khabarovsk in the Russian Far East.
Photo: Flickr / Steve Jurvetson

This cycle of crime and punishment can be clearly seen in the case of M, currently serving a term for theft in Correction Facility no.2 in Mordova. She is 32 and this is her sixth stretch – judicial literature refers to such people as “inveterate recidivists”. Her first time was for robbery: she was 14. “It was exciting, there was a gang of us, we broke into a shop and lifted some gold stuff.” The second time was again for robbery, at 15.  She got out when she was 17 and was back within a few months – “Some friends and I took money from a restaurant, and four boxes of ice cream. We sold the ice cream at the market. One of the gang informed on us – he got caught for something else and decided to cooperate with the police.” She was back in prison for the fourth time after another five years: “A neighbour was spreading rumours about me around the flats. My friends and I beat him up, and he died. I got three years.” The fifth time, “I fell out with another neighbour, I threatened her and they gave me ten months for threat of murder.” And her sixth stretch? “I came out of prison, couldn’t find a job, survived somehow for six months, then I met someone. I took his phone and said I’d bring it back on Saturday, but on Friday he went to the police and told them I stole it. At the trial he said he just did it to scare me, but they sent me down for nine months. He’s waiting for me, worries about me, sends me parcels and money.” 

Only one part of Russia, the Perm region, has a state funded follow-up service being piloted for ex-prisoners. Last year 726 people passed through the Perm support service. Only 26 re-offended.

M's parents are both dead. ”My mother died when I was 15. I was in the detention centre, I couldn’t even go to the funeral. My dad was killed when I was twenty. For money – he was from Chernobyl, he’d picked up his pension that day, it was a lot of money. He went to visit somebody, there was a fight and they killed him.”  M doesn’t know where she’ll go when she’s released: “I’ll try to get work – any work. I’m a trained seamstress and cook. Maybe I can get work as a cook.” She has never heard of any centres that help ex-offenders.

“They are just released, and that’s that”

According to Russian government statistics, on 1st March 2011 the prison population numbered 814,100, in other words 607 prisoners per 100,000 Russians. That is almost five times as many as in the UK (148 per 100,000). Official figures also show that in 2010 “530,000 crimes were committed by individuals with previous convictions.”  And according to other figures, 17,000 of Russian female prison inmates are re-offenders. 

In Western countries there are probation services which assess the risk of reoffending, work to rehabilitate prisoners and ex-prisoners and try to have custodial sentences replaced by alternative types of punishment. In Belgium, Austria, Italy, Malta and Scotland the main thrust of this policy is the community payback system, where offenders compensate their victims through, say, financial reimbursement combined with unpaid work in the community.  In Austria, if an offender is given a custodial sentence, probation officers help him or her on release. This help comes in various forms: legal advice, for example, or referral for medical treatment, and social services also organise temporary accommodation for the offender. In some European countries the simplest form of probation, where a prison sentence is replaced by community service, has existed since the nineteenth century. In Finland, for example, private charities, funded by Christian philanthropists, began working in prisons in 1870, their volunteers helping inmates both during their sentence and on release.

Finland was then part of Russia, but as soon as she gained her independence, all trace of an organised probation service in Russia disappeared. Viktor Brezgin, chair of the Public Council for the Investigation of the Workings of the Criminal Justice System in the Mordovan Republic, is clear that ex offenders are ignored by both government and society in general. “There are a few human rights organisations, but that’s it.” Brezgin is also head of a job centre, and in five years in this post he cannot remember one instance of an ex-offender being successfully placed in work. A government probation service would, he thinks, be able to help them, but when one will be set up is anyone’s guess. “The most recent census of prisoners showed that 2.5 million people pass through the remand system every year”, says Brezgin. “Fifteen percent of prisoners had lost all social links with the outside - an increase of 6% on the previous census. They have nowhere to go; they are no one’s concern. They are just released, and that’s that.”

“Sit quietly and breed pigs”   

Only one part of Russia, the Perm region, has a state funded follow-up service for ex-prisoners. It was set up in 2008 as part of a pilot project initiated by the regional Governor with the aim of lowering the reoffending rate. The project began with two offices, and now works in nine areas. Oleg Elenov, project manager of the Krasnokamensk service told me about how it works. “We support both released prisoners and offenders who have been given a suspended sentence. We sign a standard agreement with them, in which we undertake to help them find work and accommodation and sort out their papers. If necessary, we can offer them legal support if they need to go to court, and psychological counselling if they want it.” The regional budget has allocated 12,000 roubles per client per year.

Georgia map

A tower and church at Kungur 5 prison in Perm Krai.
The region has one of the highest concentrations of
prisons in Russia, and consequently some of the
most forward-thinking rehabilitation pilot schemes in
the country.
Photo: Flickr / Aleksandr Zykov

It is no coincidence that Perm has pioneered this service: it is the capital of an area with a high density of prisons: there are 40 correctional facilities in its administrative region. About 2,000 of its inhabitants leave custody each year, and 300 of them return to Krasnokamensk. Elenov has 10 case managers: six months before a potential client’s release they start checking whether he or she has a home, whether their family will take them back, whether there is some kind of work available. In 2009, twenty eight year old Natalya Strigunova, a former shop assistant and drug addict, was convicted on a charge of robbery and sent to a facility in the Krasnokamensk area. When she was released  a year later she had lost her ID card and had no money to get a new one. The follow-up service helped her sort it out. Strigunova believes that she couldn’t have managed  without the help of her case manager Galina Sorgina: “Who would have given me a job? Who would have cared? Even though I’m clean now.” With Galina’s help, Natalya received a grant of 60,000 roubles from the Krasnokamensky job centre, and now she is living in a cottage in the village of Batury and breeding pigs. In the past year she has reared seven pigs; she slaughtered six of them at New Year and sold their meat at 250 roubles per kilogramme. The one remaining pig has recently farrowed. “I also have a goat and some chickens. I sell eggs, but it is piglets that go best: I had about thirty of them at the end of the year and sold the lot.”

Natalya says she loves her pigs; as a child she wanted to become a vet. Instead she became a heroin addict. “We don’t have a drug problem in Krasnokamensk, but people come from Perm to buy heroin. They start shooting up when they are still at school.” She was clean in prison, not for want of supplies, but because she didn’t want it: “Everyone knew I was a junkie. And what choice did I have when I came out? I’m 29, I need to eat. I need to clothe myself. I need to pay my rent. I’m best off sitting quietly in the sticks, breeding my pigs.”

According to Galina Sorgina, it is almost impossible for an ex-prisoner to find work on their own: “When clients come to us, we give them a list of vacancies. They follow them up, but when employers hear that they’ve been inside they won’t look at them. Then we phone ourselves, explain that it’s a pilot project set up by the governor, to reduce the risk of reoffending, etc., etc.” Sorgina also helps clients with accommodation: “Sometimes we find them jobs with accommodation attached - as caretakers, or in logging camps or gardening projects. Or, for instance, one client might have accommodation, another not. If I see that they get on well, I house them together.”

Officially, case managers visit their clients once a week for six months. But as Elenov tells me, they don’t stop then: “It’s in our interests – the more effective we are, the more clients will sign agreements with us.”

Mikhail is one of Galina and Olga’s regular clients. He has spent 14 out of his 32 years behind bars, for burglary and theft. He stole all over the Perm region, and served time all over it too. Last summer, at Elenev’s request, Michael received a grant of 60,000 roubles from the Krasnokamensk job centre. Now he’s a builder. His recent jobs include renewing the windows in Perm’s children’s hospital, renovating the adult hospital in Krasnokamensk, and building blocks of flats on a new housing project. He heads a team of five, all ex-prisoners. As Sorgina says, “It turns out that our people can get back on their feet and help others to do so too.” According to Mikhail, developers don’t realise they are working with ex-cons. The only person who knows is the contractor, and he spent time inside himself, for a financial misdemeanour. “Sometimes”, says Elenev, “you have to help a person and bring them down to earth at the same time. Recently I had a case where someone had served time in a place called Skalny. “There are no funeral directors there”, he said, “nowhere to buy headstones. Give me a grant and I’ll set up in business.” I asked him whether there was a morgue there. No, he said, they take bodies to Chusovoy for post-mortems, so families go there. In that case, I told him, your business will go bust. So now he and I are thinking about what else he could do.”

Last year 726 people passed through the Perm support service. Only 26 reoffended.

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