To relieve overcrowding, Russia lets some inmates go

Amnesty proposed in January would free 94,000. But it won't solve coreproblems.

The kitchen in Prison Colony 10 is far from gourmet. On offer are reeking vats of greasy porridge and weak tea. The cutlets appear of dubious hygiene, and there is barely a vegetable in sight.

But warden Gennady Kulikov is as proud as if he were serving cordon bleu fare. Everything is produced on the premises: farm-grown beets for the soup, brown bread that is baked in the ovens, rare bits of pork from the farm's pigs, and fish from the Volga River nearby.

Colonel Kulikov's concern is neither quality nor flavor, but the food's mere existence.

"We can feed our prisoners; they are not starving," he says. "We can take care of our own."

Like the 999 other penitentiaries across Russia, this one 116 miles northwest of Moscow has been left to its own means to feed and clothe its inmates. The compound of concrete buildings is in severe decay. The rusty gates and razor wire lining the perimeter walls are so corroded that one could probably break them with a heavy crowbar. Even the guard dogs are thin and bark weakly.

Prisons have had a tradition of self-sufficiency since Soviet days, earning their keep with farms and factories that produce everything from car parts to clothing to electronics. But since the Aug. 17 economic crisis jails have been overflowing with criminals, and prison authorities say skyrocketing inflation has stretched their budgets beyond limits.

No room, no food

The situation has gotten so bad that the government last month proposed freeing 94,000 of the nation's 1 million prisoners in an amnesty. The government says it doesn't have a choice. There is not enough room or food.

"The prisons are in a critical state. Since August we have not been able to provide even the minimal basics," Gen. Alexander Zubkov, deputy director of Correctional Services, told the Monitor.

He said that while most authorities believe there is a risk to releasing criminals back into society, they feel they have to implement the amnesty. The number of inmates grew by nearly 60 percent in 1998, undermining the effects of an amnesty for 15,000 prisoners last summer.

"The jails are just too overcrowded," General Zubkov says.

Priority will be given to army veterans, the seriously ill, mothers, the elderly, and minors serving their first term.

Sergei Kuzmin is among the last category and prays he is freed before he finishes his two-year sentence for stealing an electrical saw. The 17-year-old says he took to theft because he couldn't find work. His face scratched and puffy, he seems to bear the signs of being the smallest of 20 boys sharing a 90-square-foot cell.

"I want to get out of here," he says.

Not a solution

But amnesty may not be the solution, says prison psychologist Alexander Mikhailov. "There's always a risk to releasing prisoners like him," he says. "And the temptation to rob is even greater now with the economic crisis."

Human rights groups are also critical of the amnesty plan. Larissa Bogoraz, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group human rights organization, says, "The amnesty will make only a slight impact on the grave situation in the prisons. The conditions ... absolutely do not correspond to international standards. For example, in some prisons inmates have to sleep in turns."

Zubkov also takes a gloomy view of what amnesty will achieve, predicting that the same overcrowding problem will reappear within eight months.

He notes that Russia has one of the highest per capita prison populations in the world: One in every 147 people is in jail. (The US holds the dubious distinction of the highest per capita inmate population of any Western developed country, with 410 of every 100,000 residents in prison.)

Zubkov blames much of Russia's problem on the judicial system, which makes it easy for authorities to detain people for months before they go to court. "People are arrested too easily in Russia, no matter how serious the crime. And then the jails fill up," he says, estimating that nearly one-third of those held in prisons are still awaiting trial.

The problem is not just providing for prisoners. Like workers across Russia, many wardens have gone for months without pay. Over lunch - a nice spread of meat and potatoes grown on the prison farm - officers talked of little but money. Some resentment was noticeable of their wards, who they said seemed to be living a privileged life.

"They get a roof over their heads, a heated room, three free meals a day, and a bath once a week," notes Andrei Belonogov, deputy head of Colony 10. "It's an incentive to go to jail."

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