The hellish existence of many of Russia’s former inmates is everybody’s problem.by Galina Stolyarova 26 January 2012
With only a few months left to serve of a second prison sentence, Nikolai developed an escape plan.
He knew that failure would mean another spell in the clink. But that’s just what Nikolai, in his late 40s and with no prospects outside prison, was counting on.
It worked. He was stopped in his tracks at the last minute when a guard, who was about to shoot him, pleaded with him to give himself up.
“I don’t care anymore,” Nikolai told the authorities of the St. Petersburg Penal Inspectorate during a subsequent investigation. “My parents are dead, my wife has divorced me, and nobody would want to give a job to someone who has spent more than eight years in jail. I just gave up hope. And I thought I would be better off staying where I am.”
Nikolai’s situation is not unique. In Russia, former prisoners have virtually no chance to make a fresh start.
Unemployment, social isolation, homelessness, and ruined health top the list of problems that Russia’s former prisoners face when they leave jail. One in three ends up back behind bars.
“This is a story as brutal as it is simple,” said Igor Potapenko, head of the St. Petersburg and Leningrad Oblast Penal Inspectorate. “A man is released from prison in the morning, and by the evening he’s already starving hungry. And not everyone has a place to lay his head or somewhere to get a meal.
“Most of the prisoners lose any real links with the outside world. Their families, friends, and colleagues often don’t want to know them anymore. Only fellow criminal gang members may want to give them the time of day. We really ought to start thinking about the future of these people while they’re still in prison, to ensure they have some choices in their life.”
Potapenko’s plea for planned rehabilitation is echoed by many would-be reformers, to little avail. A 2010 social rehabilitation program, backed by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, has not led to any substantive reforms.
Is it up to the state to care for prisoners when they’re released? In Russia, that question matters. According to official statistics, one in four Russian men will spend time in prison at some point.
So what happens to your average former criminal after release? Although the crimes, the prison terms, and the domestic circumstances vary, most prisoners face a very similar ordeal after getting out.
“Most of these people emerge with their health seriously damaged, if not ruined, by the beatings and abuse they’ve suffered, by exposure to tuberculosis, and poor nutrition,” said Alexei Skripkov, an expert with the Russian Justice Ministry.
In most cases inmates do no work while in prison, so when they come out they have no money for medical treatment or rent.
Nor are there state-funded professional training courses for them. And in any case, how can a man be trained when he is sick? So task No. 1 is to make medical rehabilitation available to those released from jail.
Preventing inmates from becoming ill in the first place would be a good start, of course, but lack of transparency within Russian prisons and the penal system in general remains a serious problem. Human rights advocates often find it next to impossible to investigate beatings, torture, and other abuses behind the thick walls of the country’s jails.
Russia’s penal institutions have long been notorious for their atrocious physical conditions. Inmates sometimes have to sleep in shifts in their cells and can be allocated less than 0.7 square meters (7.5 square feet) of space each.
Over the past decade, Russia has been ordered to pay tens of thousands of dollars in damages to its prisoners under rulings by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
There have been a few improvements. In line with a trend to decriminalize certain offenses or to replace prison terms with other forms of punishment, especially for economic crimes, Russia’s prison population has shrunk from nearly 1 million in 2000 to around 780,000 in 2011.
Even so, a leading criminologist with the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Yakov Gilinsky, describes Russia’s penal system as excessively repressive.
“While torture flourishes in the prisons, anyone who works for the penal system is protected by an unwritten rule of impunity,” Gilinsky said.
Torture methods used in Russian prisons include electric shocks, suffocation, suspension, water-boarding, being tied up, deprivation of water and food, and severe beatings.
Once out of jail, former prisoners continue to be treated as criminals, as if the punishment amounted to a life sentence.
Unlike in the Soviet era, when companies were obliged to employ former prisoners as part of a state-run social adaptation policy, today potential employers often reject them as a security risk.
At the same time the government takes no responsibility for providing shelter for prisoners who have lost their homes while in jail.
St. Petersburg lawyer Igor Kucherenko, who often works with former prisoners, trying to help them win back their homes or get jobs, says that although homelessness has become an acute problem for thousands of Russian people, current laws offers no real way out of it.
“What the authorities tell people is that to solve their problem they must buy or rent a room or a flat,” Kucherenko said. “This is utterly cynical because everyone knows damn well that only a tiny fraction of Russian people can afford to buy real estate. And to be able to rent a room you need to get a job first – and being a former prisoner makes that a hard task.”
Large cities in Russia have rehabilitation centers, which can temporarily provide a roof over the heads of former prisoners. Conditions in these hostels are much like those in prison: no alcohol, no smoking, no women, and no pets.
Those are actually more onerous restrictions than in some penal colonies, where, for example, pets are often allowed. Unfortunately, the staff running these state-funded centers don’t have the tools or authority to help the ex-convicts find jobs so that they can in turn find their own homes.
Without a doubt a state-funded retraining and employment scheme should be introduced that would ensure the former prisoners’ right to work and earn a living. It would take time and money. But it would surely help to restore hope and purpose to many thousands of lives, prevent many men reverting to crime in the future, and save the state a fortune on incarceration in years to come.