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Last Updated: Friday, 7 April 2006, 08:45 GMT 09:45 UK
Russia's 'crumbling' prison system
By Emma Simpson
BBC correspondent, Moscow

Russian jail
Conditions inside Russia's jails have caused concern

One day last June at the Lgov prison south of Moscow, more than 300 inmates slashed their bodies with razor blades.

Many prisoners cut at their wrists, necks, or stomachs.

This was organised self mutilation in protest against alleged abuse by prison officials; its sheer scale shocked many Russians, who are used to hearing appalling tales of life inside Russia's dilapidated and overcrowded prison system.

World prison populations

Russia jails a greater proportion of its people than any other major country apart from the US. According to the latest figures from the Russian Government, there are 829,000 people serving prison sentences.

Conditions are harsh. Many of these old Soviet era institutions are crumbling and badly under-funded.

Prisoners also stand a strong chance of becoming seriously ill. Despite some progress, Russian prisons remain a breeding ground for disease.

More than 50,000 inmates have tuberculosis, there are 35,000 people with HIV and there are nearly 90,000 drug addicts.

'I am dying'

Amnesty International regularly receives accounts from Russian prisoners.

One inmate wrote: "I was sentenced to four years' imprisonment for the crime I committed, but now everything looks as if my life is taken away and that is not just a saying. I am dying here....Coughing out the last bit of my lungs."

Amnesty says that conditions in some facilities are so extreme, that they amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

The number of prisoners is decreasing, but only 25% of all those serving sentences really need to be behind bars
Valery Barschev

Much of the problem is due to the fact that Russia has a history of putting a lot of people behind bars.

Under Stalin, millions of Russians were incarcerated in forced prison camps or gulags, a system which became synonymous with mass repression. It also provided free labour the authorities.

Today, non-custodial sentences such as community service are rare, and conviction rates are extremely high, another legacy of the Soviet legal system.

People are also sent to prison for relatively minor offences.

Alternative sentencing

Valery Barschev spends much of his time visiting some of Russia's 10,000 prisons and pre-detention centres. He's a human rights activist who is also advises the Justice Ministry on prison reform.

Prisons in Russia are better funded and some are refurbished but these improvements can't work whilst a humiliating regime is in place
Lev Ponomarev, Movement For Human Rights

"The number of prisoners is decreasing, but only 25% of all those serving sentences really need to be behind bars. In other words, 75% of people don't need to be there," he said.

The government is trying to tackle the problem by investing more money and introducing alternative sentencing, something which is still a novelty.

But Lev Ponomarev, from the Movement For Human Rights, believes the regime itself is the real issue now, a system he says which can lead to a culture of cruelty.

"Prisons in Russia are better funded and some are refurbished but these improvements can't work whilst a humiliating regime is in place.

"The prison authorities are harassing, beating even killing people sometimes. The act of protest by the prisoners in Lgov, who cut themselves in their hundreds, was a manifestation of the despair," he said.

The prison director and two of his deputies were sacked after an investigation later supporter the inmates' claims of mistreatment, a rare outcome for a prison protest here in Russia.


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