Andrei Babushkin: 19 July 2019 will mark 200 years of public oversight of prisons in Russia

posted 25 Jun 2018, 14:09 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 25 Jun 2018, 14:12 ]
10 June 2018

By Andrei Babushkin, director of the Committee for Civil Rights, vice-chair of the Moscow Public Oversight Commission, a member of the Presidential Human Rights Council, and winner of the Moscow Helsinki Group award for human rights defence

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: LiveJournal ] 

And so, in a little over a month we shall mark 199 years of public oversight of prisons in Russia.

Few may be aware that on this date in 1819 the English philanthropist and entrepreneur Walter Venning, with the help of the Russian Empire’s Minister of Education Prince A. N. Golitsyn, established the St Petersburg Society for the Stewardship of Prisons. Three years previously, W. Venning had created a similar organisation, the Society for the Improvement of Prison Discipline, in his native London.

Venning arrived in St Petersburg in 1817. He was introduced to Alexander I and, having enlisted his support, visited a number of Russian prisons.

Venning’s organisation was concerned not only with charity, but also with the exercise of public oversight of St Petersburg’s prisons. W. Venning compiled a report on the state of prison life in the Empire, which impressed the emperor. “It’s impossible to even think about the terrible consequences of such obscene institutions without disgust: health and morality are forced to perish there, regardless of how brief the confinement,” the report said.

The Emperor’s reading of the report led to prisoners being segregated according to the type of crime; violent prisoners separated from non-violent; books appeared in prisons, including those written especially for prisons. One of the outcomes of his reading the report was the establishment of the Society.

Emperor Alexander I expressed his condolences when, in 1821, at 40 years old, Walter Venning died from typhus, contracted on one of his visits to prison. Incidentally, John Howard, whose ideas formed the basis of the practices of the London and St Petersburg Societies also died from typhus, also in Russia, but which he contracted in Kherson prison.

However, for another thirty years the Societies were managed according to the principles set out by Venning.

The establishment of the Society caused a widespread response in the regions: in 1826 there were already seven provincial committees for the public oversight of prisons and another 38 provincial committees were set up over the next ten years. In 1834, the first district branches of the Society were opened in St Petersburg and Vologda. By 1863, in provincial and port cities there were already 64 provincial and regional committees and 431 district branches.

The Society’s president was appointed by the Emperor. The first president was Prince Alexander Nikolaevich Golitsyn. In 1824 Golitsyn was replaced by V. S. Trubetskoy, who served in this post for 17 years. The next president was the well-known head of the secret police, Count A. Kh. Benkendorf (1841-1844), after whom the Society was headed by Count Orlov. After that, the president’s role was filled by the minister of internal affairs and justice. The vice president was selected from among the general-governors and bishops. But the members of the Society and its branches were representatives of the nobility, merchants and clergy.

To become a member of the Society or one of its branches, you needed to pay what was a considerable sum in those days: from 5 to 15 roubles a year. At the time, this was a lot of money.

The members of the Society had the right to apply to the authorities for the improvement of the conditions of detention and treatment of prisoners.

However, by the 1840s, not only the provision of charitable assistance to prisoners, but also the organisation of food for prisoners, the provision of medical assistance, the purchase of clothes and shoes for them, and the improvement of places of detention had been brought within the oversight of the Society. The Society was also involved in obtaining the release of prisoners imprisoned for debt by paying what they owed.

The Society initiated the creation in 1879 of a single body for the administration of the entire prison system of the Empire – the Chief Prison Administration, to which a number of the Society’s functions were transferred.

Translated by Mercedes Malcomson