Reforming the Russian Penal System: Interview with Igor Sutyagin

posted 13 Jan 2011, 01:08 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 8 Mar 2011, 06:16 ]
Masha Karp

An interview with Igor Sutyagin
Masha Karp I started talking with Igor Sutyagin about the Russian penal system at the recent BEARR Trust annual conference on “Young People in Trouble” held in London on 19 November 2010. One of the questions to which the conference was devoted was the fate of young people who fall foul of the law. The reasons for juvenile crime, the treatment of young offenders, and attempts to introduce juvenile justice and non-custodial sentences were discussed in presentations by Mary McAuley, Boris Altshuler, Yuliana Nikitina and Tsira Chanturia. Naturally all the speakers insisted that young offenders should be treated differently from adults in the justice system, and should be kept in separate institutions. It was at this point that Igor Sutyagin, who spent over ten and a half years in Russian penal colonies, joined the discussion. Drawing on his own experience he surprised the audience by saying that keeping young offenders separately from others might prove more harmful than useful for them. So I started our interview with asking him what made him think so.

Igor Sutyagin
We should be absolutely clear what young people we are talking about. Under current Russian law, children and teenagers under 18 are kept in penal colonies completely separate from those places where adults are kept, and I am certainly not going to argue against this. But if we are talking, say, about a 19-year-old, who has committed a crime and is going to be kept only with people of his own age, I have my objections. These youngsters after all are still children inside their heads. They haven’t yet had any real experience of life. I would even say they still have a kind of childish - rather than youthful - maximalism and they simply don’t realize that life is a more complicated thing than it seems to them to be, even life in prison. Young people like that in a group are like a pack of young wolves. They haven’t understood anything about life and they begin to grow up like wolves. They have not yet realized that you have to love people, that people need to support each other, that in prison you can’t simply harass people or treat them like dirt…The presence of more experienced, more seasoned, wiser people – people who have experience not only of prison, but of life outside - exerts a very positive influence on the general atmosphere and the education of these young people, pushing them in a better – more humane – direction.

MK At the conference you said that socialization was also of extreme importance for young offenders. What exactly did you mean?

Igor Sutyagin If these children are kept away from a social milieu where there are people of different ages living together, they will not have even the faintest idea of what society is and how one adapts to it. The prison terms to which people are sentenced are sometimes simply beyond belief. At the Pirsy penal colony in Arkhangelsk I knew a young man who had been sentenced to 22 years in prison at the age of 19.

MK What for?

Igor Sutyagin For murder. But in any case just imagine he will start growing up among other people like himself… Who will he become? In any case, people who have spent a long time in prison, even elderly people, people over forty, develop a very infantile way of thinking. And if these are not adults who have evolved as personalities in the course of time, but just green youngsters who were children only yesterday? And they have no chance to socialize with adults on a daily basis? Prison managers after all do not matter much in cases like these. They are appointed as educators, but in real life they do not do anything to educate these youngsters. They are like shepherds: they are there, but at the same time separate from the herd. So if there is nobody around who is slightly older, slightly more intelligent, those who came to prison as youngsters will forever remain wolf cubs, only with grey hair!

These young people, yesterday’s children, are often simply not aware what pain is. Life among the young is extraordinarily cruel. In Kaluga remand prison an old, old prisoner, called Chaikovsky, once overheard a young boy talking, who, after he had turned 18, was “moved up”, as they call it in prison, from “children’s” cells to a common cell. Chaikovsky was fifty years old, and of these 50 years he had spent about 27 in prison. He interrupted our conversation (I had been trying to explain something to him concerning his criminal case), turned to this boy and asked him: “What was it you were telling the others just now?” The boy said: “I’ve been telling them about the rules we have in our cells in the fifth wing”. And Chaikovsky replied: “I’ve served so many terms and have never heard of anything so horrible!”

This milieu which, in a childish way, lacks any compassion, can simply kill: first, psychologically, then even physically. So in the first place it’s simply dangerous. As there are no real educators or teachers (I do not mean what may exist on paper), the only people who are involved in any sense in educating the youngsters in prison are simply those adults who surround them. The real hard-core criminals constitute not more than 30 per cent of the prison population. The rest, on the whole, are ordinary people. If these people are not around, who will teach the young ones?

MK Let’s talk about socialization now. As you have already said, a term in prison does not prepare people, young or old, for a life at liberty. Is there anything that can be done about this?

Igor Sutyagin Given the system that we have, I don’t think there is anything at all that can be done. Because on the one hand, this is a system of universal paternalism. And on the other hand, it’s a system of universal parasitism. I am talking about the management of the penal colonies, and the authorities in general. On the one hand, prisoners are free from any need to organize their own life – food, clothing – only some little things. You can fuss around to get yourself a better cap or a more fashionable quilted jacket, or some fancy trousers or shoes – but all this is not really necessary, because in any case you will be given something to eat, and, in any case, even if you do nothing at all, you will be given some clothes or other, and you will be put to bed. Nothing depends on you. This is how infantilism develops –there is no responsibility for what you do. Infantilism of the inmates is, so to speak, a consequence of the paternalism of the authorities.

People get out of the habit of taking any decisions. They can get out of the habit to such an extent that they can work themselves up into a serious panic during the last months before release. A couple of my close friends had not served very long terms. In the two cases I am thinking about now, the prison term was only eight years, which is not so long for Russia nowadays. Both men panicked profoundly.

One of them, a grown–up man of forty-four doing his second term of imprisonment, developed a fever of 39 during the last six weeks in the colony. He was not ill. The prison word for it is “racing”. He was “racing” so much, he was just was afraid of being released. He did not know what to expect outside. And this psychological reaction had a physical effect on him.

Another good friend of mine who weighed 52 kilos lost 16 kilos in the final month before his release. He was also sent to the hospital. He had fainting fits. And this was after 8 years in prison. Just imagine if you’ve been in prison for 27 years! People forget how to live, they are afraid of life, so what kind of socialization can we talk about so far as prison is concerned….

MK What should be done then?

Igor Sutyagin We should certainly stop people being locked up in prison cells and deprived of human contact any more than they are now. The idea of holding people in cells in prisons will lead to people forgetting even how freedom looks. As it is, one can at least look out at the village on the other side of the fence. If people are deprived of this, they will be completely lost for society, they will become completely asocial, unused to society, and end up outside society like so many Robinson Crusoes…

MK But isn’t the idea of having fewer camps and more prisons becoming more popular in Russia?

Igor Sutyagin The official proposal is to get rid of camps altogether and introduce a five-tier system - two types of ‘colony-cum-settlement’ and three types of prison.

MK Those who propose this system, do they think it is more liberal? Why is it being put forward?

Igor Sutyagin Frankly speaking, I have a feeling that this is yet another example of our ambiguous relationship with America. Official anti-Americanism covers a love-hate relationship, and that’s why we slavishly imitate American experience on our soil. In America there are no penal colonies, only prisons. And this is what we are copying. But so far as I know the difference between the proposal and how it is really done in America is tremendous. And so far as the question of socialization is concerned, what is being proposed looks extremely dangerous. The following five types of institutions are being proposed:

'Colonies-cum-settlements' - ordinary regime and milder regime. A milder-regime colony-cum-settlement means, according to the plan, a free life where you are only required to come back to the building of the colony-cum-settlement for the night. Of course, you are only allowed out to the local community where your colony-cum-settlement is located. You cannot go freely wherever you want, but only to the community where you are registered. But you are free to leave whenever you want. Prisoners of this kind are supposed to work outside the colony-cum-settlement. This happened in the past too. I remember prisoners from our strict-regime penal colony in Sarapul were employed making pavements in town, making paving stones or doing building work, or whatever. Under the proposal, in these colonies you would go to work without escort guards. This would be a mild regime.

The ordinary regime stipulates that a prisoner may leave the colony to go to the local community settlement only with the permission of the prison administration. This corresponds to the present system of colony-cum-settlements where you work under supervision of escort guards and are allowed to leave the colony as a reward only.

The proposal makes provisions for three types of prisons: ordinary regime, strict regime and prisons for those sentenced to life imprisonment.

It seems that the situation is going to get even worse than it is now in penal colonies. What the announced proposal seems to mean is that common barracks which exist today will be rebuilt to turn them into cells. And in ordinary regime prisons, people will leave their cells to go to work – to the same industrial zone where they go now. But in the present colony you live in shared barracks and can go outside whenever you feel like it and have the free time to look around and breathe the air. At other times you go to work, which is located separately, beyond the fence. The new situation will correspond to the one that is presently called “SHIZO plus work”, that is, you are kept in a cell, but taken to work. A SHIZO is a punishment cell, it’s used for punishment…So if this is “liberalization” then call me the Pope!

But this is not all. Under the proposal put forward by the Ministry of Justice, work in strict regime prisons and in prisons for lifers, rather than just being not provided, would be prohibited! Their idea of reform implies that additional pressure would be put on prisoners by forbidding them to work.

MK What will they do then?

Igor Sutyagin Nothing. Stay in their cells.

MK Is it done this way in America or is it their own invention?

Igor Sutyagin I am not sure how things are in America, but I don’t think it can simply be like that. However the thrust of the proposals announced and published in Rossiiskaya gazeta is that some of those convicted will be forbidden to work. So people would be literally locked up in stone boxes without any hope of ever leaving them. With custodial sentences of 27 years, who will leave those cells? Beasts! Not because they are going to become very wicked, but because they will stop being human. Is this the idea behind the proposed reform?

According to the proposals, this new system will affect at least 300,000 people. Out of 760,000 people who are nowadays deprived of their liberty, at least 300,000 will have to be moved to prison. This is really serious. It gets even more serious if we remember that among them will be people who have not been sentenced to terms in prison. In other words, our constitutional principle that ‘a law establishing or aggravating responsibility shall not have retroactive force’ will be ignored for the umpteenth time. I don’t really know what’s left of our Constitution, but this principle is going to be ignored and will affect 300,000 people even without the involvement of the Basmanny court.

Under the current legal system a person can be sentenced to a term in prison, as opposed to a penal colony, only by decision of a court. For example, to make a sentence harsher, the judge can write – “will be punished by a custodial sentence of 19 years of which, say, the first five years must be spent in prison.” This is when a convicted person is sent to prison. This implies additional limitations on seeing family or receiving parcels…

Another possibility is when a person has seriously violated the regime prescribed in a colony, they can be transferred from the colony to a prison as punishment, which would be ordered by a court decision. Such a decision would be issued at a special hearing of the court responsible for the region where the colony is located. The term of imprisonment in such cases cannot exceed three years. And still this punishment is only issued by a special decision of a court.

And the new proposal just takes 300,000 people who have not been given prison sentences, who have not broken any regime, and at a stroke sends them to prison. And the way they are planning to make this transfer! Take someone for whom, as they say, “End of term – Never!” That is to say, for example, until 2032. Someone who has been sentenced to serve another 22 years in a penal colony where at least he can sometimes go out to look at the stars. And now he has been moved to a prison where he will spend the next 22 years in a cell! Do you realize what is being done? In the past for some incredibly horrible violation one could get sent to prison, by special court decision, for a maximum of just three years. And now it is such an easy matter! No violations, no court decisions, just 22 years! If this is the rule of law, call me a soloist at the Bolshoi Theatre!

MK They think they are improving the situation…

Igor Sutyagin Of course, of course, officially that is how it is: an improvement. What really shocks me is that this reform is not being discussed. I have recently come across one article about it in the Russian electronic media. And thank God for that! But before that…even human rights activists who had spent time in prison were keeping mum. Have they forgotten what a prison is, and the difference between a prison and a colony? I am completely shocked.

MK But do you think any changes for the better are possible in the Russian penal system or is everything going in the opposite direction?

Igor Sutyagin Naturally one always likes to hope for changes for the better. Still I do not think it is very likely that, given what is happening in the country as a whole, things would move in a different direction n the penal system. At the moment we are witnessing a crackdown. This is happening yet again because the prison authorities are at a loss what to do. The present situation where release on parole has practically been abolished has resulted in a loss of control over the colonies. You cannot rule by the stick alone. If you use the whip all the time the skin gets tough and nobody pays any attention to it anymore. You need a carrot.

MK And when was parole abolished?
Igor Sutyagin In practice this has been going on since 2005. The system has started to fall to pieces…In the penal colonies, at least in Arkhangelsk, they used to have exhibition stands showing the number of those released on parole. In about 2005 the numbers started to plunge and in 2009 they stopped putting up the stand altogether. Earlier they used to put monthly figures on display. One month 50 people were released on parole, the next month 37, the next, 20, and the next, let’s say, 70. But when in a colony for 1,500 people only seven were released on parole during a whole year, it stopped making sense to publish monthly figures. It looked like a disgrace. So they just wrote the surnames of these 7 people who had been released on parole…

And in my first colony, in the Yagul settlement in Udmurtia, there was a stand with beautiful, bright, colour photos under the heading, “They Have Been Released on Parole”. There were 9 photos there and the period they covered was three years. And the colony was of the same size – 1,500 people.

This absence of hope (since somebody has been released earlier, I might too…) brings very sad results. Here is the case of that same 19-year-old I mentioned earlier. During the time I knew him he reached the age of 23. Once he was standing in formation at roll-call and a Head of Unit (not ours, another one) rebuked him for having stripes on his tracksuit trousers, because it was forbidden. And he told him to go and change, saying that if somebody from higher management came, he might regret it.

In response the lad exploded and told him: “What will you do to me? I am standing here in these trousers and what can you do to me? Send me to a punishment cell? Deprive me of parole? I am not afraid of the punishment cell - I’ve been there. And I won’t be released on parole anyway! If you like I’ll spit at you right now! If you write another report I will be sent to the punishment cell yet again. What else can you do to me?”

In this kind of situation, punishment ceases to work, and the authorities can only maintain order if the prisoners themselves are ready to comply. If there is nothing to lose, what can you lose? Even a punishment cell is not so bad. At least you don’t have to stand in the cold five times a day for the roll-calls. You just sit in your cell taking a rest. What can scare you? This is what makes colonies uncontrollable. A carrot is needed, but at the moment nobody wants to give this carrot, because the general tendency is in the other direction. They are just trying to beat even harder with the stick…And what will come of that? People get tired of being afraid.

That is why I am rather skeptical of the idea that there are going to be any significant changes for the better any time soon.
11 January 2011

Igor Sutyagin will be talking, together with Martin Dewhirst, about the possibility of reform in the Russian penal system in London at Pushkin House on 18th January 2011.
Rights in Russia,
17 Jan 2011, 14:42