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Valentin Gefter: Prison and the world - how the Penal System could help both people and the economy [RBK]

posted 1 Nov 2017, 06:07 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 1 Nov 2017, 06:25 ]

24 October 2017

By Valentin Gefter, director of the Human Rights Institute 

Source for this extract: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: RBK]

We need to reduce the number of prisoners, ensure their re-incorporation into society, and give responsibility for the economic development of the prison system to a designated state corporation

Today’s Russian prisons have, to put it mildly, been the beneficiary of a far from simple inheritance. While reforms in this sphere began 25 years ago, they were weak and superficial. The only serious step that was taken was to transfer the penal system from the Ministry of Internal Affairs to the Ministry of Justice. Naturally, it remained largely a formality: those staffing the system remained in place, and the atmosphere remained much as before. Neither the penal institutions, nor the government as a whole, pursued a reform agenda. So we continued until it became clear that change in this sphere was increasingly lagging behind the changes that were taking place in society and state institutions. A few years ago, following a lively discussion, human rights activists and lawyers began to think about proposals for reforming the penal or correctional system. Now these ideas have appeared in papers by the Centre for Strategic Studiesб ‘A review of proposals for improving the penal system’, and ‘Criminal policy: a road map for 2017-2025’.

The prison population 

The first and the key task, which will determine all subsequent developments, is to reduce the number of prisoners. Such a decision is not primarily one for the penal institutions, it depends upon policy towards crime, and the justice system (who and for what is held responsible, how judgments are made). This complex problem includes a broad spectrum of issues – from legislation to established practices.

Today more than 600,000 are held either in prisons or prison colonies, a few years ago there were approximately one million. Thanks to legislative initiatives and certain political efforts, the number of prisoners was nearly halved; but the economic crisis of recent years has brought a levelling off in quantitative terms. There have been pluses: among them, the number of penal institutions has fallen, the geographical distance of places of detention has been reduced. But the relationship between the so-called first-timers and recidivists has not, unfortunately, changed: If anything it has shifted in favour of the recidivists. When referring to ‘recidivists’, we are not necessarily talking of hardened criminals, sentenced to 15-20 years (which in itself is often excessive!) – more often than not these are people who served a relatively short sentence but, while in prison, received no assistance in preparing for life on the outside, no skills on how to cope. Their subsequent committing of often less serious crimes is sometimes a means of getting back to prison, where the rules of the game are clearer than those in a fast changing world that does not welcome them. [...]

A carte-blanche 

The transformation of the penal system belongs to the category of those government policies which require political will for their execution. In this case, the mechanism could be the following: both the government and the presidential administration give a real carte-blanche to a group of responsible officials. In no way does this mean that they will destroy the Prison Service, dismiss its employees and free the convicted prisoners. On the contrary, within the framework of the existing system, they can create a new one – and for this pilot projects are necessary, and funding, and work to explain the need for the proposed changes. To give responsibility for such radical tasks to those who have been associated with the penal system for years, those who have tunnel vision, and a thousand other commitments, would make the enterprise wholly ineffective. Of course the Prison Service cannot be side lined, it will be necessary to listen to its views, but without new people reform will go nowhere. They should consist of a group of experienced administrators with a different set of values.

Translated by Mary McAuley