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In the 1980s, the Soviet Union had few conventional prisons. About 99 percent of convicted criminals served their sentences in labor camps. These were supervised by the Main Directorate for Corrective Labor Camps (Glavnoye upravleniye ispravitel'no-trudovykh lagerey--Gulag), which was administered by the MVD. The camps had four regimes of ascending severity. In the strict-regime camps, inmates worked at the most difficult jobs, usually outdoors, and received meager rations. Jobs were progressively less demanding and rations better in the three classifications of camps with more clement regimes. The system of corrective labor was viewed by Soviet authorities as successful because of the low rate of recividism. However, in the opinion of former inmates and Western observers, prisons and labor camps were notorious for their harsh conditions, arbitrary and sadistic treatment of prisoners, and flagrant abuses of human rights. In 1989 new legislation, emphasizing rehabilitation rather than punishment, was drafted to "humanize" the Gulag system. Nevertheless, few changes occurred in the conditions of most prisoners before the end of the Soviet period in 1991.

In the post-Soviet period, all prisons and labor camps except for fourteen detention prisons fell under the jurisdiction of the MVD. In the early and mid-1990s, the growth of crime led to a rapid rise in the number of prisoners. Because of overcrowding and the failure to build new prison facilities, conditions in prisons deteriorated steadily after 1991, and some incidents of Soviet-style arbitrary punishment continued to be reported. In 1994 a Moscow prison designed to hold 8,500 inmates was housing well over 17,000 shortly after its completion. Many prisons are unfit for habitation because of insufficient sanitation systems. In 1995 Nezavisimaya gazeta reported that the capacity of isolation wards in Moscow and St. Petersburg prisons had been exceeded by two to two-and-one-half times. Observers claimed that some prisons stopped providing food to prisoners for months at a time, relying instead on rations sent from outside. The lack of funding also led to a crisis in medical care for prisoners. In 1995 Yeltsin's Human Rights Commission condemned the prison system for continuing to allow violations of prisoners' rights. The report cited lack of expert supervision as the main reason that such practices, which often included beatings, were not reported and punished.

In 1995 conditions in the penal system had deteriorated to the point that the State Duma began calling for a transfer of prison administration from the MVD to the Ministry of Justice. According to Western experts, however, the MVD's Chief Directorate for Enforcement of Punishment has been prevented from improving the situation by funding limitations, personnel problems, and lack of legislative support, rather than by internal shortcomings.

By the mid-1990s, Russian penal legislation resembled that enacted in Western countries, although the conditions of detention did not. Post-Soviet legislation has abolished arbitrary or inhumane practices such as bans on visitors and mail, head shaving, and physical abuse. Also, prison officials now are required to protect prisoners who have received threats, and freedom of religious practice is guaranteed. Prisoners are rewarded for good behavior by being temporarily released outside the prison; in 1993 the MVD reported a 97 percent rate of return after such releases. However, the penalty for violent escape has increased to eight additional years' detention. In 1996 the function of guarding prisons was to pass completely from the MVD to local prison administrations, and a complete restructuring was announced for that year.

Although conditions in the labor camps are harsh, those in pretrial detention centers are even worse. According to the Society for the Guardianship of Penitentiary Institutions, the government's inability to implement a functional system of release on bail meant that by the end of 1994 some 233,500 persons--more than 20 percent of the entire prison population--were incarcerated in pretrial detention centers, sometimes for a period longer than the nominal punishment for the crime of which they were accused.

In 1994 the total prison population was estimated at slightly more than 1 million people, of whom about 600,000 were held in labor camps. Of the latter number, about 21,600 were said to be women and about 19,000 to be adolescents. Among the entire prison population in 1994, about half were incarcerated for violent crimes, 60 percent were repeat offenders, and more than 15 percent were alcoholics or drug addicts.

As in the Soviet period, corrective-labor institutions have made a significant contribution to the national economy. In the early 1990s, industrial output in the camps reached an estimated US$100 million, and forest-based camps added about US$27 million, chiefly from the production of commercial lumber, railroad ties, and summer cabins. Because the camps supply their products to conventional state enterprises, however, they have suffered from the decline in that phase of Russia's economy; an estimated 200,000 convicts were without work in the camps in early 1994 (see Economic Conditions in Mid-1996, ch. 6). In 1995 the chief of the Directorate for Supervision of the Legality of Prison Punishment reported that the population of labor camps exceeded the capacity of those facilities by an average of 50 percent.


In the mid-1990s, the Russian government maintained a precarious balance between the newly discovered rights of citizens and the government's perceived need for security from domestic criticism and threats to its power. Between 1992 and 1996, the record of the Yeltsin administration was decidedly mixed. Reforms gradually appeared in prison administration, the rights of those accused of crimes, and the introduction of trial by jury, but beginning in 1993 legislation and executive decrees increasingly had the objective of strengthening the arbitrary powers of government over its citizens in the name of national security. The Procuracy maintains much of the independence it had in the Soviet period; although the role of judges and defense attorneys nominally is greater in the post-Soviet system, Russia suffers a severe shortage of individuals experienced in the workings of a Western-style legal system.

The national security establishment, generally smaller and less competent than the pervasive KGB monolith of the Soviet period, has undergone reorganization and internal power struggles in the 1990s, and in some instances it has been made the scapegoat for setbacks such as the Chechnya invasion. Agencies such as the regular militia (police) and the Federal Border Service have not been able to deal effectively with increased crime, smuggling, and illegal immigration; lack of funding is an important reason for this failure. More specialized national security agencies such as the FSB maintain special investigative prerogatives beyond the purview of normal law enforcement.

As average Russian citizens have gained marginally greater freedom from the fear of arbitrary government intrusion, they have been plagued with a crime wave whose intensity has mounted every year since 1991. All types of illegal activity--common street theft, drug-related crime, murder, white-collar financial crime, and extortion by organized criminals--have flourished. Although the government has announced studies and special programs, Russian society continues to present an inviting target to criminals in the absence of effective law enforcement and the presence of rampant corruption.

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The status and development of Russia's internal security agencies and crime situation are described in numerous periodical articles and a few substantive monographs. In The KGB: Police and Politics in the Soviet Union , Amy Knight describes the structure and influence of the KGB in its final stage before the end of the Soviet Union. The post-Soviet position of internal security agencies is described by J. Michael Waller in Secret Empire: The KGB in Russia Today . In Comrade Criminal: Russia's New Mafia , Stephen Handelman investigates Russia's organized criminal element and official corruption, against the backdrop of social conditions and government attitudes prevalent in the 1990s. The 1996 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report of the United States Department of State's Bureau of International Narcotics Matters provides a summary of narcotics activity and government prevention measures in Russia. Penny Morvant's article "War on Organized Crime and Corruption" describes Russia's crime wave and government attempts to combat it; two articles in the RFE/RL Research Report , Christopher J. Ulrich's "The Growth of Crime in Russia and the Baltic Region" and Julia Wishnevsky's "Corruption Allegations Undermine Russia's Leaders," approach the same topics from different perspectives. Numerous articles in the Christian Science Monitor , the Foreign Broadcast Information Service's Daily Report: Central Eurasia , and the Moscow daily newspapers Nezavisimaya gazeta and Izvestiya include current information on Russia's criminal justice and prison systems and on the crime problem. (For further information and complete citations, see Bibliography.)

Data as of July 1996

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