11.04.23 Analytics

From Prison to War. Why Russia urgently needs prison reform

Olga Romanova
Director of Rus Sidyashchaya (Russia Behind Bars), a prisoners' rights organisation
One of the most shocking and unusual characteristics of the current war has been the widespread military use of prisoners in Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine. Olga Romanova, Executive Director of the Russia Behind Bars Foundation, explains why this has happened, how it relates to Putin's undoing of attempts to reform the Federal Penitentiary Service, as well as to contemporary Russian legal consciousness, in which Putin's will is the law and formal law must adapt to suit it.

From Prison to War: ‘It Would Be Wrong to Break Everything’ 

By mid-2022, one major mystery had been solved: why Putin needed torture within prisons to continue. The very fact that he needed torture within the prison system was obvious to us at Russia Behind Bars. But let us not get ahead of ourselves. Alexei Kudrin joined the Center for Strategic Research in 2016, beginning a brief period of debate over a comprehensive reform plan for the entire state. The staff of Russia Behind Bars developed a programme for penitentiary reform at the request of the Center for Strategic Research. We wrote it, turned it in, were proud of it, and promoted it to the best of our ability. 

The proposed programme had two central ideas at its core. The first was the transformation of the Department of Corrections from the military wing of the government (as it is now) into a civilian service (as it is in any normal country) so that the issue of ‘defects’ in the functioning of society and the government (and crime can be understood as such a defect) could be treated by psychologists, doctors, and teachers, rather than military personnel and law-enforcement officers. The second tenet was to transfer the second authority over the prison to local authorities, because released prisoners are usually freed into the region where they were imprisoned, immediately contributing to the local crime scene before eventually returning to prison. Even the most corrupt local officials have no interest in this happening, and they can influence the quality of the individuals who return to society, for example, through the development of staffing and training programs. Thus, if the region needs stucco workers and bus drivers, training those specialists within the prison system would make sense, rather than just providing the standard education for cooks and car mechanics. Many other topics were covered in our proposed reforms, including prison labour law, prison medicine, separate women's programs, probation, social rehabilitation, and the principle of giving initial consideration to the demands of victims. However, all of these reform plans were eventually swept under the rug. 

Not for long, though: the penitentiary reform plan was soon brought back into the light. Novaya Gazeta published a video in the summer of 2018 depicting the torture of inmates at the IK-1 prison colony in the Yaroslavl region. Despite the fact that human rights activists had long reported the practice of torture in detention facilities, it was this piece that sparked a massive backlash. Officials gradually began to refer to some heinous individual cases of outrageous behaviour and the need to eradicate such practices systematically. Valentina Matvitenko, the Deputy Chair of the Federation Council, spoke about the importance of ending torture and the need to respect human rights in prison systems. She actually read the preamble to our proposed programme, which the Center for Strategic Research had put together. She read the first part about transferring power to civilian agencies beautifully but mumbled a little when it came to the part about local authorities. But at least this was something. 

This was a bid for serious change. Lavrenty Beria was the first to make a truly significant change in the history of the modern Russian penal system: on March 28, 1953, he transferred control of prisons from the Ministry of Internal Affairs to the Ministry of Justice. But this change did not last long. Control over prisons was returned to the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Internal Affairs for the majority of the USSR's post-Stalin period. Only in 1998 were they returned to the Ministry of Justice's authority. However, in 2004, the Main Directorate for the Execution of Punishments was split into a separate federal service. After that, it drifted back towards control by repressive agencies — the Interior Ministry and the Federal Security Service. 

Alexander Reimer, who headed the service from 2009 to 2012, came from the Interior Ministry; his successors, Gennady Kornienko and Alexander Kalashnikov, had previously worked within the FSB; and the current head of this service, Arkady Gostev, was formerly within the police. As a result, over the past 15 years, intelligence has become the most important issue in the penitentiary system. Prisons and pre-trial detention facilities are filled with people whose main job is to recruit and obtain information or to extract the necessary testimony from defendants, including through psychological and physical coercion. At the same time, any true penitentiary reform would need to remove such operatives from detention facilities. The justice system should find out what they need while the investigation is ongoing (before the verdict), not after the fact. Valentina Matviyenko said something to similar effect. Civilian workers should be employed inside the prison zone while Rosgvardia should be left to protect the perimeter. 

But immediately following Valentina Matviyenko's speech, Putin retorted that ‘It would be wrong to break everything.’ Nothing needs to be changed, it is just that ‘improvements are required.’ This is an odd stance to take given that the Federal Penitentiary Service is an extremely expensive, opaque, and archaic structure the core characteristics of which include not only widespread human rights violations but also theft. In essence, the Russian penal system is still the structural and ideological heir to the Gulag. But Putin is fine with this, despite the costs. In the late 2010s, the budget of the Federal Penitentiary Service stood at 300 billion rubles, which was a little less than one-third of the total Interior Ministry budget; the salaries of Federal Security Service employees are higher than those of workers in the Investigative Committee or the prosecutor's office. Yet rebuilding this system would be simple (comparatively speaking, unlike judicial reform, for example). It would also be inexpensive and could be used to demonstrate humanitarian progress to international partners. So, why can the prison system not be reformed? Prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the reasons for this were not entirely clear. 

The main reason for this is simple: what do people fear the most? Being fired, evicted, facing the wrath of their superiors, falling ill? Yes, but above all they are afraid of the siloviki, the police, and the prison system which looms over them. The Russian prison is one of the most heinous places on the planet, where torture, violence, and degradation of human dignity are rampant, where no one will save you, no one will listen, and where you will rot alive and beg for death as deliverance. A man can live in a state of constant torture, and it would be almost ‘legal,’ as in the case of Alexei Navalny. So, kids, do not go to rallies, do not write dubious posts on social media, and forget about elections and investigations into corruption. 

But, as it turned out, Putin needed this FSIN-Gulag abomination not just as a bogeyman to control the population, but also as a recruitment centre. Prisons have proved invaluable as a pool from which to recruit for the war. Further, the Federal Penitentiary Service has boasted triumphantly that in 2022, not a single inmate escaped from a Russian prison for the first time in the system's history. This is ludicrous. Everyone who wanted to leave their prison cell did so. And there were many who wanted to. 

This desire was so widespread because they hoped to leave one of the worst places on the planet, the Russian prison. A war? Sure, I will go wherever you say, as long as it is not here. The convicts were less interested in money (Wagner PMC promised to pay a sum of about 200 thousand rubles, a very high salary, which was sometimes paid, and sometimes not). And there were not many deeply propagandised people among these convicts. Yes, many wanted a pardon. But most importantly — they wanted the chance to escape prison. We have not seen any instances of involuntary recruitment. We heard a lot of noise, but not a single person made a statement. 

Russian prisons have become a place where people are prepared to go anywhere, under any conditions, just to escape. Even to war, where there is a significant risk of death. 

Wartime Pardon: A Crime Against Punishment 

On June 26, 2022, the first prisoners were recruited by the Wagner PMC at the Yablonevka penal colony-7 (St. Petersburg). A total of almost 50,000 prisoners were recruited. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner PMC's founder and owner, has no authority to release inmates from detention facilities. He lacks any legal basis to do so, and before a year ago there was no legal basis for ‘prison mobilisation’. And, before this, no one in Russia could take a person who had been convicted by a court out of a prison without a court order. 

Putin, incidentally, has no such right, either. There is, of course, the institution of pardon. However, it requires a specific procedure and the fulfilment of a number of conditions. Further, when a person is pardoned does this happen immediately or after six months? And on what grounds is he allowed to leave the prison colony? Of course, only Putin could order the transfer of convicts to Prigozhin without any legal grounds (or using procedures devised specifically for these circumstances). This flouting of the law seemed to be an extension of the general lawlessness within Russian prisons.

However, the combat and non-combat losses of Wagner PMC have amounted to 77-80% of its personnel. According to the estimates of Russia Behind Bars Foundation, this casualty rate is 80%, while Ukrainian estimates place this figure at 77%. This includes those killed, wounded (with no chance of returning to the front), missing in action, and those who have surrendered. The Ukrainian data has one additional degree of accuracy as they know exactly how many POWs have surrendered. It is difficult to categorise losses because everyone lies in times of war. For example, both the PMCs and the army are chastised if and when their troops' surrender. As a result, these troops are frequently listed as dead (their families receive 5 million rubles and a zinc coffin that cannot be opened, along with medals, military decorations, and certificates of honour). If this former prisoner then calls home and says he is alive, his family is unlikely to publicise this fact, as it could cost them money. 

However, most of those released from prisons were not sentenced to freedom but rather were sent to their death. But those who have not been killed are given a certificate with the word ‘pardon’ in the ‘Grounds for release’ column. However, pardon decrees (which are individual acts) are state secrets. This means that no one should know who the President has pardoned. How can we then believe a convicted recidivist who presents such a certificate? How can we determine whether or not he has actually been pardoned?

Five thousand ex-convicts have returned from the front lines to date. Every single one of these men has a pardoned status. No one complains because the amendments to the law on discrediting the armed forces now apply to the prisoners too, who are now referred to as volunteers in the law. Someone might now face prison for mentioning that a volunteer used to be in prison. The circle of disenfranchisement is now a closed loop.

The line between crime and punishment has become blurred. If you are loyal to the war, there is no crime for which you cannot be forgiven. If you murder but then go to war, your murder is exonerated; it is as if it never happened. And even if you did not murder anyone, you could be given a prison sentence as long as that which was given to a murderer. 

Moreover, among those ‘pardoned’ are people who have already committed new crimes, but there is also a sense that state prosecutors are slow to bring charges against them. So far, only one case where there was a local uprising has been documented: a former prisoner, a Wagnerite, returned from the war and terrorised the entire village for several days before murdering an elderly woman. A few days before this tragedy occurred, the residents of the village became enraged: they approached journalists and local authorities, demanding security and safety, but no one rushed to do anything. This is not negligence; it is the direct result of this law prohibiting the discrediting of ‘volunteers’. The ‘pardon by war’ mechanism rendered law enforcement agencies powerless to do anything to combat such former convicts.

The Wagner draft story appears to be over. However, the story of the Russian prison system is not. The prison has proved to be an ideal resource for war, not only because prisoners are eager to get out by any available means but also because it is convenient for society. As long as prisoners are being recruited for war, they are seen as a kind of substitute that protects free people from mobilisation. By and large, society feels little sympathy for the prisoners who have died or been mutilated at the front. Therefore, the prison remains a key resource for the war. 

Since February 1, 2023, the Ministry of Defense itself has been recruiting in prisons. However, they have been sluggish, delegating this task to Federal Penitentiary Service staff. Meanwhile, in early April, Russia Behind Bars began to receive reports of new contract terms from the Ministry of Defense from two dozen prison zones in the Sverdlovsk and Yaroslavl regions. Instead of the initial six month contract, the length of service has been extended to eighteen months, and there are conflicting reports as to whether a pardon will be granted after six months or a year and a half. In addition to Wagner, other private military companies linked to Sergei Shoigu, Gazprom, Igor Altushkin, and Oleg Deripaska have also been spotted in prisons.

Prigozhin's cause is still alive and well, and the ‘private armies’, which have sprouted up like mushrooms after rain, could be replenished at the expense of the prison population for many years to come. It is notable that Wagner had no legal justification for its recruitment of  prisoners to their PMC. In contrast, the Defense Ministry obtained the right to mobilise convicts, including those imprisoned for serious or violent crimes, through an amendment passed into law in November 2022. The process of recruiting prisoners for special assignments may well gain a foothold due to its extreme convenience and versatility. At the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, approximately 420 thousand people were imprisoned in Russia. In theory, the penitentiary system could hand over another 200,000-250,000 prisoners to the military. When Russia arrives at the next historic juncture, reforming the penal system should be the country’s top priority. This should come before we even begin to draft the new Constitution. Because, otherwise, the new Constitution, like the old one, may be false and empty. Regardless of how beautiful the world described in this document is, one might easily end up in the anti-world that is the Russian prison system.