Staunton, August 21 – The FSIN, as the Soviet penitentiary system has been known since 2004, differs from the Soviet GULAG “only in the letters” that the authorities use in its acronym, according Olga Romanova, head of Russia’s most prominent prisoner rights organization, Rus in Jail.
In an interview given to the Polit.ru portal, she says that the current system like its predecessor is characterized by “its closed nature, forced labor for kopecks, and physical abuse.” Indeed, the current system may be even worse because now violence by guards against prisoners is legal rather than just accepted practice (polit.ru/article/2016/08/21/romanova/).
The system is all about inflicting punishment rather than seeking to promote rehabilitation, Romanov continues, and that sad reality leads to the creation of a vicious cycle in which some who enter as minor criminals leave only to return as major criminals in the next round and so on.
For there to be any hope of change, she says, the penal system must be taken out from under the control of the force structures and handed over to civilian professionals. Some propose that it could even become a state corporation. But reform will be difficult even if Russia were to decide to follow European models.
As for American prisons, she continues, they are terrible; but their horrors are mitigated by an important fact of life that is not present in Russia: There are numerous NGOs and legal assistance programs for prisoners, and the American court system is more than ready to take up their cases. In Russia, there is little of the former other than her own group and none of the latter.
A major additional problem in Russia is the low pay and low status of guards. Typically, they are recruited from those who can’t gain entrance into FSB and MVD academies or work for the courts. “None of them likes his job,” they aren’t interested in anything but getting through the day, and they take out their frustrations on the prisoners.
Rus in Jail is a small operation. It has ten employees and herself, Romanova says. It also has several hundred volunteers. But it has little money: there are no grants either from the Russian government or from Western institutions; and she says that her group does not want money from abroad.
The group helps thousands of people – so many that she says it has stopped counting – by filing complaints, helping with appeals, and providing jobs and safe places for former prisoners once they get out. But there are more than half a million prisoners in Russia; and there is no way her group or even others that might join it can hope to make the system fundamentally better.