Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

27 December 2001
'Death by instalments' in Russia's jails

In Russia, those convicted for serious crimes no longer face the death penalty. Instead, there is life imprisonment.

The law does not provide for early release of prisoners, so here, life does mean life.

Or rather, as they say in Russian prisons, "death by instalments".

On the day when Chechen rebel commander Salman Raduyev joined the list of the country's "lifers", Russian Public TV showed a report on conditions in special high-security penal colonies for this category of convicts.

Blindfolded and confined

They get to feel their special status from the very first day. When a new arrival is brought from the security van into the penal colony, he is made to wear a special cap covering his eyes - he must not know the location.

He spends the next 15 days in a quarantine cell for two, with a cellmate chosen by a psychologist.

On the outer of the two doors, there is the inmate's photograph and a list of his crimes.

A special mark, a red triangle, indicates that the convict is suicide prone. Some are known to have used the floor-cloths they are given to tidy up the cell to hang themselves.

To avoid this, a warder constantly keeps watch outside the cell.

He also checks whether the daily routine is being adhered to: the inmates are only allowed to lie down on their bunks during rest hours, and those who break the rule are placed in a punishment cell.

There are other rules too. The inmate is only allowed to answer to the warder after adopting the prescribed pose - spread-eagled against the wall.

Once a day they go for a walk. They can only go out handcuffed and escorted by several men. The exercise yard is even smaller than the cell.

The only entertainment permitted is reading and quiet games like chess or chequers, and the only way to communicate with the outside world is through letters. For the first 10 years lifers are only allowed to receive one parcel and two brief visits a year.

The only work the convicts are allowed to do is sewing mittens - in a special cell.

Only after 10 years the convict may be transferred to a low-security colony and given another job to do.


Russia's four high-security colonies for those sentenced to life imprisonment are already full - 1,355 people currently are currently serving life sentences there, and up to 200 new names are added to the list every year.

Before the middle of 2002, there will be no places left in any of the four prisons left.

But there is no money to build an extension to any of them or a new prison - the construction of one extra prison place meeting all requirements could cost about $15,000, said Russian Public TV.

The upkeep of one inmate, incidentally, costs the state $3,000 a year - most of it in staff pay.

An inmate's food, for example, costs less than $1 a day.

And now the Russian prison authorities are facing new difficulties.

Special safety conditions will have to be met for each Chechen rebel sentenced to life imprisonment: among Russian convicts, there are many of those who have fought in Chechnya, and they have their own scores to settle, the TV report said.

All this has prompted the Russian Interior Ministry's penal directorate to start drafting a new law, which would make it possible to transfer convicts on exemplary behaviour to a low-security prison after five to seven years.

And those who endure 25 years can hope for a conditional early release.

Back to the Top    Next Article