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Russian Jails in Crisis

For decades the United States government used its propaganda machine to rail about the former Soviet Union's prison system. That the American government is silent about the new Russian prison system is more an indication of the fact that Russia has formally restored capitalism and reached an accommodation with foreign capital rather than any improvements in its prison system. As capitalism takes hold in Russia, with the massive impoverishment of the population, the new Russian state increasingly relies on imprisonment to keep the population and "crime" in check. Recent reports indicate jails are in the worst state they have been in for nearly a century.

Valery Abramkin, the director of the Moscow Center for Prison Reform, recently visited Moscow's Butyrka prison, which houses pre trial detainees. The prison was built over 200 years ago by Catherine the Great to hold 3,000 prisoners. It now holds over 6,000. He stated that cells built for 28 prisoners now hold up to 110. When parliament members went to the prison to investigate conditions he said they had to push their way through the crowd like a bus at rush hour. "Some of us fainted after five minutes. In daytime there is nowhere to sit. At night prisoners sleep in three shifts."

Abramkin, who served over six years in Soviet prisons concludes "Being detained in Russian jails nowadays is even more terrible than it was in Soviet prisons." Alvin Bronstein, the director of the ACLU's National Prison Project, toured Butyrka in 1992 and stated "The place was dirty and damp, and hot, with exposed wires all around, and leaking toilets and faucets. The prison director indicated he had no money for cleaning supplies or paint. It was as bad as anything I had ever seen."

Detainees not accused of capital crimes can spend between one and five years awaiting trial. The Kresty prison in St. Petersburg was built to hold 1,000 prisoners at the turn of the century, it now holds more than 10,000. Up to fourteen prisoners are kept in cells measuring 8 square yards (approx.10' x 7'). The police colonel in charge of St. Petersburg prisons has informed prosecutors he will no longer accept people under investigation. "I don't want to be an executioner," he said.

The report stated that guards often beat detainees. Russia's 164 jails and detention centers have a capacity of 153,000 detainees but hold more than 240,000 people. 160,000 are not even charged with a crime but merely under investigation. The results of the overcrowding are high levels of violence, disease and suicides. Needless to say, the American government is strangely silent about this state of affairs. Just a decade ago this would have been the object of outrage and criticism. It indicates that concern for "human rights" is used solely as a propaganda tool to advance American interests rather than human welfare.

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