Russia’s Justice Minister Sergei Stepashin was in Chelyabinsk Oblast last week to mark the transfer of prisons in the Urals region from the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) to the Justice Ministry. (Novye izvestia, March 20) This was the first handover in the transfer of responsibility for all of Russia’s prisons and labor camps from police to civilian control. Russia undertook to make the transfer when it joined the Council of Europe in 1996.
Originally, President Yeltsin ordered that the transfer should take place by June. That date has now slipped to the fall. (RTR, March 17) Postponement was blamed on footdragging by Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov, who has been unwilling to relinquish responsibility for the prisons or lose the federal funding and staff that go with the job. Bureaucratic interests being what they are, it is probably too much to expect that Kulikov’s recent ouster will speed the process. Speaking in Chelyabinsk last week, Stepashin openly accused Kulikov of diverting federal funds assigned to the prison service. He complained, for example, that the MVD had, in anticipation of the transfer, reduced from 167 to seventeen the number of armored personnel carriers assigned to the prison service and transferred the surplus to other parts of the police force.
Stepashin also expressed concern about the high number of resignations in the prison service (some 40,000 prison officers the past four years). Many officers, hearing that the prisons would be subordinated to the Justice Ministry, feared that they would lose privileges and have therefore transferred to posts in other parts of the MVD. (Novye izvestia, March 20)
Conditions in Russia’s prisons are well below international standards. Regulations on health and overcrowding are routinely ignored. Izvestia commented on February 27 that, though everyone realizes that improvements can not be wrought overnight, it would be an enormous step forward if the Justice Ministry merely started to enforce the existing laws.
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