In August, PRI’s Executive Director and Evaluation and Learning Adviser visited our Moscow office to carry out training on monitoring and evaluation and to talk to some of the partners we work with there. Our current work in Russia includes promoting alternatives to imprisonment, particularly probation, improving public oversight of prisons and implementing the rights of women prisoners (including those with babies in prison). The people we met gave an independent perspective on the current situation and partnership working with PRI.
The prison population in Russia has decreased significantly in recent years, dropping from over 1 million prisoners three years ago to 681,600 as of 1 September 2013. However, it still has one of the highest rates of imprisonment and although a new law on probation has been drafted, little progress has been made over the past couple of years to make it a reality. The intention is to create a federal service which will provide social enquiry reports and monitor people given probation orders. However, in view of the scale of such a project, it is likely that progress will be incremental, probably starting with juvenile offenders. It was suggested that full implementation might not take place until 2020.
Russia is a huge country and public oversight of prisons is currently carried out through a network of local NGOs and civil society organisations. Funding is patchy and there are only 80 + public oversight commissions with around 1,000 members who are entitled to carry out visits. Transport costs are very high and NGOs do not always have funds to carry out visits. This makes it hard for them to provide an effective monitoring service and the general view is that some POCs are effective but some are not. Without stronger powers and resources, much depends on the local prison authority but in any event there are structural and financial weaknesses within the present system.
Over the past few years, PRI’s Moscow office has sought to improve conditions for women prisoners with babies in prison, in particular to enable the women to live with their babies (instead of both having separate accommodation inside the colony) and receive support with parenting skills. PRI is in the forefront of organisations promoting implementing of the Bangkok Rules for women offenders, which (among other things) provide for women’s particular health and hygiene needs in prison, protect their dignity and security and encourage contact with their families. One official commented that the experience of prison is ‘catastrophic’ if a prisoner does not have a family and this is particularly true for women prisoners who, because there are fewer of them and consequently fewer prisons, often serve their sentence vary far away from their families and with little chance of family visits. The Moscow Psychological-Pedagogic Institute provides support for juvenile offenders, and commented that of the children they see, about 20% have no family and others have dysfunctional families. This lack of family support or contact is a major challenge for children and adults alike.
NGOs in Russia are subject to recent changes in the law, which require them to register as ‘foreign agents’ if they receive funding from abroad. This is very damaging for their reputation and many human rights NGOs are fearful for their future. Yet despite the many challenges, the organisations we met remained committed to constructive engagement with government and public authorities, pursuing an incremental approach to change as the best option in the current political climate.