9 JULY 2001

The first time Sergei was sent to the youth prison in Kolpino he was 14 years old. He and two other boys had been sentenced to two years in jail for stealing money and alcohol. Although the stolen goods were not worth much, the judge was convinced that the three worked in cahoots. By Russian law, that qualified them for extra punishment as "organized criminals."

The Reality of Life in Russia's Juvenile Prisons

Shortly after his release, Sergei was arrested again for breaking into a store. This time, the sentence was even more disproportionately severe: six years confinement, initially in the Kolpino youth prison about 30 km (18.5 miles) from the center of St. Petersburg -- and later in a male adult prison closer to the Czarist capital.
Sergei said that after his release he again committed petty crimes because he was "bored." He said he did not want to work, and, like many of the other teenagers doing time in Kolpino, his parents neglected him.

During the interview, Sergei's eyes were fixed and glassy, his pupils shrunk to the size of pinholes. That, too, is typical. Almost all of the 300 juvenile inmates in Kolpino are drug addicts.

Currently, there are about 18,000 young people between 14 and 18 in Russian juvenile detention facilities. More than half of them are serving sentences of three to five years for theft. The legal practice here is to imprison youthful first offenders, even for stealing flour and eggs.  Police and justice officials have to show their bosses how hard-working and efficient they are, and that means they have to arrest and punish a certain number of criminals every month. The gravity of the offence matters little. What is important is to fulfill the plan.

The facility at the small town of Kolpino is one of those penitentiaries reserved for young men between 14 and 21. The prison is on the outskirts of the town's industrial park. Depending on the wind, the prison is blanketed either with the exhaust of a polyethylene or that of a metal-working factory.

Apart from a few scraggly birch trees around the basketball court, the place is landscaped in dreary industrial concrete. The water and heating pipes run three meters (10 feet) above ground across the prison property. At one place, the warm water is leaking. The warden says the pipes were in that condition when he took over six months earlier, and there is no money available to fix them.

Besides the warden, the prison employs 16 other people. Eight of them work directly with prisoners and the others guard exits and man the watchtowers. The prison staff is operating 50 percent below capacity. The jobs pay badly, and guards would rather supervise adults.

Young inmates, it seems, are unpredictable, and it can be difficult to get them to obey the rules. Unlike adults, many of the teenagers have no relatives or friends to bring them money, food and clothing while they are in prison. The inmates themselves might not use such gifts directly, but they can certainly put them to other use.

Although chronically understaffed, Kolpino is quiet and orderly. As the warden never tires of repeating, these are the cardinal virtues of a Russian prison. He says when he came to Kolpino, the first thing he did was reorganize the prison and change the composition of the "companies."

*    *    *

As in all Russian prisons, the inmates at Kolpino are divided up into companies of 100, each of which is subdivided into sub-groups of 25 youths. The system is patterned on the organization used in the Russian army. Each of the companies is led by a "commander" from among the prison population who rules over his fellow inmates, supported by the "elders" from the respective sub-units. The commanders, the elders and a few of their close associates belong to the "activist" prisoners. The activists collaborate with the prison administration.

Collaboration means that the activists see to it that the prison population remains quiet and orderly and that all incidents are reported to the administration. In exchange they enjoy certain privileges. The activists are allowed to have longer telephone calls with friends and relatives, have regular visits and can enjoy a rare excursion outside the walls. The warden characterizes this group as people "on the road to improvement." A young inmate paroled for a portion of his sentence is almost always an activist.

Those who do not want to collaborate with the administration belong to the "humbled." The activists force them to do all the dirty work like getting down on their hands and knees to clean floors and toilets. In Kolpino, activists are easily distinguished from the "humbled." Activists wear better shoes, longer hair and modern jogging suits. The rank and file walk around in flip-flops, and their heads are shaved.

When young prisoners leave their living and sleeping quarters, they have to wear black uniforms and caps. They are led by the companies into the dark and stuffy dining areas where their midday meal is served in aluminum bowls. The warden says each prisoner receives a daily food ratio worth 24 rubles (82 U.S. cents).

After eating, the boys raise their hands and are paraded past the guards, who check them for stolen food or dining utensils. Despite these controls, the prisoners smuggle food into the sleeping halls. They then give it to the commanders because it is beneath a commander's dignity to enter the dining area.

After meals, all inmates attend roll call together. They stand in long rows beside the soccer field and are counted off. Many of the boys look younger than 14. Some have faces that are still quite childlike and are barely five feet tall.

*    *    *

Malnutrition, lack of fresh air and the tense atmosphere within the companies prevent them from developing to a size normal for their age. Two uniformed prison guards strut up and down the ranks mustered for roll call. The field echoes with the count: "...298, 299, 300..." 
High above it all stands the warden on the balcony of the administration building. He casually leans on the balcony railing and lights up a cigarette, gazing out over the mass of black-clad youth at his feet.

The warden's shake-up of the companies initially led to unrest among the prison population. Physical violence and psychological coercion was used to settle who would be "commanders," "seniors" and "humbled" in the new companies. The new "activist" leadership is largely the product of that process. Although the warden recognizes most of the inmates only by their faces, he knows the most reliable of the activists by name.

In Kolpino, every company occupies one floor of a housing block. There are halls on every floor, each of which houses one sub-unit of 25 men. There is also a recreation room. The choicest beds in the dormitories, those where the "seniors" and their deputies sleep, are the ones furthest from the entrance. Their colorful wool blankets set them apart from the gray ones distributed to the others. The dormitories have no doors. Just a thin curtain separates them from the hallway. Right now, the prison is not fully occupied because two waves of amnesties at the beginning of the year reduced the population from 400 to 300.

The boys are educated in the freshly renovated school. There are four classes from seventh to 10th grade to give the inmates what by Russian standards is considered a complete education. But it is hard to teach them. Some can just barely read when they arrive at Kolpino, while others have already completed several grades. Many are not used to the discipline of doing anything regularly.

Most of these boys have been brought up in orphanages or by alcoholic parents. They have lived a long time in the streets and are already mentally disturbed when they end up in prison.  Others have avoided school out of principle. This includes the commanders and some of the activists who feel attending school or vocational training would violate their code of conduct. Instead, they play soccer and train to stay fit for the next fight for dominance in the prison.

There is no special education program or mental health treatment available. Those who are no longer of mandatory school age either attend vocational training or go to work. A workshop is supposed to teach trades and crafts, but even the warden admits that hardly any inmates leave prison having completed training. The boys are instead put to work gluing medicine boxes or sawing wood to make coffins. And even this work is done so poorly that hardly anyone buys the results.

Yelena Galaktyonov, a volunteer from the legal aid department of the organization Memorial -- which intervenes on behalf of prisoners and seeks to document the crimes of the communist dictatorship -- is trying to help them by stimulating them to depart from their everyday prison routine. Since the early 1990s, Ms. Galaktyonov has been coming to Kolpino. She established a library there and plans to build a greenhouse. Last year, the Robert Bosch Foundation awarded her a grant of DM50,000 ($21,500) to build it. Ms. Galaktyonov wants to persuade the young inmates to work in the greenhouse and get them to change their thinking. With luck, she can help prisoners get used to living within the bounds of the law. Whether the organization has been successful, is impossible to tell since Memorial's volunteers do not keep statistics.

It is hoped that Memorial can improve the reintegration of boys who have been released. But with recidivism rates of around 50 percent, prison authorities simply give them a hearty "see you later" upon their release.

By Barbara Wieland{B1311FD3-FBFB-11D2-B228-00105A9CAF88}&doc={D83F8386-5E82-11D5-A3B5-009027BA22E4}&width=1152&height=836&agt=explorer&ver=4&svr=4



Readers are always welcome to comment on material in "Today".  MAIL COMMENT HERE.
Comments will be published in CYC-NET's daily e-mail discussion group.

In the panel on the left you will find similar brief writings
which you may have missed since your last visit.