“A threat of GULAG revival. Human rights defender – on the idea of turn the convicts into workers”, Advokatskaya Ulitsa (Lawyers’ Street)


27 May 2021

Igor Kalyapin, photo by: Aleksey Fokin

In May, the superiors of the Federal Penitentiary Service decided to resolve the issue of labor migrants by redirecting part of convicts for compulsory labor. The idea was expectedly supported by the Investigative Committee and, unexpectedly – by the Ministry of Justice; according to “Commersant”, the first 600 convicts are going to be sent to the Baikal-Amur Mainline in the nearest future. “It will not be a GULAG, these will be absolutely new, decent conditions”, – head of the Federal Penitentiary Service Aleksandr Kalashnikov claims. Head of the Committee Against Torture Igor Kalyapin told “Ulitsa” that he was not that optimistic. He agrees that the majority of the convicts would like to work normally, but he doubts that the Federal Penitentiary Service will be able to provide them with acceptable living environment on such sites. In addition, the probability of violation of their labor rights and occupational safety is very high – as it is already going on in the penal colonies production facilities. And remoteness of the construction sites from public monitoring will finally let the Federal Penitentiary Service officers off the leash. All these factors create a real danger of GULAG revival, the human rights defender fears.

Deficit of jobs

I feel quite ambiguous about the idea of the superiors of the Federal Penitentiary Service. The situation with the convicts’ labor is a complicated and a multifaceted problem.

First of all, we need to realize that many convicts indeed want to work. It is boring to sit for years in a penal colony, one can simply go mad. In such conditions working gives at least some kind of meaning to one’s existence, because the man generally inclined to intend to produce something. Of course, if it is a real job, not a mocking Sisyphean labor. And if we are talking about normal living conditions and not a back-breaking sweatshop.

Again, it is also some kind of earning. Yes, in many penal colonies now salaries are extremely low. But it is related to poor management. If production is set up in a smart way, the convict get some kind of money. He can spend them at the local kiosk to make his food a little bit more diverse. As you understand, it is very important for those convicts who receive no parcels from home.

In addition, the material damage that the criminal inflicted to the state or to a private person is gradually compensated from the salary. It could be just symbolic payments, but they influence the possibility of release on parole.

It seems, there are only advantages all over. But in reality, the majority of the convicts do not have an opportunity to work, because the Federal Penitentiary Service production facilities have very low capacity, often damaged or not operable at all. As a result, less than 50% of convicts actually work in penal institutions. That is why from the point of view of creating work places the initiative looks reasonable. But, unfortunately, all positive sides end here and negative sides begin.

“That will work as it is”

Let us recall how the civil servants and the law-enforcement officers justify the necessity to provide the convicts with work. For several years in row now we observe the outflow of labor migrants. Important construction sites are suspended, so the idea is to fill the workplaces of those who left. At the same time, for some reason everyone forgets where and how these migrants worked.

Imagine the typical big-scale unfinished construction project at the outskirts of the city. Or remember the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) – there are discussions going on now how great it would be to complete the construction of BAM by forces of convicts. The thing is that none of these sites are fit for permanent residence. Migrants worked there on rotation: two weeks, a month, two months, but then they left – to wash and to eat and have a rest till the next hitch. But no one was living there for years.

I’m absolutely convinced that no one will preoccupy themselves with creating decent conditions for these convicts in these construction projects.

Do you think I’m exaggerating? Let us have a look at what do we have now. There are about 500 penal colonies in Russia: there is a special Prosecutor’s Office subdivision which supervises them, they are also audited by Public Monitoring Committees (PMC), lawyers get there, too. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of these institutions are not able to provide normal living conditions for the convicts for decades. The penal colony administrations keep complaining on the absence of funds or the problems with searching for the construction personnel. Even if someone is really trying to improve the situation for the better, in a few years’ time everything degrades back to wasteland.

And we are talking about stationary penal colonies, these are permanent buildings. You can imagine how it will be with temporary facilities. At the BAM, which was mentioned before, the railroad construction is not staying in one place. That is why the facility where the working convicts will be accommodated, will exist maximum for a half a year or a year and after that the new spot has to be prepared for them. Do you really believe that in these circumstances the Federal Penitentiary Service will be able to provide the people with at least minimal conditions?
If a labor migrant is not happy to work in such conditions he may pack his things and leave. And a convict has no place to go.

Distant lands

Lawyers who work in the sphere of the convicts’ rights protection, will have to seriously study the Labor Code. At these shock-work construction projects new problems with living conditions will emerge, the lawlessness of the penal colony officers will remain the same (or even worse) and inevitably the number of labor rights violations will increase. The business project has to be cost-effective – that is why the migrants’ cheaper labor is preferable. And no one will too soft on the convicts, for sure. Even now we observe a lot of violations at the Federal Penitentiary Service production sites – permanent overtime labor, absence of days off, understatement of the number of the number of worked hours, small salaries, negligence of occupational safety and health… That is how cost-effectiveness of such construction projects will be achieved.

Definitely, in such conditions it will become more complicated to defend the rights of the convicts. Not every lawyer or a member of PMC will go to BAM. Let alone the fact that they may be simply not allowed to the construction site – some new legislative prohibition will be invented.

It is also far from certain that prosecutorial oversight will go there. And the less prosecutorial oversight the uglier the things are. Which means that the convicts themselves will treat such form of sentence worse. If everyone knows that there is lawlessness at construction sites, horrible conditions and measly payment, no one will go there of their own free will. It means people will have to be brought there forcefully – and then, for sure, we will be able to speak of the GULAG revival.

Who will be guarding the construction workers?

I hope that this idea will be discussed a little more and then it all ends here. It looks quite simple: why cons sit and do nothing, let us send them to BAM to work, they will be grateful in the end. But if we consider this as a serious business project, it will turn out that it requires huge investments and costs which most likely will never pay off.

The main problem here – who, after all, will have to go to BAM? Those who have “compulsory labor” in their verdict? But we have very few of those – mere percents from all the convicts. This punishment is very rarely applied in Russia and there are no prerequisites that the situation might change (in 2020 there were 5.4 thousand people sentenced to compulsory labor).

Yes, since recently those who are convicted for a number of crimes have a right, after having served the part of the sentence, they can apply for a milder sentence in the form of compulsory labor. But it is not for the Federal Penitentiary Service to decide. And if now the Prosecutor’s Office and the court are always dismissing the claims of release on parole, why would they behave differently with compulsory labor?

But, even if they will be given clearance to switch the convicts to workforce massively, these people will still remain convicts. It means that the construction sites will have to be turned into secure facilities. They will have to be fenced, security guards will have to be provided, security issues will demand serious investment. To relocate the Federal Penitentiary Service officers, provide them with decent temporary accommodation, social package, and etc.

Taken all together, it turns out to be very expensive – it’s cheaper to pay to the workers. At least, they don’t have to be guarded.

And it would be a mistake to think that one can achieve budget savings by closing down some of the penal colonies. It is impossible to take the whole penal colony to construction site. Some convicts will refuse, others will be too old or their health will be not good enough, or they would have not applicable articles under which they were sentenced or inapplicable professional backgrounds. And in the end, the old penal colony will remain and a new one will emerge on BAM – the mobile one. Maybe the Federal Penitentiary Service will have to hire more staff.

The effectiveness of slavery

And still, I’m very worried with the fact that our civil servants regularly come up with a mad and populist idea to plug the some in the budget with convicts. The idea is, let them build BAM, fix oil spills in the Arctic or let them just spade the lawns. Each time this initiative receives support of the law-enforcement officers, but this time it was supported both by the Ministry of Justice and the head of the Council of Human Rights. I am afraid that sooner or later some kind of project of this sort will be implemented, and it will lead to very grave consequences.

Convicts have to be dealt with, it is necessary to find out what led them to crime. Yes, the person needs to be isolated from the society – but not from the people. Useful communications – family, friends – should remain. Close people should have an opportunity to visit the convict, and not 2-3 times a year, like now, but more often. In order to make this possible people should not serve their sentence at BAM, but in more accessible locations.

Every convict shall be treated as the person who will be released tomorrow. We need to start thinking now where he will go, where he will work, what he needs to be taught. That’s, possibly, the re-socialization process that should be in place.

Those who volunteer for it need to be provided with working professions not some exotic skills what they will find useful only in the Federal Penitentiary Service production facilities. For eight years in a row grown-up men are attaching sleeves to the police uniforms. Naturally, they won’t do this when they are released – there is simply no demand for such a number of sewing machine operators.

The convicts may be regarded as sick people, only their sickness is inflicted not by viruses or bacteria. It’s a behavioral sickness. They may have psychological problems, problems with education, in some situations they cannot control themselves. They were not taught to earn their living in a proper way, do something useful without disgust. These are the problems that have to be solved. Then there is a chance that the person will not get back to prison.

In the same old way, we are still regarding the convicts as free workforce. But now we live in absolutely different economical reality. Those times when the slaves built canals, bridges or hydro power plants, are gone. Now this compulsory labor is simply not efficient.

You know, we can argue about the idea of eternal engine, but there are some fundamental physical laws that tell us that it is impossible to create it. There also economic laws which tell us that no construction project of XXI century where compulsory labor is utilized will not be efficient. It will be expensive and its quality will be poor.

Source: Advokatskaya Ulitsa
Recorded by Kirill Kapitonov

Editor: Aleksandr Chernykh (“Kommersant” Publishing House)

Подтвердите, что вам есть 18 лет