Closing the Gulags

By Anna Nemtsova

Change is finally coming to Russia's notoriously harsh jails. Last month President Dmitry Medvedev announced a major prison overhaul after public outrage erupted over a young lawyer's death from lack of medical treatment while he awaited trial. Russia's system is plagued with the world's second-highest incarceration rate (some 900,000 people at present), and conditions have changed little since Stalin's time. Among the reforms, Medvedev plans to punish minor crimes with house arrest or bail, to soften sentences for first-time offenders and house them separately from career criminals, and to close 755 of the country's most decrepit prison colonies.

For almost half of Russia's incarcerated, though, the reforms will make life much harder. Closing rural camps will concentrate 400,000 repeat offenders into overcrowded central prisons. Their living quarters will change from large barracks to cramped four-person cells. Most of them will lose their rights to work, study, and conjugal visits. One prisoner's "reform" is about to become another's gulag nightmare.