Valentin Danilov: Does the Parole System Need Changing?

posted 19 Apr 2011, 00:32 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 29 Apr 2011, 07:52 ]
Source: (info), 14/04/11

· Valentin Danilov · Prisoners

At the beginning of March 2011 the director of the Federal Penitentiary Service, Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Reimer, sent the editor of
Novaya gazeta a letter. He proposed that all interested persons should begin a discussion about a number of aspects of reform of the prison system, including the institution of parole. The scientist Valentin Danilov, unjustly convicted of espionage, has taken up this suggestion.

Valentin Danilov answers the questions: Does the parole system need changing? Should the courts be removed from the question of deciding eligibility for parole? What conditions should be observed by prisoners for them to be eligible for parole?

I am very distressed by the initiative of the head of the Federal Penitentiary Service to begin a public discussion about parole. The fact is that the question of parole is no longer within the purview of the penitentiary system. According to the law (Article 79 of the Penal Code of the Russian Federation), parole is given by the courts where the courts recognize that an individual does not need to complete their prison term in order for them to be reformed. As in Article 78, the legislator clearly overstepped the mark in formulating the demands for parole.

Again, if, with regard to the setting of parole, strict periods of the term of the sentence have been established that, clearly, in no way depend on the individual character of the prisoner, then it is pointless to evaluate the necessity for them. I’ll explain why.

Suppose that a person has confessed to everything, has been re-trained (has completed training in a new profession and all the time has worked with commitment, and has supported social connections or created new ones if there previously weren’t any), and has already served half of their prison term. What point is there in detaining the prisoner until they have completed two-thirds of their sentence?

I continue to insist that the Federal Penitentiary Service must focus on the task of implementing punishment. The question of the reform of prisoners, if you will forgive me, must be done from a different budget and by other organizations – of course, in collaboration with the Federal Penitentiary Service. The task of the Penitentiary Service is to isolate those convicted from society and to prevent them from killing each other in these places of isolation. That’s all. The Federal Penitentiary Service does not have the funds to do any more, in the amount required needed to achieve the reform of prisoners. The Federal Penitentiary Service knows this better than anyone else.

Ideally, if there was adequate finance, and society also played an active part, anti-social individuals who enter the institutions of the Federal Penitentiary Service (penal colonies, and open-type colonies) would leave them as socialized exemplars of capitalist labour.

That’s how it would be ideally. But for the time being there are only barely enough resources for isolation of prisoners from society, and for providing them with the most limited kind of secondary education and the basics of manual professions.

From all this it follows that the Federal Penitentiary Service, sharing as it does responsibility for the unlawful behaviour of citizens with other law enforcement structures, would be better off discussing the questions of reforming prisoners, and not deciding whether a particular prisoner has reformed or not. It is, after all, only green tomatoes that have been lying in a warm, dark place that can ripen to a pinky-red maturity – and not even all of these can do it.

Therefore, if my opinion and my answers to these questions which, according to Novaya gazeta, were set by Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Reimer, are of interest to anyone, I can answer them as follows.

Does the system of parole need to be changed?

No, it does not need to be changed. The only thing that needs to be done is to make all the periods used to determine the timing of the transfer of prisoners from correction colonies to open-type colonies, and from open-type colonies to parole, equal, irrespective of the seriousness of the crimes for which individual prisoners have been sentenced. The seriousness of the crime has already been taken into account in the length of sentence, and increasing the share of the sentence that should be served before a prisoner becomes eligible for next stage is excessive. I would make one proposal: after a prisoner has served half their sentence, they should be transferred to an open-type colony; and after they have served two-thirds of their sentence, no matter what the crime, a prisoner should be eligible for parole.

Is it worth excluding the courts from the chain of decision-making for parole?

No, this should not be done. All that is needed is to open up court decisions on parole to public oversight, as this is already foreseen in the plans to publish on the Internet information about the work of the courts. I continue to believe that the publication on the Internet of audio-recordings of court hearings will significantly improve the quality of the work of the courts.

It is well-known that in individual cases the courts issue unjust decisions on parole, and what is more, not merely unjust but outrageously unjust. This has even obliged the ‘victims’ of this kind of justice to appeal to the guarantor of the constitution of the Russian Federation, President Dmitry Medvedev, as has happened over the decisions on parole in the cases of Svetlana Bakhmina and Aigul Makhmudova. But this does not mean that the courts are not competent to deal with such ‘difficult’ questions as parole or that these questions should be removed from their jurisdiction.

Quite the opposite. The Supreme Court of the Russian Federation must continue its explanatory and interpretive work on the legal practice relating to parole. In fact, court hearings in relation to parole should be of a very factual nature. In court the following facts must be established:

а) Has the prisoner served the share of their sentence that makes them by law eligible for parole?

b) Will the prisoner have, on release, a job and a place to live that will enable them to provide for themselves without violating the law?

c) Does the prisoner have any issues with the victims of their crime that would make it difficult for them to go to the place where the victims live? If this problem exists, then the court decision must lay down another location where the prisoner must go on release on parole;

d) Is there a need for the prisoner to receive social assistance when on parole? If so, then the court must provide for this by means of the structures of social adaptation for former prisoners.

I never cease to be amazed when, in ruling on questions of parole, courts consider questions of the violation of prison regulations by a prisoner during the course of their sentence. For those who do not know, I will give a list of the most ‘popular’ violations of these regulations.

Violation of the daily timetable (was late to get up at 5:30 or 6:30 – depending on the penal colony).

Violation of clothing regulations (put on a track suit earlier or later than free time; went out in the wrong footwear into a local sector from the sleeping quarters).

Smoking in a place where it is forbidden.

And so on.

It is easy to see that these ‘violations’ are not socially dangerous and can in no way serve as a basis for denial of parole.

These violations directly influence the kind of regime under which the prisoner is kept during imprisonment. There are only three of these: general, relaxed and strict. The regimes are significantly different in terms of the conditions of detention. That’s all.

So, violations of prison regulations influence the regime of detention. It is impossible to understand on what basis a court can take these violations into account in considering questions of parole. If the prisoner with an unbuttoned shirt collar (or something else buttoned up in the same place) walked through their living quarters to go to lunch or to the club, then does this mean they cannot be released on parole? That’s to say, they might start walking around after release with an unbuttoned shirt or jacket.

When in 1996 legislators increased the periods of imprisonment for practically all crimes under the new Penal Code of the Russian Federation, they simultaneously introduced strict periods for parole, removing them from the authority of the prison administration. It was assumed that for the previous (shorter) terms of imprisonment, a prisoner would be released when they had served out their full sentence, and for them parole would function as an additional period of supervision after their release.

Probably, it would have been possible not to change the length of sentences, but just to establish a rule, that at the end of their sentence, a prisoner would be released under supervision (on parole) for some period defined as a proportion of the sentence served, or, let’s say, a set period. But from the point of view of the law, most likely, everything was done correctly. But parole as established is a completely formal procedure. When the time has come, then goodbye, the term in prison has been enough.

As a variant, it would be possible to make parole quite ‘automatic’. When the time has come, the prison administration fills out a document on parole, just as formerly this would have been done at the end of a prisoner’s sentence, and the prisoner in question must go to the place indicated in the document, to be registered for supervision on parole. This is in the logic of the legislators when they increased the periods and introduced parole set in accordance to a specific proportion of the prison term. However, the interests of the victim will not be taken into consideration here.

Of course, the opinion of the prison administration is taken into account by the court in a parole hearing, but only in the sense that is allowed by law.

The prison administration would not give the court an opinion, but a factual testimony about the work of a prisoner while in prison: if they worked, if they trained in a particular specialism, about their education, whether they participated in particular events (sport, cultural, and so on) or not. It is not an opinion that is needed, but facts, confirming the ability of the prisoner to lead an independent life after release.

What conditions must be observed by the prisoner, so that they can be released on parole?

There is only one condition, and that is that the prisoner should not commit, during the term of imprisonment, a new crime that would increase, through a new sentence, the time to be served in prison, and thereby postpone the day when the prisoner becomes eligible for parole.

Finally, it must be said that the main issue that the Federal Penitentiary Service must resolve is how to attract additional resources from society to the work of reforming prisoners. There are already prison visitors from the Public Chamber, but these are observers and what is needed is people who will work together with the prison system on the reform of prisoners.

Prisoners are full members of society in the Russian Federation who have been deprived of liberty, and they are far from being the worst part of this society. While there is no need to have illusions about the qualities of this group of people, it is not necessary to go to the other extreme. There is much evidence that says that time spent in prison does not mark the end of the rest of the life of the person imprisoned. And readers will not need to me to remind them of the Russian proverb ‘You can’t escape from prison or from your own baggage’ and how it works in Russia.
Rights in Russia,
19 Apr 2011, 00:33