Russian prison inmates achieve parity: They, too, lack work to earn their keep

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SARATOV, Russia -- Once the barbed-wire factory here worked two shifts a day, gears rattling, motors roaring, twisting, chopping and spooling enough shiny, spiky wire to wrap up the whole enormous Soviet Union.

Now times are tough. Peace has come, the economy has gone to the devil, and the barbed wire orders that provided socially useful labor for the inmates of the Saratov penal colony are dwindling away.

"Yes, the world has changed," said Nikolai A. Ivanov, warden of prison colony III-382/33. "But we still have to punish people who commit crimes."

Russian prisoners pay the government for the privilege. "The main purpose is to punish them," Mr. Ivanov said, "but we also have to teach them to live according to the norms of society."

So they earn their keep by working -- in this case by making the barbed wire that fences them in. They pay for their clothes, housing and meals in the prison cafeteria. The charges are deducted from small cards they carry on which their earnings are recorded. They earn anywhere from 25,000 to 100,000 rubles a month -- $8 to $32.

"It's not a bad life; it's similar to a soldier's conditions," Mr. Ivanov said. The average beleaguered and abused Russian draftee would probably agree. A private earns 9,000 rubles ($2.90) a month in the army. But he doesn't have to pay for his food.

The market economy has meant a rising unemployment rate for prisoners, who then must be fed at government expense, officials said.

"Now about 150,000 do not work because there's no work available," said Valey B. Irigov, spokesman for the Main Department of Execution of Punishment. Russia has about 673,000 convicts.

Life here was predictable enough during the Soviet days. The government sent orders and the prisoners filled them. Now the government orders have stopped, and Warden Ivanov has been told to get on board the market economy.

Sergei N. Nikonorev, a colonel in the Interior Ministry police, has organized a marketing department. "In the new economy we have to look for customers ourselves," he said.

The prisoners are making everything from watering cans, airplane seats and refrigerator shelves to dustpans, trowels and boots.

This free market has not been easy. When Mr. Ivanov places orders for supplies, they are often two or three months in coming and inflation has made the price much higher than originally quoted.

The most promising area seems to be the metal fences and vases that mark graves here, Mr. Ivanov said.

"It's gotten more expensive to die," he confided, "and more people are dying. So there's a real demand, and it's profitable work."

Mr. Ivanov proudly escorted a visitor around the camp, which holds first offenders serving sentences from 6 months to 15 years. The prisoners sleep in dormitories, with about 25 bunk beds shoved close together in each big room.

There's a swimming pool -- the water a deep murky green -- some exercise equipment and television rooms with one small set sitting in front of a row of backless benches.

A lovely Orthodox church was built by the prisoners, and an inmate serving time for icon theft decorated it with lushly colorful paintings of the saints. He ended up getting out early for good art work.

The warden said he had seen some American films at the movies that were set in American prisons. "Are they really like that?" he asked, somewhat titillated. "Are the prisoners guarded even while working? For what?"

Here, the prisoners work unguarded, though there's clearly an underlying iron discipline. They rise silently from their work and touch their caps when the warden enters the room. The group of visitors includes a very beautiful young Russian woman in a lovely fur coat, and not one man makes a noise or sign of any kind.

"We do have to count them every hour," Mr. Ivanov said as the prisoners suddenly lined up to march outside. "It does cut down on productivity a little."

In the barbed-wire workroom, the prisoners are down to one shift. Five ancient machines are running, but only 30 tons have been ordered this year. A few years ago, Mr. Ivanov sold 2,000 tons a year.

The inmates say the work's not bad -- and it would be difficult to make conditions any worse than those found in the average factory on the outside.

A few years ago, the whole country was a prison anyway. Soviet officials liked to boast that their country -- one-sixth of the world's surface -- was surrounded by barbed wire.

Today, the prisoners have become like those anywhere.

"I didn't do it," said Anatoly Kozlov, 26, who is making barbed wire while serving 2 1/2 years for theft.

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