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Behind bars and far from home: Experiences of Russian young offenders

Updated Monday 16th May 2011

Sometimes thousands of miles from home - if they have a home - and frightened. What is life really like for Russian young offenders, and how do their surrounding compare to British centres?

Laurie Taylor:
Way back in the 1970s I was asked if I'd like to become a member of the Board of Visitors at a local borstal institution. Well I accepted, I quickly learnt that one of my tasks would be interviewing a selected group of lads - that was the preferred term then for inmates - and deciding if they were ready to be released.

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Well, it wasn't an easy job because even though some of the youths I interviewed had committed serious and often violent offences they nearly all exuded an air of desperation and defeat, in many cases they had no homes to go to, virtually no possibility of an outside job and yet were often already being required to pay maintenance for children they'd fathered and for wives they'd either abandoned or lost.

I remember bringing up this sense of well futility at a board meeting - isn't there anything we could do to help the boys, the lads that is, after they're released, I asked, otherwise they'll simply be back here again in a couple of months? Well, the chairman clearly didn't like my sympathetic tone. "They've made their bed and they must lie on it," he said carefully, "they're not children anymore."

That phrase came back to me as I was reading a new book called Children in Custody which vividly contrasts the custodial treatment of young people in Russia and in England. The author, Mary McAuley, visited 10 penal institutions, all across Russia, and spoke to many of their young inmates. Here's one of them describing his first impressions of incarceration:

Inmate's words :
I stood in the entrance. I didn't want to go into that dark damp little room, smelling of cigarette smoke and damp. But the door clanged shut. It sounded like a cannon shot. I turned to stone, it was so frightening; it felt as though these were the last few seconds of my life.

Six kids were looking at me with hungry eyes. I had the feeling that they would tear me to pieces, each of them was thinking about which part of me he would tear off.

Laurie Taylor:
Well earlier today I spoke to Mary McAuley, who's an associate of the International Centre for Prison Studies at the University of Essex, about her Russian research and I began by asking her to describe a typical Russian institution for young offenders, a so-called educational colony.

Mary McAuley:
The outsides are typical - high walls - and here they're not that different from their English counterparts - high walls, perimeter fences, the barbed wire, the rolled barbed wire up atop and a complicated system of entry. Inside there will probably be more, in the Russian one, of getting through various barriers and stages until you're inside.

Now once you're inside they do differ, they differ both among themselves and from English ones. English ones, as we know, you'll have boys in individual cells, in the Russian ones it's barracks - they're sleeping in dormitories.

Young Offenders Centre Moorland Creative commons image Icon Oxana Maher under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license
The English approach - HMP & YOI Moorland

Laurie Taylor:
And they'll also be in uniform, will they?

Mary McAuley:
The boys will be in uniform and they will have shaven heads.

Laurie Taylor:
And you report, I think, armed guards are frequently seen?

Mary McAuley:
Well, the guards who are working inside those will have batons; there may be armed guards on the perimeter fence.

Laurie Taylor:
And when the inmates are moving around, they're often required to march around?

Mary McAuley:
They tend to march and they will line up, they will march, they will march from school - because there'll be a school there - from the workshop, to their barracks, to the dining hall. And they'll very often shout out a rowdy song as they go.

Laurie Taylor:
You've talked about some of the reasons, some of the crimes, which get people sent to these educational colleges, but I think many people in this country would be surprised by some of the severity of the sentences which are handed out - average sentences of around something like four years. Here is how one of the boys that you spoke to described his sentencing.

Inmate's words :
It was my birthday and the judge gave me a spiteful smile and said: "Well then, best wishes for your birthday and here's my present for you - three years in custody - I think you'll be pleased." And smiling she left. That was one year and two months ago. I can't forget that day.

Laurie Taylor:
That does seem almost explicitly cruel, doesn't it?

Mary McAuley:
It does, and I don't think we should take that as typical. We could say, I would say, more that judges are constrained by a system which lays down rather strict rules on the kind of sentences you must give.

Laurie Taylor:
A tariff system?

Mary McAuley:
A tariff system. And here's an example where for children they're not appropriate - a group crime in Russian criminal law automatically gets you a higher sentence, a longer sentence.

Now, there's a difference between a group of organised men, engaged in organised crime, and a group of teenagers joyriding.

Laurie Taylor:
And you don't have juvenile courts there, do you, and you don't particularly have judges who've been trained in dealing with juvenile cases?

Mary McAuley:
You don't have juvenile courts and nor traditionally have you had judges trained in them.

Laurie Taylor:
I suppose the other big difference is the sheer distance of the Russian institutions away from the offenders' homes.

Mary McAuley:
It is, let me give you, I suppose we could say, the worst example. Russia, as we know, is a huge country, there are only three colonies for young women, for girls, because there's not that many girl offenders who are sentenced.

That means that a child from Sakhalin off the eastern coast may travel 5,000 miles to a colony.

The boys tend to get sent within their own region - but a region can be 2,000 miles from north to south.

Laurie Taylor:
And indeed, as you made plain, almost the contemplation of the journey, the contemplation of the distance to be travelled, can be a pretty nasty psychological experience. Here's one account.

Inmate's words :
To be honest I was scared of the thought of the journey. They took us under guard with dogs to the railway cattle trucks.

They were coarse and cruel, shouted at us, insulted us, pushed us around and even kicked us - those damn guards. But we were lucky - the boys really got it.

They beat them much more and worse, humiliated them every which way, it was awful to watch. The boys cried and begged for help but nobody can help them, there's no one to turn to.

They took them into an adjoining car and beat them - we heard the sounds and then saw their bloody faces.

Laurie Taylor:
How typical?

Mary McAuley:
I hope it's not typical. That is a quotation from somebody, a girl, remembering about 10 years ago now. Having said that, there [are] still long distances to be travelled and the people who are in charge of the railway cars on that occasion are not particularly well disposed towards the kids.

Laurie Taylor:
And of course this distance that has to be travelled does mean that there's very little chance, I suppose, for these boys and girls to be visited by their parents or by friends?

Mary McAuley:
Well I remember one boy writing and saying: "I've been here for 10 months and I haven't seen anybody yet. Now," he said, "it's not because my parents are alcoholics or drug addicts, they're just old, they're pensioners and they've got 13 of us they're responsible for, looking after my nephews and nieces as well."

Then he goes on, he says: "It was my nephews who were crying and begging for bread that made me start to steal. After all, with water from the tap all day you can't get your stomach full."

Laurie Taylor:
And of course they are, presumably, allowed to telephone or to write, those forms of communication?

Mary McAuley:
Writing is fine […] if you've anyone to write to. A third of these children come out of children's homes, they've no families, they've no relatives, they've no one to write to. You can telephone but not all the colonies have telephones.

Laurie Taylor:
Your book is providing a contrast between England and Russia, you've already mentioned some of the differences, in particular the much more barrack-like way in which these people are housed in the Russian system, compared to the greater isolation which exists in England.

But other differences are rather interesting because of the statistics for suicide and for self-harm when we look at a comparison between these figures.

Mary McAuley:
The suicide figures for England are one of the things that shock Russian colony governors because they don't have suicide figures on that level. Now one reason for that you could say is because under the Russian system the children are monitored 24 hours a day, they sleep in barracks, they're monitored day and night.

Self-harm does happen, but in the Russian circumstance it's more likely to be a collective self-harming protest when for one reason or another enough of the children are willing to take action because they feel they can't take something anymore, be it corrupt prison officers…

Laurie Taylor:
What sort of action are you talking about, what type of thing?

Mary McAuley:
Well, they would manage to get hold of razor blades, sharp bits of something and they will cut themselves.

Laurie Taylor:
But as a collective act of defiance?

Mary McAuley:
Yes - a collective act of defiance.

Or it could even be an attack upon the guard.

Laurie Taylor:
You spoke to Russian prison governors and officers who came and visited British institutions for young offenders, you've spoken already of the shock they expressed about the statistics in England for suicide and self-harm. What did they make of other aspects of our institutions?

Mary McAuley:
Well they know before they come they're going to see a level of technology, we could say, that they don't have. They will be amazed by the CCTV systems, the way there will be a block within the institution which is observing what's going on without it.

They will be amazed, although they will have been told beforehand not to be amazed, they will be amazed by the television, the video equipment, the posters in the small cells.

They will be shocked - I remember some being very shocked - to find two boys playing cards. Playing cards is just not on, it means you're into gambling.

Laurie Taylor:
The other similarity - and it's in a way it's an unexpected similarity - is in terms of the number of people who are thus confined, as a proportion of the population. Because here really there's quite a similarity between the Russian predilection for locking up young people and our own.

Mary McAuley:
We are the two criminals in Europe in that respect - Russia, and England and Wales. We lock up far more of our children than anybody else in Europe.

Laurie Taylor:
Your use of the word "criminal" in that context suggests that you feel the incarceration of children is something which should be much reduced in both countries?

Mary McAuley:
I do.

This discussion was originally broadcast as part of Thinking Allowed on BBC Radio 4, 11th May 2011

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