By ANDREW E. KRAMER Published: May 28, 2011
NIZHNY TAIGIL, Russia — Like a scene from a felon’s daydream, all the inmates at a prison compound here in western Russia — some 2,000 of them — are former policemen, prosecutors, tax inspectors, customs agents and judges.
Russian penitentiary authorities offered a rare tour of this specialized penal colony recently with an eye to demonstrating that these inmates receive no privileges.
In some ways, the officials proved their point. At least as far as accommodations go, the prison is as grim as most. Inside the walls of unpainted concrete slabs, barbed wire slashes the prison yards into zones for those doing hard time and minor offenders. And like the men and women they put behind bars, former police officers here live in rough-hewn brick barracks, toil in a workshop and eat boiled buckwheat and cabbage.
But the tour of the prison, Correctional Colony 13, also underscored a point that the authorities might not have intended to highlight: most of the inmates are here for work-related infractions, from accepting bribes to attacking suspects.
As Andrei V. Shumilov, a former detective, said of his conviction for beating a suspect with his fists during questioning: “I was investigating a crime, and I committed a crime myself.”
By way of justification, he mumbled that the man had suffered only “damage to soft tissue.”
The 10 prisons set aside for former policemen and others in law enforcement are a legacy of a post-Stalin reform of the penal colony system that has reduced the prevalence of some of its rougher practices. One problem the reformers identified: In prisons that housed large numbers of men in shared cells, the former policemen were often the victims of violence from fellow inmates who nursed grudges against authority figures.
Today, the police prisons are doing a brisk business — evidence, the authorities say, of President Dmitri A. Medvedev’s drive to clean up corruption. This penal colony, for example, houses 78 more inmates than its Soviet designers intended, and about 500 more than five years ago, said Sergei B. Svalkin, the warden.
The entire 10-prison system held 9,023 inmates as of Feb. 1 this year, nearly a thousand more than the 8,046 former law enforcement officials who were incarcerated in 2008, according to the federal prison service.
But critics of Russia’s criminal justice system say the overflowing jails are more a measure of the scale of the corruption in law enforcement circles and among government officials than any progress toward a solution. They point out, for instance, that prosecutors rarely solve politically inconvenient high-profile cases, like the death in pretrial detention of Sergei L. Magnitsky, a lawyer, after he testified about police corruption.
Even Interior Minister Rashid G. Nurgaliyev acknowledged in testimony to Parliament last week that checks had revealed that many senior police officials had inexplicably acquired expensive real estate. Mr. Nurgaliyev said that more than a third of the senior officers — 94 out of 250 — vetted by an anticorruption committee this spring failed to adequately address the committee’s questions. Many own property abroad, he said, despite their former jobs’ small salaries.
“We never knew it before now,” he told the lawmakers, according to the newspaper Izvestia. Separately, a member of the vetting committee told the newspaper that the property ranged from “mere apartments to colossal objects all over the world.”
No matter the prisoners’ back stories, Correctional Colony 13 offers a view of how troubled Russia’s criminal justice system has become.
The former officers spoke matter-of-factly about what they identified as a key reason they became corrupt or abusive: tiny salaries that fed frustration and made side payments a welcome supplement.
Some still seemed bewildered at being punished for actions they assumed were widely accepted Russian police practice.
Mr. Shumilov, the former police detective serving seven years for what he described as meting out bruises, said he was merely trying to crack a car-theft ring.
Aleksei K. Bushuyev, 46, a rotund ex-traffic inspector, said he took bribes to cover the upkeep of his Lada police cruiser, and not a ruble more.
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Dmitri V. Rusanov, who was a captain in the Samara Police Department, said he accepted a 10,000-ruble, or $330, bribe from a veterinarian in 2006 in exchange for not registering the man as a drug abuser in a police database. His monthly salary at the time was 8,000 rubles, about $295.
“People are not worried about losing a job that pays so little,” he explained with a shrug.
Georgi V. Azbarov, who was a captain in the Federal Security Service, the domestic successor agency to the K.G.B., before being convicted of trying to organize a murder for hire in 2003, said that the connection between low pay and brutality on the job should be obvious.
“They call a young man an officer, but pay him so little he cannot support his family,” Mr. Azbarov said. “He cannot think of anything but groceries. At the same time, he has power and authority. That is where the problem lies.”
Mr. Azbarov laid out a separate theory for higher-level corruption. Prosecutors, he said, do not follow all leads. Instead, the authorities in Moscow give carte blanche to provincial bureaucrats to make money on the side, only cracking down on those who cross the Kremlin politically. In this sense, he explained with a casual shrug, he considers many of his friends and fellow inmates in Correctional Colony 13 men as justly convicted of corruption, and political prisoners at the same time.
(For the record, Mr. Azbarov said he was falsely convicted; he said a corrupt regional police chief had set him up.)
The Russian federal prison service allowed the journalists to stroll about Correctional Colony No. 13 for several hours, interviewing inmates randomly, but only in the company of guards, a prison service press aide and the warden. They took pains to emphasize that former law enforcement agents, judges and prosecutors were treated no differently than other convicted men in Russia, refuting local news media reports that guards were allowing the former officers access to cellphones for a small through-the-bars payment.
The prison puts special emphasis on vocational training because the officials cannot return to their previous professions. It operates a die-casting shop and a painting studio, a macaroni factory and a farm with cows and chickens.
The breakdown of prisoners here shows that the vast majority, 1,590, are policemen. But there are also 22 court bailiffs, 15 officers of the Federal Security Service, a few dozen prosecutors, tax inspectors from various agencies and two judges.
Estimates vary on the scope of corruption still going on outside these walls. One came from an Interior Ministry report published in 2010 that said Russian officials had accepted $33 billion in bribes the previous year. The ministry estimated the average bribe was 23,000 rubles, or $851 at today’s exchange rate.
A new law on the police that passed in February — championed by Mr. Medvedev — is intended to reduce corruption, in part by raising salaries. It will whittle the one million-person force by 20 percent through a recertification program. Those who remain will earn at least 33,000 rubles, or $1,222, per month.
Russia’s Parliament rejected more substantive oversight. Proposals included bans on entering homes without warrants or beating women with rubber batons at street protests. Russian lawmakers discussed the second item, but eventually dismissed it as discriminatory against men.
Other changes in the law are cosmetic, including renaming the force “police” from the Soviet-era “militia.” The former officers in Colony No. 13 were particularly skeptical that the name change would make much of a difference.
“Before we were the militia; now we’re the police,” scoffed Ruslan A. Aslanov, a former officer from the Ural Mountain town of Chelyabinsk, who said that he was in prison for rupturing a suspect’s spleen while making an arrest. “Nothing changed, really.”