Does the Rostov-on-Don Hostage Incident Reflect a Systemic Problem with Russia’s Prisons?

June 21, 2024
  • Kirill Titaev
    Visiting researcher, Yale University
Political scientist Kirill Titaev explains why the rules and conditions in Russia’s prisons increase the likelihood of prisoners committing crimes and what could be done to reduce those risks.
A hostage held by a prisoner in Rostov prison. June 2024. Source: VK
The original text in Russian was published in Forbes and is being republished here with their permission

In mid-June several people convicted and accused of terrorism took hostage two officers of the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN). According to some reports, one of them was quite high-ranking.

The terrorists were killed (we do not actually know whether they were terrorists and, most likely, we will never know, but the fact of hostage-taking made them terrorists beyond any doubt), and the hostages were released, according to the FSIN, unharmed.

Obviously, unfortunate combinations of circumstances can periodically lead to disasters or tragedies, and they cannot be foreseen. But what happened in Rostov-on-Don might also reflect systemic problems at the FSIN.

If the prisoners at the detention center (abbreviated SIZO in Russian) got their hands on items that they should not have been able to receive legally, conspired among themselves (which should have been impossible if the rules had been followed), were able to prepare to commit a crime and committed one, even if unsuccessfully, then there might be something wrong with the system.

The crime could not have been committed without the help of the detention center staff. Typically, a prison officer does not expect that items given to an inmate will be used to commit a crime, much less to take him or his colleagues hostage. However, Russian correctional institutions and detention centers have a lot of absurd rules, like wearing a hat in certain situations, limiting the number of books per prisoner and prohibiting lying down in one’s cell during the day. Thus, the staff often commit violations of the prison regime that do not at first glance pose a danger – simply based on common sense.

In addition, there is, of course, the factor of corruption. A typical FSIN officer– and there are about 300,000 people working in the corrections system – does not get paid very much. His salary can vary greatly, but it is about the same as the average for the region. For example, it is about RUB 40,000-60,000 for Mordovia.

But it is hard work, and FSIN officers do not usually live in the nicest places (although this is not true in relation to the Rostov-on-Don detention center).
This creates incentives for corrupt practices and ignoring the rules, for example, smuggling prohibited items for prisoners, such as a knife or phone.
It follows that revising internal rules, as well as raising the living standards of FSIN officers to a certain acceptable level, could help prevent incidents such as what happened in Rostov-on-Don.

Legalized violence

Another serious problem is the shot morals of FSIN officers. The entire penal system in Russia is aimed at causing suffering. The thesis “prison is not a resort” can be found on the Russian internet more than 25 million times.

All possible practices of formal (punishment) or informal (torture and beatings) violence are widespread, and the recent terrorist attack at Crocus City Hall in Moscow once again showed that the torture of suspects does not cause public backlash.
External control – public monitoring commissions and the prosecutor's office – in most cases is completely ineffective. FSIN officers feel accountable only to their superiors. People who routinely practice violence and torture against prisoners have two important core beliefs: “I can do whatever I want” and “I am the boss here.”

It follows that external control, combined with changes in internal practices of formal and informal violence, could reduce the likelihood of illegal interaction between FSIN officers and prisoners.

In recent years, the use of the concept of “terrorism” has been seriously expanded in Russia. In the Criminal Code, in the section on public safety, many new crimes have appeared, for example, Article 205.3 (training for the purpose of carrying out terrorist activities) and Article 207.3 (on “fakes” about the army).

For a long time, the annual number of terrorism crimes amounted to dozens across the whole country, meaning the staff at detention centers and colonies could guarantee the specific conditions provided for by the law for those convicted under terrorism articles, in particular, strict control of contact between convicts and suspects, the denial of contact with other convicts or suspects, etc.

Now that charges of terrorism have begun to be brought against those whose actions do not actually imply any particular threat to society, FSIN officers have become laxer about complying with the particular conditions of detention for those accused of “terrorism.”

Thus, blurring the lines of “serious crimes” or “terrorism” inevitably increases the likelihood of actual terrorist crimes being committed.

You may ask why excesses such as Rostov-on-Don do not happen very often. One of the reasons is the harsh regime of Russian colonies and detention centers and the even harsher reaction of the authorities to any manifestations of disobedience. For example, in this latest case, most of the terrorists were killed.

Another reason is the background of those who are sent to the FSIN as a suspect or convict. Sixty percent are unemployed, with another 20% being manual laborers. In the vast majority of cases, they do not have the necessary experience or skills to plan and carry out this type of crime. Still, this does not at all negate the fact that the system itself drives people to commit crimes.
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