Breaking Free: Leading the Way

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Breaking free from the prison walls: penal reforms and prison life in revolutionary Russia

They drew on the work of Western European social scientists such as Franz von Liszt and Adolph Prinz, who studied crime and redemption. However, they argued that Western European penal reform worked in order to please a bourgeois state and a middle class worried about recidivist criminals. In Soviet society, prisons could actually transform criminals into good socialist citizens, for once released former inmates would not return to an environment that fostered crime.

At the end of the civil war and immediately afterwards, academics, including M. Gernet, Zhizhilenko, A. Piontkovskii, O. Kuper and P.

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These ideas were largely in line with the thinking of the head of the central penal division of Narkomiust, Leonid A. Savrasov, too, saw crime as a social evil and criminals as victims of their economic environment. He championed the reformist, rehabilitative nature of Soviet prisons. Soviet prisons according to Savrasov were not for everyone, just those who should be reformed. Despite their vehement disagreements, both Berman and Savrasov agreed that Soviet prisons should be places of discipline and not strictly punishment.

Soviet justice officials and scholars dreamed of turning prisons into modern rehabilitation centres in order to recast individuals and prepare them for a socialist society. Rehabilitation for them came through improving the psychological state of prisoners. This group drew on prison reforms in Belgium, France and the state of Minnesota in the U.

A, which had brought in a move from solitary confinement to an open programme of prisons with more interaction among inmates. This extended a trend seen across Western Europe. However, Soviet penal reformers still devoted considerable resources to discipline within the prison walls. It reported some surprising successes.

In both central and local holding cells across the region prisoners could read newspapers like Kommunist and Azerbaidzhanskaia bednota in both Russian and Turkish. District prisons opened up grammar schools, although they lacked basics like tables, benches and chalkboards. The literary act played a central role in prison therapy across Soviet Russia. Learning and enlightenment through education and reading could make them into active socialist citizens.

In , the Council of People's Commissars Sovnarkom ordered the Commissariat of Enlightenment Narkompros to establish a penal division to organize schools and lectures for prisoners. Provincial prisons devoted resources to primary and secondary schooling, teaching history, Russian literature, foreign languages, agronomy, mathematics and political economy.

They also showed films and staged concerts, which were then followed by musical theory lessons. Soviet officials replaced religious teaching with communist instruction and converted church sanctuaries into concert halls.

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  • Cultural projects also came from prisoner initiative. In Taganka prison, political prisoners Prince A. Chagadaev and former Lieutenant S. Sukhotin petitioned the penal division to allow them to organize a Great Russian orchestra. Savrasov readily supported their request and the group played folk music for fellow prisoners beginning in The orchestra could not keep up with the loss of its members from frequent amnesties and the band dissolved in Some large prisons published their own journals devoted to reformist principles that prisoners were supposed to read.

    The most famous one, Tiur'ma , came from the Moscow Taganka prison and championed prisoner rights and Soviet prison reforms. Articles focused on how the Soviet prison was raising the cultural level of its prisoners. It trumpeted its theatre productions, which began in and soon spread to other Moscow prisons. The authors wrote about the strict guidelines that determined prison performances.

    The journal published a long letter from a convict in Kursk province who described how he complained to the prison warden after suffering from hunger and cold and was sent by foot to a prison with even worse conditions. His letter prompted the head of the Kursk penal department to write in to assure readers that conditions in the prisons had improved after the letter, while also questioning the credibility of the author.

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    Restorative labour also stood at the heart of rehabilitation. They stressed how physical activity — like gymnastics and sports — raised the physical and moral character of prisoners. Prisons implemented organized labour regimes outside of the prison cells. In the Taganka prison, 65 per cent of workers reportedly performed skilled occupations in Almost half of them made clothes. The rest worked as printers, cobblers, cafeteria workers, binders, boiler service men and even locksmiths a questionable trade to teach in prisons.

    The factory served as a trade school with a master worker at each station training prisoners. Not mentioned, though, was the fact that Western prisons were by this time moving away from vocational labour for prisoners because they did not find that it led to rehabilitation. Narkomiust penal reformers also saw agricultural labour as especially important in rehabilitation. The Samara Narkomiust had a separate agricultural division to promote field work for prisoners. It already had a model to build upon.

    The Samara prison had run a successful farm of fifteen des.

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    This was a huge undertaking and every prison head was supposed to survey the prison grounds and land around it to determine how it could establish agricultural work for prisoners. The Samara prison inspection granted the prison its wish and established a large farming colony in the spring of just outside the city for men and fifty women. It was a remarkable success story. The prisoners were still able to set their crops and soon the Land Commission donated eighteen more horses, twenty camels and a large quantity of agricultural equipment. The colony grew typical crops like oats, barley, turnips, carrots and onions.

    In , it still lacked basic housing for the prisoners and storage facilities for its crops. The authorities pointed out several times that prisoners worked the same hours as those doing fieldwork outside prison.

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    The prison authority established another colony nearby in a former monastery on the banks of the Samara river. Samara was not alone. They saw their labour as serving to build peace and the Soviet state. While vocational skills and a healthy diet were part of the aim of promoting agricultural labour, what is missing in the reports is the health benefits for prisoners of working in the natural environment, something that can be seen in Western European literature of the time.

    The agronomist Nedavny summed up the utility of prison agricultural work in an article in Tiur'ma , noting that produce from the colonies helped the country overcome the agricultural crisis, that physical labour was good for prisoners and that the training in basic farming skills prepared future workers of the field. The inmate in the late tsarist prison was usually a young male peasant convicted of a petty crime, just as he was in a Soviet prison in Prison authorities recorded that almost 66 per cent of Soviet prisoners in were peasants, while 21 per cent were townspeople meshchane.

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    Breaking Free: Leading the Way Breaking Free: Leading the Way
    Breaking Free: Leading the Way Breaking Free: Leading the Way
    Breaking Free: Leading the Way Breaking Free: Leading the Way
    Breaking Free: Leading the Way Breaking Free: Leading the Way
    Breaking Free: Leading the Way Breaking Free: Leading the Way
    Breaking Free: Leading the Way Breaking Free: Leading the Way

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