Sites of Imprisonment

Sites of Imprisonment

After the October Revolution in 1917, the old punitive system began to be restructured. In theory, re-education and the eradication of class inequality, which caused people to commit crimes, should have led to the total elimination of prisons and other forms of incarceration. In practice, prisons became centers of mass political illegalities. In the beginning of the 1990s, it became known that about one third of Soviet citizens (or their parents) had been imprisoned at least once.

Butyrka Prison. Photo: Memorial Society Photo Archive

On March 4, 1917, all political prisoners and political remand prisoners were released on the orders of Alexander Kerensky, the Minister of Justice. The change of political regime brought about the need for a new punitive and repressive system, as well as a new forced labor policy. These measures were taken in accordance with the interests of the new regime, and they were intended to contribute to the struggle against counter-revolutionaries.

Re-education was declared to be the main objective of punishment after October 1917. Fierce class conflict, the Civil War, and a severe economic crisis only made the development of prisons more difficult in comparison to the pre-revolutionary situation. Prisons faced new problems: they lacked educated commanders and officers as well as facilities for new workshops in prisons.

Рolitical prisoners released. Article in the Iskra (Sparkle) newspaper № 12, 26.03.1917

Рolitical prisoners released. Article in the Iskra (Sparkle) newspaper № 12, 26.03.1917

In 1917, there were altogether seven sites of imprisonment in Moscow: a regional prison (Taganka), a women’s prison (Novinskaya), a correctional prison (Matrosskaya Tishina or Sokolnicheskaya), and a central transit prison for those who had been sentenced to forced labor or had not yet received a settlement date (Butyrka). The military prison (Lefortovo) was subordinate to the Military Ministry and it was designed for criminals of lower military ranks.

The Moscow City Arrest House (for people who had been sentenced by the magistrate) was located on Varvarinskii Lane. The Moscow Prison Hospital was located next to the Butyrka prison. Additionally, each police station had its own arrest facilities (police hеadquarters). Some of them (Lefortovo, city police home, Pyatnitskii Suschevskii) were rebuilt due to the large number of prisoners who had been arrested after the Moscow Uprising of 1905.

The new prison system was introduced on July 23, 1918, according to the new regulation of the People’s Comissariat of Justice. All prisons were divided into male and female prisons and they were also separated into:

  • General sites of imprisonment - prisons (for convicts, remand prisoners, the accused, and the deported)

  • Punitive and medical institutions (for prisoners with severe mental problems)

  • Prison hospitals

  • Experimental institutions (for people who expected to receive a mitigated sentence or an early release)

  • Educational and punitive institutions (for young offenders)

  • Arrest facilities (for short-term imprisonment by the police and for transfer prisoners)

In addition to the sites of imprisonment that were designed for re-educational purposes, other special institutions were designed for people who supported "alien" revolutionary ideas. The Bolshevik government could not keep its enemies in poorly guarded prisons; instead, they used the network of concentration camps in which prisoners from the First World War had been imprisoned. After the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the exchange of prisoners of war began. This freed up space in some of the camps that were then used to keep prisoners of war from the Civil War. The practical organization of forced labor camps began in the spring of 1919.

Extensive studies of penalties were conducted in the 1920s before the declaration of the first five-year plan. The Cabinet and Institute for the Study of Crime and Criminals was created specifically for this purpose. According to the decree of 1927, prisoners could use their time in prison for self-study on educational institutions’ correspondence courses. In 1927, the authorities attempted to empty prisons through a broad amnesty celebrating the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution.

Unfortunately, this attempt to empty the prisons was unsuccessful. The maintenance of order and the use of punishments became harsher from the beginning of the first five-year plan. Prisoners were integrated into the five-year plan as well. They were sent to areas where civil workers did not want to go, and they were forced to conduct work that others avoided. A network of OGPU corrective labor camps was established according to official orders. The theoretical research on punitive practices ceased in the beginning of the 1930s.