Russia’s prisons, struggling with a growing crime rate, overcrowding and shortfalls in funding, are turning to religion to bring moral guidance to inmates.
The move marks a dramatic change from the Soviet system, when clergy and believers were often imprisoned for their faith.
“We have signed agreements with all of the leading confessions of our country,” said Aleksandr Reimer, the director of Russia’s Federal Correctional Service, in an interview with the Rossiiskaya Gazeta, an official government newspaper.
Although the Russian Orthodox Church has become increasingly close to the State in recent years, Reimer said that that imposing Russia’s largest religion on inmates was not the goal.
“Right now we’re preparing an agreement with Buddhists,” Reimer was quoted as saying in the Aug. 26 interview. “We’re providing everyone with access. We”re building churches, mosques and synagogues.”
In July, at a ceremony at Moscow’s Jewish Community Centre, run by the Orthodox Jewish Chabad-Lubavitch movement, a branch of Hasidism, Reimer signed an agreement on opening synagogues and Jewish prayer rooms in prisons with Aleksandr Boroda, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia.
After the ceremony, the two men staved off media questions about how many Jews are in Russian prisons, saying they have no such statistics. Russia’s Jewish community is flourishing, in contrast to the State-sponsored persecution of Jews in the Soviet era, but anti-Semitism is still seen as a problem.
Reimer and Boroda said that synagogues had already been opened at two correctional facilities in the Arkhangelsk region in northwestern Russia. In addition a Jewish prayer room has been created in the Volga River region of Saratov.
The agreement also calls for the Federation of Jewish Communities to provide humanitarian aid, such as food and medicine, to prisoners.
Reimer said in his Rossiiskaya Gazeta interview that the correctional service had started a pilot project with the Russian Orthodox Church in four regions of Russia to introduce prison chaplains. He said practical issues needed to be resolved such as whether priests would be on staff and paid by the prisons, or by the Russian Orthodox Church.
For now, while there are churches in prisons and prison camps across Russia, priests visit with varying regularity, said Reimer.
“It all depends on how specific priests fulfill their responsibilities,” he said. “Neither representatives of confessions, nor we today, have the goal of forcing everyone to go to church. Why should we engage in such sacrilege? If an inmate has come to faith, we think that it could stop him from committing a crime in the future.”
The Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church has for its part created a department on prison ministry. The Moscow Patriarchate has already worked extensively with prisons in recent years on many fronts. Last year the patriarchate’s external relations department held a three-day seminar for clergy and church social workers who provide pastoral care for HIV-infected prisoners.
At Prison Colony No. 7 near Veliky Novgorod, a historic city famous for its churches, a small wooden church built by inmates stands in the centre of the prison grounds.
Vladimir Lazarenko, a wizened man in his 50s, told a visiting reporter in 2008 that he had returned to God in prison.
“I was a believer from childhood, but I got lost and got in trouble,” said Lazarenko, who was convicted of killing his father. “Here I remembered about God.”