The Russian Orthodox Church has formalized its work in prisons across Russia by signing a formal agreement with the country’s Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) that emphasizes not only spiritual support to prisoners, but to prison staff as well.

Patriarch Kirill I and Alexander Reimer, the head of FSIN, signed the document on Feb. 2 at the patriarch’s working residence in central Moscow.

Its goal is “satisfaction of the spiritual needs of employees of the penal system and members of their families, trainees of educational institutions of the FSIN of Russia, and ensuring the constitutional right to freedom of conscience and freedom of worship of persons sentenced to imprisonment or held under arrest.”

Prison officials, religious leaders and human rights activists say the prison system still bears the weight of its “gulag past.” In the Soviet era, political dissidents and religious believers were sent to prison camps for years in a system known as the “gulag.”

FSIN has said that some prison camps will soon be eliminated and other restructured, but for now they continue to be scattered across Russia, often in remote regions, and are reminiscent of the descriptions in Alexander Solzhenitsyn's novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It is a story that depicts the indignities and small triumphs of a lowly man serving time in a Soviet labor camp on trumped-up charges.

The prisons are also home to guards and their families, who live there, often for life, perpetuating an insular and often abusive culture. Pre-trial detention centers are severely overcrowded and usually squalid.

Highly-publicized cases of abuses in prisons include the death in 2009 of Sergei Magnitsky, a corporate lawyer who was arrested in a controversial case involving William Browder, a prominent foreign investor who was critical of the Kremlin, and denied medical care while in pre-trial detention in a Moscow prison.

In St. Petersburg in February, oral arguments ended in the trial of FSIN officials accused of beating two prisoners and forcing other prisoners to rape them in 2008 and 2009. The officials kept video footage of the beatings and rapes.

“The penal system is going to be radically reformed," Reimer told Kirill, according to, the Moscow Patriarchate’s official website, and said there will be a new focus on the “re-socializing” of inmates, preparing them for release and directing them away from crime. “We think that sometimes the work of priests is even more important than that of our instructors,” Reimer said.

Kirill said that work in prisons, which the Russian Orthodox Church has been conducting since the 1990s, has become possibly its most important social work, and that the well-being of society depends on the fate of prisoners. Priests working in prison will now have official status as prison chaplains. Most prisons in Russia now have churches.

“On the territory of the Russian Federation there are nearly 1000 churches, prayer rooms and other places where pastoral work with prisoners is being conducted,” said Kirill at the meeting with Reimer. “At this time, we are moving to a very important stage ― creating a corps of priests whose main pastoral calling is ministering to prisoners,” Kirill said.

Last year, the Moscow Patriarchate created a Synodal Department of Prison Ministry.  The department’s stand at “Pravoslavnaya Rus,” an Orthodox fair held in an exhibition hall at the foot of the Kremlin wall last November, was busy. Seminarians studying prison ministry and lay people with friends or relatives in prison approached for advice. Many Orthodox parishes across Russia train parishioners to correspond with prisoners.

In the past year Reimer has signed agreements on work in prisons with leaders of the three other religions that are categorized as “traditional” to the country under Russian law ― Islam, Judaism and Buddhism ― and emphasized the importance of spiritual support for prisoners in their rehabilitation.

In February, Rabbi Aaron Gurevich of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia began conducting lessons in Jewish tradition for Jewish prisoners at Butyrka.  Last December, Reimer, accompanied by Gurevich, led a delegation of FSIN officials on a trip to study the work of Israeli prisons.

Russia, with a population of just over 140 million, has nearly 900,000 prisoners and is second to the United States in the prison rate per 100,000 in the general population.