BYU History professor Jeff Hardy recently published a book on a penal system of the former Soviet Union. Called The Gulag After Stalin, the book explains how punishment was meted out from the 1920’s to the mid-1950s in the Gulag, which was “…the system of…labour camps and accompanying detention and transit camps and prisons that…housed the political prisoners and criminals of the Soviet Union.” At the height of its existence, the Gulag housed 10 million people who felled timber, laboured on general construction projects (such as the building of canals and railroads), or worked in mines under the threat of starvation or execution if they refused. It is estimated that the combination of very long working hours, harsh climatic and other working conditions, inadequate food, and summary executions killed off at least 10 percent of the Gulag’s total prisoner population each year.
But why should this matter to us? How does a defunct Russian prison system from the mid 1900’s relate to our lives in 2017? Hardy points out that no one can decry the Gulag because, like them, we have never been able to eliminate incarceration as our primary form of punishment. When one examines the Soviet Union’s penal system, similarities within our own prison system become apparent.
|Gulag||American Penal System|
|Prisoners- with a few exceptions- were incarcerated.||Prisoners are incarcerated and, in some cases, are locked in solitary confinement|
|Prisoners labored to industrialize their country.||Prisoners labor, ex: chain gangs|
|Human rights abuses occurred, ex: work days exceeding 8 hours||Human rights abuses occur, Ex: perp walks|
Are there ways in which we can improve our own penal system? According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, we should institute various reforms regarding prison management and social integration. They recommend improving communication between the prisons and courts, creating new training curriculums for prison managers, instituting corrective measures inside prison communities, and formulating a health plan within the prisons, to name only a few.
There is one issue, however, that the Gulag handled far better than we do: solitary confinement. According to Dr. Hardy, the Russian system valued communalism: “Whereas cellular confinement with one or two inmates per cell was typical of prison systems in the West…the Soviet Union preferred barracks that housed dozens of prisoners in common quarters. Inmates worked together, ate together, and generally moved freely within the confines of the camps, they were also organized into communal work brigades…This communal life in the Gulag was both a function of ideology and exigency.”
This is not how the U.S. penal system functions. Prisoners are typically two to a cell and solitary confinement is utilized as a punishment for acting out in prison. A recent Frontline piece relates the story of former inmate Kenny More, who ripped the hair out of his body, heard voices, and wrote messages on the wall of his cell with his own blood while spending five-and-a-half years in solitary confinement and nearly 20 years in and out of prison. In 2006, former Harvard Medical School faculty member Stuart Grassian conducted a study on the effects of solitary confinement. According to his report: “Of the forty-nine inmates I evaluated, at least seventeen were actively psychotic and/or acutely suicidal and urgently in need of acute hospital treatment, and twenty-three others suffered serious psychopathological reactions to solitary confinement, including (in several cases) periods of psychotic disorganization.”
Moreover, prisoners who were in solitary confinement were more likely to commit crimes once they were released. Former University of Washington professor David Lowell conducted a 2007 study that looked at recidivism rates for inmates held in supermax prisons– facilities where all inmates are in solitary confinement. He learned that “these offenders committed new felonies sooner and at higher rates than otherwise comparable nonsupermax offenders. Furthermore, they re-offended more quickly than otherwise comparable supermax offenders who weren’t released to the community directly from supermax.”
The Gulag was disbanded in 1957; evidence, perhaps, of its ineffectiveness. Evidence shows that solitary confinement may not be the most effective option for the American penal system. While the Gulag was in need of critical reforms and is no longer present in our modern society we can still learn from it: how to better our own penal system and the lives of those in it.