Contributions > Laura Piacentini

Laura Piacentini
University of Stratchclyde

Human rights and decarceration in Russia in the Gulag's Shadow. Penal Transitology as Bureaucratic Drama: The Woes and Wonders of Human Rights in Russian Prisons


In the former Soviet Union varying incarceration rates and the social and cultural legacies of the Gulag's continent-sized system of punishment has not been systematically studied. Yet, the region presents a number of puzzles that touch on our wider understanding of penal policy, cultures of punishment and societal attitudes. We analyse these puzzles in this article. In particular, how do we explain change in prison rates and conditions across the post-Soviet region? How can we understand why, since the year 2000 and against all predictions, many prison populations across the former Soviet Union have gone into decline? What political and economic factors might explain this? What is the influence of the Council of Europe and the Court of human rights? How did policy makers in Russia go about constructing a penal policy influenced by human rights and what shaped their preferences? What might it tell us about the driving factors (such as human rights) that can explain decarceration in other contexts? To examine these questions ignored by the literature, the article utilizes mixed methodologies taken from across academic including a social survey, interviews with policy makers, documentary analysis and desk-based statistical analysis. This paper builds a disciplinary dialogue between three fields of scholarship under a conceptual framework defined as penal transitology. Penal transitology, which mainly refers to the legal and human rights/ normative phase that has dominated penal discourse since 1991 (the ‘carceral compliance’ phase), is a multi-layered narrative or discourse made up of a set of processes and norms that have managed the practical challenges facing the biggest penal system in the twentieth century.

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