Russia’s Convict Labor

How state and private companies are profiting from prisoners

In 2016, the Federal Penitentiary Service spent 15 billion rubles appropriated by the budget  "without results." the Accounting Chamber recently reported. While the service is spending money in vain, prisoners are being effectively used for their labor. Sofya Savina found out how state-owned companies and private enterprises are making money from convicts’ work.

“Worked hard at tree cutting”

“Try to step out at the morning distribution of work and say that you refuse to work and also add that only jerks will work for free! First you would rot for 15 days in pre-trial, after which you will be thrown into a barracks, and in the barracks live people who you called jerks, well, now guess whether you'll survive. EVERYBODY worked besides thieves: deniers, brats, swindlers and just ordinary guys,” a user of the forum “Everything about jail” Sailor wrote (the spelling and punctuation of the source are preserved. - editor’s note).

According to Russian laws, people sentenced to corrective labor must work and are only restricted by age and health. Prisoners are required to work without pay for at least two hours a week. Reality is a bit different: "For 11 years I worked hard at tree-cutting 12 hours every day without days off," the Sailor recalled.


At the entrance to some Nazi camps the phrase "Arbeit macht frei," translated as "work sets you free" was written. The Russian criminal-executive system claims that hard labor is a method of "resocialization": it helps a person to adapt to life under new conditions. However, this is not the only motive for the state to use prison labor.

The penitentiary system industry includes 800 production units of the Federal Penitentiary Service. Together they create 100,000 kinds of various products. Convicts work in 574 labor adaptation centers and in 69 workshops. In the prison colonies themselves there are whole industries: pigsties, cowsheds, chicken coops. According to the FPS, in 2016 183,000 convicts took part in hard labor.

The volume of products made per year by prisoners amounted to 31 billion rubles in monetary terms. For comparison, this amount is required for the regions to build new roads. The Government allocated exactly the same amount of grants under the "Safe roads" program in 2017.

64 rubles a day

According to the head of the financial and economic department of the Federal Penitentiary Service Andrey Kochukov, "the cost of production in the zone is half of that in ordinary life." One of the reasons for this was what the FPS called "a low payroll budget."

The average salary of a prisoner in 2016, according to the FPS, was 205 rubles a day or 6,355 rubles a month. By law, the state can take up to 75% of the prisoner's earnings through taxes, compensation for damage to the victims and alimony.

The clothing brand "Crime and Punishment" is sewn by prisoners from the correctional colony in the Leningrad region. A sweatshirt made in this factory lists for 9,000 rubles, as reported by The Village.

The sweatshirt was made by Oksana, "one of the best cutters" from a sewing workshop in the female correctional colony No. 11 of the UPS in the Kursk region the FPS publication “Crime and Punishment” mentioned. After all deductions Oksana is left with about 2,000 rubles, the report said.  She is able to spend this money in the prison store, save it until her release or send to her family. On average, workers from this sewing workshop should receive 7,000 rubles a month.

Everything to the family

The federal prison agency is one of the wealthiest and the state allocates more for its than for emergency services. In 2016, the Federal Penitentiary Service received 264 billion rubles from the budget, while the Federal Rescue Service received only 167.6 billion rubles.

Prisoners’ labor is used in hundreds of productions sites, but it does not bring profit to the state, prisons repay only 5%.

Prisoners from the Vladimir region produce uniforms for law enforcement officials and FPS employees. Source: Product Catalog of the Federal Penitentiary Service of Russia for the Vladimir Region

Prisoners’ labor is used by governmental customers, mostly law enforcement ministries and departments. Behind barbed wire, prisoners make uniforms for the employees of the FPS, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Federal Rescue Service. Prisoners in correctional colonies in Adygea make "Spetsnaz" designated patches. Rosgvardia and the Ministry of Internal Affairs, in addition to the uniform, also orders food rations from the colonies.

But to a greater extent, convicts create products for internal use in the colonies. Under the jurisdiction of the FPS, institutions trade goods with each other, for example, one colony produces milk and the other buys it.

In 2016, correctional colony No. 43 of the Kemerovo region won a contract for the construction of another colony. Some prisoners commissioned by the Department of Capital Construction of Kemerovo Main Directorate of the Federal Penitentiary Service built a colony for other prisoners. The cost of the contract was 78.8 million rubles. How was paid for labor is unknown. 


As another example Mari El prisoners sew clothes for the "special contingent," the name the prison guards have given to the people making the clothes themselves. According to a price list, a nightdress costs 174 rubles and women's panties, 64 rubles. In a catalog of FPS products are also prison trucks, barbed wire, and cell locks.

Prison Business

In addition to the state, now Russian convicts are also working for the state corporations and state-owned companies, a program the Ministry of Justice  increased in 2016.

In June 2017, the state corporation Russian Railways agreed to hire people sentenced to forced labor, while previously, such a desire had been expressed by the state-owned company Rostech.

Now in Samara correctional colonies products for the World Cup 2018 are being made, which will be held in Russia, as well as producing paving slabs and flower pots for the improvement of Samara.

GULAG prisoners on the construction of the railway. Source: Tomasz Kizny, album "GULAG"

At the end of 2016, the FPS signed a special agreement with the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, determining different options for prisoners' labor; a company can place their production line in the prison or they can order specific items.

On the FGUP Manufacture and Industrial Homes website, the agency responsible for setting up contracts, visitors are greeted with the phrase "We will consider any offers for placing your order or production."

In penitentiary facility No. 3 in the Novgorod region, prison labor is used even in correctional facilities where patients with tuberculosis are serving their sentence. Of the 300 people working there, 96 work with metal and wood. Penitentiary Facility No. 3 cooperates with large furniture factories in Borovichi.

Lemonade, chaise longues, coaches

In colony No. 44 in the Kemerovo region there is a shop for the production of lemonade. They produce "Buratino," "Duchess," "Kolokolchik," and "Tarhun."

In Correctional Facility No. 3 of the Amur Region they produce souvenir baseball bats, candlesticks, smoking pipes, chess and caskets. In Primorsky Krai, school desks, slides and carousels for children's playgrounds. In the Republic of Sakha, backgammon and canes. In Mari El convicts sew soccer balls, in Bashkortostan, uniforms for riot police, in Adygea, prisoners ferment cabbage.

In Tatarstan, prisoners are improving the republic. For 4.2 million rubles, they made benches for parks and squares. In North Ossetia, children's beds are made at a price of 1600 rubles and "leader's tables" for 3000 rubles. In the catalog of products made by correctional colonies of the Tula region, both residential buildings and forged carriages can be found.

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Product catalog of the FPS in Tula Region

Prisoners are also take part in landscape design - they create dolphins, bears and wolves for gardens. Cheap workers produce chairs for theaters, pot holders in kindergarten, changing tables, chaise longues, rocking chairs, Russian flags and coats of arms, amber ornaments and malachite boxes, guns and pistols.

Corruption Behind Bars

"Prison entrepreneurship" is accompanied by corruption, as the wardens often choose "their" businessmen to sign contracts with.

FGUP "Vologodskoye" links prisoners and employers in the Vologda region. For the same purposes, FGUP "Vladimirskoye" and FGUSHM "Ulyanovskoye" were created. The director of these three enterprises is Roman Tokarev. Previously, he owned private companies that signed contracts with Tokarev-controlled institutions for the past three years.

Roman Tokarev was the founder and general director of LLC "Agro-trade" until May 2015. In 2015, the company concluded two contracts with FGUP Vologodskoye amounting of 3.3 million rubles for meat production.

Since the former owner of the companies began to manage state enterprises, the company has been successful at winning state prison contracts. In 2016 FGUP Vologodskoye signed contracts with Agro-trade for 87 million rubles.

In 2017, Agro-trade won orders from Ulyanovskoye Federal State Unitary Enterprise for 32 million rubles. In the same year, Agro-Trade supplied colony No. 7 of the FPS in the Vologda region with production raw materials and received 52 million rubles for it.

And if the convicts do not want to work, corruption in the Russian penal system helps. For example, paid "apartments" with a shower and the Internet can be "rented" in the Moscow detention center "Butyrka", wrote Novaya Gazeta. For two weeks of vacation convicts will have to pay 1 million rubles.

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