Parliament is expected to approve a prison overhaul this month that could free thousands of prisoners.
Russia, home to the world's largest prison population, is planning imminent changes to a penal code that many regard as unwieldy, often arbitrary and unfair.
But in the drive to improve justice, while saving money for the cash-strapped government, there are concerns that the overhaul could simply deposit hundreds of thousands of prisoners on the streets with no provisions for adjustment back into society.
Even critics concede the new law, which parliament is expected to pass this month, might signal the first-ever sweeping cleanup of Russia's overcrowded and brutality-plagued prisons. The law's proposed limits on pretrial detention, reduced sentences for petty crimes, and expansion of the probation system could lead to the release of as many as 350,000 prisoners within months.
"It is only half a step forward, but it will partially relieve some of the ugliest problems," says Maj. Gen. Sergei Vitsin, one of Russia's leading criminologists and an adviser to both the Kremlin and the Helsinki Group, a Russian human rights movement based in Moscow. "Our state is being pushed into this reform for urgent financial reasons, but the logic leads in a progressive direction."
More than 20 million Russians have passed through the prison system, one of the world's harshest, in the past three decades. One out of 4 Russian adults either has been in jail personally or had a family member incarcerated.
Despite hopes for improvement in the decade since the Soviet Union collapsed, human rights experts say conditions in the far-flung network of jails, prison camps, and detention centers, which house more than 1 million inmates, remain squalid and desperate.
"Nothing has changed," says Larissa Bogoraz, a former Soviet dissident who spent years in the gulag prison-camp system and now works as a human rights consultant. "Anyone who enters our prisons can expect to have no rights, no hope, not a shred of mercy."
It is hoped that the new law, which has already passed two parliamentary readings, will dramatically reduce overcrowding and in the short run, at least theoretically, enable the state to improve nutrition and living conditions for the remaining prisoners.