RUSSIAN prisons are being swamped with young offenders. Tempted into crime by a combination of poverty and a police force which cannot cope, many of them are convicted while their contemporaries are still roaming university corridors.
In the city of Crime and Punishment, harnessing the talents of this new flood of often very bright prisoners could well prove to become a key element of rehabilitation work. Prisons in the St Petersburg area now offer their inmates the opportunity to build up knowledge while "doing time".
Obukhovo is a prison for first- time offenders in the southern suburbs of the city and one of the jails where, in 1993, university foundation courses were introduced by the North Western Polytechnic Institute (NWPI). Although a considerable number of the prison's 1,800 inmates were interested in studying, the polytechnic soon realised that its standard distance- learning courses were not the most appropriate intellectual food for this specific audience.
Lacking experience in the field, the institute sought support from Manchester City College - which is responsible for a 12 per cent share of the UK's prison education provision - and Malmi Business College in Helsinki. An appeal to the European Union's Tempus programme provided the funding to develop a degree course in business studies for prisoners.
Chris Frost coordinates the project from Manchester. He feels strongly about the exercise. "Russia's prisons hold a huge potential. Many Russian kids end up in prison simply for using their talents a trifle too creatively. Harnessing this talent by providing them with the opportunity to study in relevant subjects might compensate for the discrimination in the job market they will enter when they leave the gate."
Vadim, 22, Kostya, 24, and Slava, 22, bear testimony to the fact that many of the student-prisoners would never have entered tertiary education had the authorities not crossed their criminal path at the appropriate moment. Although Vadim studied baseball at a sports academy, where he was caught using his keys on someone else's car, Kostya never considered the option of further education.
"I never thought about studying until I arrived here. Now it forces me to rethink my life," he says.
Slava came from even further down the educational ladder. "I first finished secondary education here at Obukhovo and then continued on the foundation course."
Their eyes light up when they hear about the business studies pilot which will take off at their prison in September. "Bizniz" is a magic word in contemporary Russian, encompassing anything from managing a corner shop to collecting protection money.
Chris Frost says: "Having been involved in all sorts of wheeling and dealing, most of the prisoners can relate to the subject. Many of them have business experience corresponding to an NVQ level and would make successful businessmen when properly trained."
The timing of the project is good. Valery Gouretski, North Western's rector, backs his institute's activities wholeheartedly, though the space for experimenting is limited. "Apart from the Tempus funding, we receive no financial support for the project. It is hard to find professors who are willing to teach in prison. It's considered a very low-status activity. Last winter all teachers refused to enter the unheated prison classrooms. So far, creative book-keeping and an appeal to volunteers have freed the space. We have to take every year as it comes."
The Obukhovo prison management also gives full support to the initiatives, but the cooperative attitude is dictated by more than just humanitarian considerations.
Vasily Vaseykin, the deputy governor, says: "The collapse of the Russian economy has rendered industrial production from prison plants unprofitable. At Obukhovo, a thriving radioelectronics workshop once provided tape recorders for the army and work for its inmates. Now, fewer than 400 are employed making coffins. The others have nothing to do."
With more than half of the prisoners lazing in bed, using the gym or loitering around the prison grounds, boredom is a problem, so the management is quite happy with any initiative that directs hard cases to the study books. New legislation on prison education has come to their rescue. From this week, all prisoners under 30 who have not completed secondary education will be obliged to finish school in prison.
For Obukhovo this will mean a 100 per cent increase in students. With 600 inmates soon finishing secondary education and having nothing else to do, the odds are that demand for the course will soar, with Obukhovo in line to join tomorrow's top ten list of training institutions for St Petersburg's most successful "biznizmen".