The Soviet Union, whose brutal penal system has been documented by scores of exiled dissidents, has given approval for Prison Fellowship to launch a ministry in the home of the gulag. “We will be in the Soviet Union with Prison Fellowship this year,” founder Chuck Colson told CHRISTIANITY TODAY.
Colson, who last month returned from a fact-finding tour of Soviet prisons, said Soviet Minister of Interior Affairs Vadim Victorovitch Bakatin personally gave the official nod for a Soviet program. “I told him what [Prison Fellowship] does, … and he looked at me and said, ‘Whatever you need to do to get into our prisons, you have my permission.… Then he looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and said, ‘God be with you,’ ” Colson said.
Colson was part of an official U.S. delegation led by Federal Bureau of Prisons director Michael Quinlan. The group visited five Soviet institutions, including two of the notorious gulag Perm labor camps, a women’s prison, and a juvenile detention colony. They had asked permission to see the infamous Lefortovo “investigation” prison, but Soviet officials denied the request.
The prisons were obviously spruced up with fresh paint for the visit, Colson said. Nevertheless, conditions for the most part were better than he had expected. He particularly praised the incentive-based work programs in many Soviet prisons. Every prisoner has an assigned job, and inmates producing above their quotas are given bonuses in rubles. Colson described the system as “far superior” to any he has seen in the United States. However, he also noted that the punishment cells in the Soviet prisons were “terrible.”
The foundation for the trip was laid last fall when Reps. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and Chris Smith (R-N.J.) were the first Americans to visit Perm 35 camp and obtained permission for this delegation (CT, Oct. 20, 1989, p. 37).
Ron Nikkei, president of Prison Fellowship International, traveled separately from the official U.S. delegation. Nikkei met with churches and believers in the Soviet Union, and visited a women’s prison with a group from the Moscow Baptist Church. He was allowed to preach to some 250 prisoners.
Nikkei will return to the USSR in June to lead a volunteers’ training conference as the first step to establishing an official Soviet Prison Fellowship. Colson said the international organization will help coordinate the efforts of Christians in Latvia and Siberia, the Moscow Baptist Church, and several ex-offenders interested in beginning prison ministry.
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