Prisons of Poverty and Politics: How Russian Human Rights Workers Embed Themselves in Middle Class Social Movements

Olga Zeveleva*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Human rights NGOs contribute to the formation of norms and policies around penality, and inform social understandings of what constitutes acceptable punishment. This article turns to the symbolic group-making work of human rights workers as agents who work with prisoners, and who also construct the image of the prisoner for the rest of society. I zoom in on the case of prison NGO work in Russia, a non-democratic country, and answer two questions: first, how do prison NGOs construct the image of the prisoner, and articulate their relationship with their social base and their networks of civic engagement? Second, what organizational behaviors do these articulations encourage? Drawing on 18 semi-structured interviews and observation at prison NGOs based in Moscow, the study shows that Russian NGO workers often view themselves and act as members of a middle class social movement in Russia. While NGOs tend to focus on the most economically disadvantaged and socially isolated groups in their work, the prisoners they depict when addressing the public and the press tend to represent more educated groups with higher levels of symbolic capital (political prisoners, those convicted of economic crimes, and former state employees), reflecting a desire to put prison on the middle class agenda. At the same time, prison NGO employees employ a class lens in their work with prisoners, and determine how to help prisoners based on their assessment of how the socio-economic background of the prisoner intersects with ethnicity, religion, ability/disability, region where they are serving their sentence, and region where they are from. In other words, prison NGO workers view prisoners through the resources they can accumulate using the simultaneous, intersecting dimensions of their status and their relation to other groups both in prison and outside.
Original languageEnglish
JournalInternational Journal of Politics, Culture and Society
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 29 Sept 2023
Externally publishedYes


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