Stillwater inmate wants transfer to Russian prison

  • Article by: MARK BRUNSWICK , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 15, 2009 - 2:11 PM

Convicted murderer says the state could save thousands of dollars by granting his request.

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Pytor Shmelev is a Russian national serving a 30-year prison sentence in Stillwater Prison for murder. He has petitioned to be transferred to a Russian prison but his application has been denied. He is one of several foreign prisoners in Minnesota seeking to be transferred whose petition has been denied. In this picture Pytor Shmelev holds the document that denies his petition to be transfered to Russia

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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Ideas for cutting the state budget can come from unlikely places -- like a cellblock at Stillwater state prison.

Pyotr Shmelev, serving 30 years for murdering his wife in 2001, has asked state corrections officials to use an international treaty to transfer him to his native Russia to finish serving his time. He points out that sending him away could save cash-starved Minnesota the $32,800 a year it is spending to keep him behind bars.

But the state wants to keep him here.

Shmelev is one of nearly two dozen foreign nationals in Minnesota prisons whose requests to complete their sentences in their native countries have been denied by the commissioner of corrections. About 300 would be eligible if they desired it. Under treaties signed with the United States, those countries would then absorb the incarceration costs.

But under Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the Department of Corrections policy has been that serious offenders should serve their terms in the state where they committed their crimes, regardless of potential cost saving.

"There is no assurance that the sentence imposed by a Minnesota court will be administered similarly in an offender's home country," said Corrections Commissioner Joan Fabian. "I support the community expectation that violent offenders or serious drug traffickers should serve their entire prison sentence in Minnesota before returning to freedom in their home country."

The treaties call for inmates to serve the same sentence in their homeland that they would serve in Minnesota.

In her six years as commissioner, Fabian has denied 20 of 26 applications for international transfer. Her predecessor in the Ventura administration, Sheryl Ramstad, approved 12 transfers and denied one. Eight of Ramstad's 12 approvals, however, were later declined by either the U.S. Department of Justice or the inmate's home country.

In denying Shmelev's petition in October, Fabian noted that transferring someone convicted of a homicide might "unduly outrage public sensibilities."

Pawlenty's office referred questions to the department.

No sympathy

The United States has participated in international prison transfers for more than 30 years. The treaties grew out of concerns about Americans being abused in prisons abroad. Under the treaties, U.S. citizens incarcerated in other countries can also seek transfer back to U.S. prisons.

In recent years, the United States has processed about 1,500 transfer applications annually. While most of those transferred have been federal inmates, every state has laws permitting it to participate. The U.S. transfers about three times as many inmates as it receives, with most going to Mexico and Canada. Minnesota has participated since 1985.

"This net outflow of prisoners results in a significant costs savings to the United States," wrote Paula Wolff, head of the Department of Justice's international prison transfer unit.

Shmelev acknowledged in an interview that it would be hard to find sympathy for him personally. He stabbed his wife to death and dismembered her body in 2001 after she told him she was seeing another man. The couple's 4-year-old daughter was in the house at the  time of the crime and rode in the car when Shmelev drove to Missouri to dump parts of his wife's body in a lake, before he walked into the Minneapolis police homicide unit and confessed.

Shmelev, who has no relatives in the United States, says his father is gravely ill in Russia and he would like to complete his sentence near his family. He will be deported upon his release and has no plans to ever return here. His daughter now lives with her mother's family in Lipetsk, a town about 270 miles southeast of Moscow, where Shmelev grew up.

"I have taken responsibility for what I did. It is something I think about every day for the rest of my life," he said. "But my family should not be punished for what I did."

From his prison cell, Shmelev has done the calculations. If the 20 foreign nationals denied transfer were taken off Minnesota's hands, the state would save more than $650,000 a year. He says even more foreign prisoners would apply but have not out of fear of having a rejection on their record.

The money, Shmelev said, "could be better spent on the state's health care, education and maintaining elected officials' pay."

Slight savings

But corrections officials discount the cost savings of transferring a handful of foreign prisoners out of a prison population of 9,400.

"If we're going to take one individual offender and [transfer him], we're not going to be able to hire one less corrections officer. ... We're not going to be able to buy incrementally one person's less worth of food and medications," said Randolph Hartnett, director of the state's international prisoner transfer program.

Officials also believe many of the transfers would ultimately be denied by either federal officials or the inmates' home countries, who may not want the offenders back.

Among the six transfers Fabian has approved, one was rejected by the Department of Justice, another by Mexican officials, and a third by Pawlenty. One inmate has been transferred and two cases are pending.

Hennepin County District Judge Peter Albrecht, who sentenced Shmelev to 30 years, said he frequently has trouble remembering many of the cases he hears, including many murder trials, but the brutality of Shmelev's case stands out. Nevertheless, Albrecht supports the idea of sending Shmelev back, particularly if it opens up a prison bed or provides a savings to taxpayers.

"As the sentencing judge, I would absolutely have no problem with him serving in Russia. I would want him to, just for the tax burden," Albrecht said. "He may have some good humanitarian reason why he might want to, but from a purely pragmatic standpoint, when we're trying to save money, why have people in prison that we don't need to have?"

Last year, Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, who sits on the Public Safety Budget Division, wrote to Pawlenty after being made aware of Shmelev's case, encouraging him to overrule his corrections commissioner and grant the transfer.

"Considering the deficit that Minnesota faces it would seem logical that Russia should be given the responsibility for the remaining part of his incarceration," she said in her letter.

Given the harshness of the Russian prison system, Shmelev says there should be few concerns that he would be headed for the good life.

"I'm not trying to transfer to some Florida Club Fed," Shmelev said. "There was more violence in my high school in Russia than there has been in Stillwater."

Mark Brunswick • 651-222-1636

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