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Pussy Riot members face tough life in penal colony

Sunday - 10/14/2012, 6:53am  ET

By MAX SEDDON
Associated Press

MOSCOW (AP) - It's a far cry from Stalin's gulag, but the guiding principle of the Russian penal colony -- the destination of two members of punk band Pussy Riot -- remains the same: isolate inmates and wear them down through "corrective labor."

Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova will have to quickly learn the inner laws of prison life, survive the dire food and medical care, and risk bullying from inmates either offended by their "punk prayer" against President Vladimir Putin or under orders to pressure them.

"Everyone knows the rule: Trust no one, never fear and never forgive," said Svetlana Bakhmina, a lawyer who spent three years in a penal colony. "You are in no-man's land. Nobody will help you. You have to think about everything you say and do to remain a person."

Alekhina, 24, Tolokonnikova, 22, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, were convicted of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred for an impromptu performance in Moscow's main cathedral as Putin headed into an election that handed him a third term as Russia's president. The women insisted their protest was political. But many believers said they were deeply offended by the sight of the band members dancing on the altar in balaclavas.

An appeals court released Samutsevich on Wednesday, but upheld the two-year prison terms of the others. The presiding judge said that "their correction is possible only in isolation from society."

In colonies for women, inmates live in barracks with 30 to 40 to a room. They begin the day by shuffling outside for compulsory exercises at daybreak, in temperatures as low as minus 30 degrees Celsius in winter. After roll call and a breakfast of gruel, they spend seven to eight hours a day at work, usually hunched over sewing machines working on uniforms and other clothing.

Since there is only one women's penal colony near Moscow, female prisoners from the capital are commonly sent to Mordovia, a swampy, mosquito-infested province on the Volga River. Defense lawyers said Alekhina and Tolokonnikova would be transported to a penal colony within two weeks, after receiving copies of their sentences. The location was not yet known.

Despite the harsh conditions, many prisoners nonetheless prefer the colonies to the pre-trial detention centers, where they are kept in cramped, sometimes spectacularly unhygienic cells and only allowed out for an hour a day. The three Pussy Riot members were held in such a center since their February arrest.

Russian inmates are kept in a system that Russia's own justice minister has described as "monstrously archaic" and whose purpose has changed little for hundreds of years. Czarist Russia sent prisoners to remote Siberian colonies where labor was in short supply; the system was inherited and expanded by the Soviet Union, which worked millions of prisoners to death in the gulag. Russia incarcerates more people than any country in the world bar the United States and China, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies.

There have been other high-profile penal colony inmates in Putin's Russia.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the imprisoned head of the Yukos oil company, served part of his 14-year sentence in an Eastern Siberian colony. Once Russia's richest man, he served his time making mittens. Arrested in 2003, Khodorkovsky was convicted in two cases seen as punishment for challenging Putin's power.

Bakhmina, who once worked for Khodorkovsky, said you have little free time to yourself in the prison colony, where guards often compel prisoners to attend classes or participate in cultural activities. In a U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks in 2010, former Ambassador William Burns recalled visiting a women's prison where inmates put on a "bizarre fashion and talent show" for American officials.

"Boredom doesn't exist in the colony. It's too good a concept for it. You just regret the time you spend," Bakhmina said. "A normal person can't even imagine that environment _ you have to get used to it and people have to get used to you. It takes several months, maybe half a year. It's all about how you behave _ you have to not be conceited and respect other people."

Prisoners are typically paid the equivalent of about $10 a day, which they can use to buy food, cigarettes, and toiletries. Those whose families don't send them supplies scrape through on the unofficial labor market, cleaning up the facilities or doing work for wealthier inmates. Cigarette packs are the colony's internal currency.

Alekhina and Tolokonnikova, both university graduates, are unlikely to have much in common with their fellow inmates. "I didn't think there even were people like 90 percent of the people I met," Bakhmina recalled. "I never had any idea there were so many drug addicts, or so many people with speech impediments."

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