The Gulag within: Harsh realities of Russian penal colonies

Kremlin and St. Basil's

(Moscow News – – Anna Arutunyan – October 1, 2013) For 22-year-old Lena Ivanova, work at a penal colony sewing military uniforms began at 8:30 a.m. and could last well into the night.

“There were situations when there was a big [production] order, and the warden would call everyone outside [into the square] rain or snow, and we were told we would have to stay [there] unless we went to work,” Lena (her name has been changed to protect her identity), who was recently released from Penal Colony No. 4 in southern Russia, told The Moscow News.

“People were punished for refusing to work,” Lena said. She described beatings and solitary confinement as standard responses to an inmate’s refusal to work, even if the said inmate was sick.

“Everything [production quotas, how many shifts inmates worked] depended on the prison bosses and how they wanted it,” Lena added.

The plight of thousands of inmates like Lena has come under the spotlight after Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, serving a two-year sentence in Mordovia’s Penal Colony No. 14 for performing a “punk prayer” in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral, went on a hunger strike last week, detailing prison abuses like slave labor, beatings, threats to her life, and arbitrary punishment.

The Federal Prison Service has said it would hold an inquiry into Tolokonnikova’s complaints. “All points made in Tolokonnikova’s open letter will be checked. Necessary measures will be taken based on the results of the checks,” RIA Novosti cited the prison service’s spokeswoman, Kristina Belousova, as saying last week.

The Federal Prison Service could not be reached for comment at press time.

Lena, who says she served three years for stabbing a man who attacked her and her mother, managed to avoid beatings. But she described seeing others beaten by prison management for complaints, like “when a prisoner would demand heating [in their living quarters].”

Gulag legacy

Why do establishments that, by definition, aim to correct the behavior of criminals, wind up instead entrenching some of the cruelest practices known to human nature? Rights activists and penal reform experts identify tradition, corruption, and the economics of prison work as the key factors.

Russia currently has 697,500 prisoners, down from 819,200 in 2011, when then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin signed a development plan for Russia’s penal system aiming to reduce the number of prisoners to 200,000 by 2020.

There are seven prisons, which have a tighter security regime, but the bulk of those incarcerated (580,400 people) spend their time in any one of among 739 penal colonies, according to the Federal Prison Service. Some of them, like those in Russia’s Republic of Mordovia, date back to the Soviet Gulag system.

“Some [Russian penal colonies] are better, some are worse,” said Lyudmila Alpern, a prisoners’ rights activist with the Moscow Center for Prison Reform.

“Older colonies with a Gulag legacy, which the Mordovia system is part of, are very harsh, traditional, and hopeless,” Alpern told The Moscow News.

Slave labor?

Unlike in the Soviet Union, when most inmates had to work, only about 30 percent of penal colonies today have inmates working, Alpern said, for the most part in women’s colonies.

Alpern, who has been traveling to Russia’s prison colonies for two decades, still recalls being shocked in 1999 when she first saw women prisoners in Mordovia working 17-hour days, much like those described by Tolokonnikova.

Despite the efforts of the Moscow Center for Prison Reform, not much has changed in Mordovia.

According to Andrei Babushkin, a member of the Presidential Human Rights Council who specializes in prisoners’ rights, the economics of how contracts are meted out to labor colonies is a major part of the problem.

“Colonies don’t have municipal or state contracts,” Babushkin told The Moscow News.

What that means is that prison colonies often find themselves answering to private interests that can demand late fees when production quotas are not met. Prisoners, who often do not have the training or skills to work efficiently, often bear the brunt of this pressure.

According to a recent report in the Izvestia daily, the biggest private contractor for Tolokonnikova’s Penal Colony No. 14, which made 70 million rubles ($2.2 million) on sewing contracts last year, is Vostok-Servis, which specializes in working clothes and uniforms.

Tolokonnikova said in her open letter that she made just 29 rubles (less than $1) a month. By law, prison authorities can deduct up to 75 percent of an inmate’s salary to pay for their upkeep.

Low salaries, according to Babushkin, are also the result of prison management embellishing the numbers.

“There may be 500 people working, but only 100 people are documented as working, so the salary of one person is spread over the plate of five people,” Babushkin said. “It’s partly corruption, partly an attempt to make the situation appear better than it actually is.”

Isolation and oversight

The concept of prison labor in itself, Alpern says, can be a good thing for prisoners ­ if it is regulated and humane. This, however, would take much more oversight and resources that government agencies often do not have.

“In Mordovia, the Public Oversight Commission (ONK) has seven members, six of whom are former prison wardens,” Alpern says, explaining why harsh traditions dating back to the Gulag are so entrenched.

The Mordovian oversight commission has refuted Tolokonnikova’s claims that she was threatened, Rossiiskaya Gazeta reported last week.

Isolation is also a major problem. According to Alpern’s experience, the closer a prison colony is to a city, the better the conditions are.

Because inmates themselves are frequently threatened or punished for speaking up, Alpern said that Tolokonnikova’s testimony will go a long way in bringing the problems to light.

Aside from more oversight, certain laws ­ like the one allowing up to 75 percent of an inmate’s salary to be deducted ­ need to be revised, Babushkin said. More state contracts and oversight of prison finances by prosecutors would also improve matters, Babushkin added.