4 Reasons the Pussy Riot Members’ “Work Camp” is Horrific

It was more than a year ago that two members of the Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, were sent to the “worst prison hell” after being convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” after performing a “punk prayer” in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior on February 21, 2012.

As of Monday, September 23, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova has been on a hunger strike to protest “slave labor conditions” in prison colony no. 14 in the Russian region of Mordovia and after allegedly receiving a death threat from the prison’s deputy head.

In an open letter, Tolokonnikova explains her reasons for deciding on such an “extreme method.” On August 30, she says, she talked to Lieutenant Colonel Kupriyanov about decreasing prisoners’ workday from 16 to 12 hours and allowing them eight hours of sleep. He assented but, she notes, “this was another trap because it is physically impossible to fulfill the increased quota in eight hours.” Kupriyanov then told her

“If anyone finds out that you’re the one behind this, you’ll never complain again. After all, there’s nothing to complain about in the afterlife.”

Based on Tolokonnikova’s detailed description of endless hours sewing piles of police uniforms on a broken-down sewing machine, it soon becomes clear that any notion of prisoners’ rights is just for show. The conditions in Mordovia’s prison colony no. 14 — euphemistically called a “work camp” — are simply “reminiscent of the Soviet Gulag system.”

Here is more information about these living and working conditions, based on what Tolokonnikova has described.

1. There Are No Limits On How Long Colony Prisoners Work

While colony prisoners are supposed to work for a maximum of eight hours a day, they actually work far more and while using antiquated machinery that superiors manage not to fix, writes Tolokonnikova:

“My brigade in the sewing shop works 16 to 17 hours a day. From 7.30am to 12.30am. At best, we get four hours of sleep a night. We have a day off once every month and a half. We work almost every Sunday. Prisoners submit petitions to work on weekends “out of [their] own desire”. In actuality, there is, of course, no desire to speak of. These petitions are written on the orders of the administration and under pressure from the prisoners that help enforce it.”

A request to have prisoners work the legally allotted eight hours is met with this response from a superior, Colonel Kulagin: “The code is one thing; what really matters is fulfilling your quota. If you don’t, you work overtime. You should know that we have broken stronger wills than yours!”

2. Conditions in the Prison Colony Endanger Inmates’ Health

“The hygienic and residential conditions of the camp are calculated to make the prisoner feel like a filthy animal without any rights,”  Tolokonnikova writes in what seems like an understatement when she provides more details. 800 colony prisoners are sent into a “general hygiene room” made for five people. The plumbing breaks down frequently and the women have to unclog pipes themselves. They are allowed to do laundry once a week in a “small room with three faucets pouring weak streams of cold water.”

On a diet of “stale bread, heavily watered-down milk, exclusively rusted millet and rotten potatoes,” prisoners are expected to produce their quota of 100, if not 120, uniforms.

3. Punishments Are Arbitary and Excessive

Speaking up or otherwise acting out of step with the “regulations for the code of conduct at correctional facilities” results in punishments, including not being allowed to use the restroom, the seizure of warm clothes and shoes, a transfer to the “stress unit” for daily beatings or being forced to stay outdoors in freezing winter weather.

4. Prison Authorities Delegate Colony Prisoners to Do Their Dirty Work

Prisoners administer beatings to other prisoners “not a single one of them is done without the approval and full knowledge of the administration,” writes Tolokonnikova. Colony prisoners are made to inform on others and the prison authorities also see to it that any colony prisoners who interact with Tolokonnikova suffer, even for something as seemingly minimal as drinking tea with her.

The result is an atmosphere of terror among the colony prisoners, who have no idea who to trust or if their smallest action might lead to punishment for themselves or for others.

Maria Alyokhina, who is imprisoned at a different camp in Perm, has encountered similar conditions. Earlier this year, she went on an 11-day hunger strike to demand better security; these demands are said to have been met. Before that, she had endured five months in solitary confinement after saying that authorities had deliberately placed her with hardened criminals who were encouraged to intimidate her.

As of Thursday, September 26, Alyokhina’s hearing to request that she serve the remaining six months of her two-year prison term in a milder form of detention — a transfer to a different prison, house arrest release with restrictions or a fine — has been postponed until next week. Both her and Tolokonnikova’s prison terms run until March of next year; a third member, Yekaterina Samutsevich, was freed in October of 2012.

At a court hearing, Alyokhina wore a black headscarf and reportedly told journalists that she was doing so “because my friend is on hunger strike.”

On Friday, September 25, Tolokonnikova’s husband, Pyotr Verzilov, reported that she has been moved to the medical unit at the prison camp. According to her lawyer, she is suffering from low blood sugar and low blood pressure.  Said Verzilov via Twitter, “Nadya is now in hospital, but they’re refusing to provide documents about that, or to meet the defence [team]. A blockade has begun.”

 

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

139 comments

Briony Coote
Briony C.2 years ago

Nadia's open letter last September really stuck with me, especially about those broken down sewing machines.

Kate S.
Kate S.2 years ago

WOW. SCARY WORLD WE LIVE IN.

Karen Martinez
Karen Martinez2 years ago

Thank you for sharing this article. Russia has never been much on human rights. They figure that human beings are a disposable commodity. Hopefully they'll come into the 21st century sometime soon.

Gysele van Santen

it's just not right that they're even in there in the first place. it's not.

Lynn C.
Lynn C.2 years ago

ty

Sheila Stevens
Sheila S.2 years ago

Where are the human rights activists on this one?

Karen Foley
Karen F.2 years ago

Good luck to all the prisoners of this hateful oppressive system.

Patricia H.
Patricia H.2 years ago

thanks for posting

Kanako I.
Kanako I.2 years ago

the notion of human rights probably does not exist there.

ivan s.
ivan shelley2 years ago

TYPICALLY RUSSIAN BEHAVIOUR. UTTERLY SICKENING BEHAVIOUR TOWARDS A NON VIOLENT PRISONER SHOULD BE ABOLISHED.. THIS REMINDS ME OF THE SAYING DO UNTO OTHERS AS YOU WOULD LIKE TO BE DONE TO YOURSELF. LETS PUT THESE "FATCAT" PRISON WARDERS IN THEIR OWN PRISON FOR A WEEK AS PRISONERS AND THEY WILL NOT LAST THREE DAYS >>