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Life in a female prison

A new book offers chilling insight into the grim conditions at Russias female penal colonies.

Published: December 5, 2012 (Issue # 1738)



  • Inmates standing in a yard at a womens prison in the Udmurtia republic.
    Photo: YURY TUTOV / AP

A group of St. Petersburg sociologists have published their insights into the lives of Russias imprisoned women. Titled Before and After Prison: Womens Stories, the book (in Russian) blends uncensored stories written by prisoners with a professional assessment of the plight of the countrys female prison population.

There were thirty of us sharing the same room in the colony, recalled Galina, a prisoner whose story is included in the book. It was awful, and really felt like barracks. And there was only one toilet room with two toilets in it per one detachment of three hundred people, who had a total of half an hour in the morning to use this toilet. It was surreal. [] We hardly ever had hot water, and the toilets, if they broke, would not be repaired. It was a concentration camp.

I remember we did not have any water at all for a few days, and it was raining. We collected some rainwater that was falling from the roof in a basin, and then boiled it and drank it, Galina said.

According to official statistics, Russias total prison population in 2012 amounted to 714,000, with women representing 59,000 of them, or 8.3 percent. Conditions in Russian prisons have been examined before but the research has mainly been carried out by lawyers and human rights advocates. The studies have also been general and have not touched on gender aspects at all. However, as the St. Petersburg-published book clearly proves, Russian prisons feature a series of ordeals that appear to have been designed to suppress femininity, the authors say.

A Kafkaesque lack of privacy and inexplicable humiliation was what the books authors said shocked them the most in their interviewees sobering accounts.

One complaint that was repeated over and over again in the interviews was a devastating lack of personal space, said sociologist Yelena Omelchenko, a co-author of the book. Whether you are eating or working or sleeping or showering, and even when you are using the toilet, you are exposed to others.

Toilets and showers in prisons do not have partitions. Remarkably enough, this shameful element is preserved in them even when the premises undergo full renovation. The principle of full deprivation of personal space is being kept intact.

When I discovered, during the course of my research, how they renovated a toilet in one colony, I was stunned, Omelchenko recalled. In front of a row of holes in the ground not separated by partitions they placed a large mirror. I am still not fully convinced that the person who was responsible for that interior design solution was not in fact a moral sadist.

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