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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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Friday, Oct. 31


Put your grammar and logical thinking to the test in a fun and friendly environment during the British Book Centers Board Game Evening starting at 5 p.m. today. The event is free and all are welcome to attend.



Saturday, Nov. 1


The men and women who dedicate their lives to fitness get their chance to compete for the title of best body in Russia at todays Grand Prix Fitness House PRO, the nations premier bodybuilding competition. Not only will men and women be competing for thousands of dollars in prizes and a trip to represent their nation at Mr. Olympia but sporting goods and nutritional supplements will also be available for sale. Learn more about the culture of the Indian subcontinent during Diwali, the annual festival of lights that will be celebrated in St. Petersburg this weekend at the Culture Palace on Tambovskaya Ul. For 100 rubles ($2.40), festival-goers listen to Indian music, try on traditional Indian outfits and sample dishes highlighting the culinary diversity of the billion-plus people in the South Asian superpower.



Sunday, Nov. 2


Check out the latest video and interactive games at the Gaming Festival at the Mayakovsky Library ending today. Meet with the developers of the popular and learn more about their work, or learn how to play one of their creations with the opportunity to ask the creators themselves about the exact rules.



Monday, Nov. 3


Non-athletes can get feed their need for competition without breaking a sweat at the Rock-Paper-Scissors tournament this evening at the Cube Bar at Lomonosova 1. Referees will judge the validity of each matchup award points to winners while the citys elite fight for the chance to be called the best of the best. Those hoping to play must arrange a team beforehand and pay 200 rubles ($4.80) to enter.



Tuesday, Nov. 4


Attend the premiere of Canadian director Xavier Dolans latest film Mommy at the Avrora theater this evening. The fifth picture from the 25-year-old, it is the story of an unruly teenager but the most alluring (or unappealing) aspect is the way the film was shot: in a 1:1 format that is more reminiscent of Instagram videos than cinematic art. Tickets cost 400 rubles ($9.60) and snacks and drinks will be available.



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