A letter penned by an imprisoned member of the punk performance art group Pussy Riot complaining about intolerable prison conditions is again shining a light on Russia's notorious penal system.
Russia has one of the highest prison population rates in the world, exceeded only by those of the United States and China. The prison system’s reputation for sometimes inhuman standards is legendary, dating from the czarist-era Siberian labor camps through the notorious Gulag documented by Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
Human rights groups have long railed to reform Russian prisons. and in recent years, the emergence of antibiotic-resistant diseases like tuberculosis among incarcerated inmates has prompted some small steps toward changing conditions.
But accounts like that of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, whose open letter to prison authorities was published in several online media outlets on Monday and in English on Tuesday in the Guardian newspaper, shock observers unaware of the system’s nature.
Ms. Tolokonnikova was sentenced to two years in a provincial labor camp for her part in a profane "punk prayer" that the group performed in Moscow's leading cathedral last year. A Moscow court judged the performance to be an antireligious hate crime. One other member is also in prison, while another has been put on probation.
The group's sentencing prompted international condemnation from governments, and some musicians and artists vowed to cancel performances in Russia in response.
On Tuesday, she was placed in solitary confinement "for her own protection" after she declared a hunger strike over the conditions in her remote penal colony and complained that the camp's deputy commander had threatened her life.
Tolokonnikova wrote that she and her fellow inmates were forced to work for as many as 17 hours a day, given little chance to sleep, subjected to cruel treatments – including beatings inflicted by fellow inmates at the behest of guards – often denied basic hygiene, and frequently punished collectively for infractions committed by one prisoner.
On Tuesday, prison authorities told journalists that Tolokonnikova had been put in a "so-called safe place. It is not a punishment cell." Gennady Morozov, head of the state-appointed watchdog group in the province of Mordovia where the IR-14 penal colony is located, denied Tolokonnikova's allegations, insisting that conditions were "excellent" and that prisoners work only eight hours a day.
She “worked her shift in the morning and then, for no reason whatsoever, went and wrote this statement," Russian news agencies quoted Mr. Morozov as saying.
Tolokonnikova, the mother of a 5-year-old daughter and a philosophy student who surprised many with the intellectual heft of her closing statement at her trial just over a year ago, said she had attempted to talk with prison authorities about their legal and human rights obligations, and declared her hunger strike would begin Monday.
"I will not remain silent, resigned to watch as my fellow prisoners collapse under the strain of slavery-like conditions. I demand that the colony administration respect human rights; I demand that the Mordovia camp function in accordance with the law. I demand that we be treated like human beings, not slaves,” she wrote.
The IR-14 women's camp has workshops where inmates sew police and military uniforms, and they are given quotas that are impossible to meet within the eight-hour workday stipulated under Russia's labor code. Unlike civilian life, it is technically legal for prison authorities to keep inmates at work until they complete their assigned tasks – if the prisoners request it in writing, says Tatiana Lokshina, deputy head of the Russian branch of the US organization Human Rights Watch.
"This appears to be what's happening in this camp, so probably authorities can say it's all on the legal up and up. But when you consider the sheer volume of requests prisoners must be making, there are grounds to suggest that there is some form of pressure underlying this," Ms. Lokshina says, adding that a Kremlin-appointed human rights commission has agreed to investigate this case.
“It's perfectly clear that a hunger strike is a last resort," Lokshina says. “She wouldn't do that if she felt she had any other options.”
In her letter, Tolokonnikova graphically describes the depravity and violence prisoners are driven to by systematic sleep deprivation and bullying by the guards.
"Eternally sleep-deprived, overwhelmed by the endless race to fulfill inhumanly large quotas, prisoners are always on the verge of breaking down, screaming at each other, fighting over the smallest things. Just recently, a young woman got stabbed in the head with a pair of scissors because she didn't turn in a pair of pants on time. Another tried to cut her own stomach open with a hacksaw. They stopped her," she wrote.
She also alleges that the camp’s deputy warden threatened her life in a meeting three weeks ago, when he agreed to her request for reduced work shifts but without reducing the quotas the inmates must meet. She said he 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.'"
Experts say the conditions Tolokonnikova describes are common throughout Russia's penal colonies , which holds more than a million prisoners , although it is rare for any public light to be shed upon it.
"Human rights are basically ignored in the colonies. They have a slave labor system and conditions that amount to torture," says Valery Borshchev, a former judge who heads the public oversight commission for Russia's Justice Ministry, a body mandated by law.
Mr. Borshchev said he visited Tolokonnikova’s camp five years ago and was shocked by it.
“I have no doubt that conditions are pretty much as Tolokonnikova describes.... As to pressure on disagreeable prisoners, this also sounds fairly typical. As a rule, there is an operative deputy head of the colony, and he deals with this. He usually does not act directly, but works through criminal groups [among the prisoners], thus effectively making common cause with them," he adds.
An unnamed representative for the Federal Penitentiary Service told the pro-government NTV network Tuesday that Tolokonnikova's letter amounts to "blackmail" and insisted that everything at the prison is done according to the law.
"That whole prison system is based on fear. You survive, but if you resist, your life will be made even harder," says Dmitry Oreshkin, head of the Mercator Group, a Moscow media consultancy. “In some ways it's the same for the whole country.”
"But thanks to brave people like Tolokonnikova, this system may finally be broken," he says. "It will take time, but her fearlessness is an example to us all."