A jailed member of the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot — who were locked up last year for demonstrating against Vladimir Putin in public — has gone on hunger strike in protest against living conditions in prison which she says “treat women like cattle”.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova says she gets 4 hours of sleep a night and is forced to work 16-17 hours a day while living on stale bread, watered-down milk and rotten potatoes.
She won’t tolerate it any longer, so she’s going on hunger strike — just like fellow band member Maria Alyokhina did earlier this year living in similar conditions in a different prison. The prison authorities met many of her demands after she went 11 days without eating, so hopefully Tolokonnikova’s efforts won’t be in vain either.
Both she and Alyokhina and scheduled to release in March 2014. Hang in there, girls:
Here is the open letter as delivered to The Guardian:
Beginning Monday, 23 September, I am going on hunger strike. This is an extreme method, but I am convinced that it is my only way out of my current situation
The penal colony administration refuses to hear me. But I, in turn, refuse to back down from my demands. 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.
It has been a year since I arrived at Penal Colony No 14 in the Mordovian village of Parts. As the prisoner saying goes: “Those who never did time in Mordovia never did time at all.” I started hearing about Mordovian prison colonies while I was still being held at Pre-Trial Detention Centre No 6 in Moscow. They have the highest levels of security, the longest workdays, and the most flagrant rights violation. When they send you off to Mordovia, it is as though you’re headed to the scaffold. Until the very last moment, they keep hoping: “Perhaps they won’t send you to Mordovia after all? Maybe it will blow over?” Nothing blew over, and in the autumn of 2012, I arrived at the camp on the banks of the Partsa River.
Mordovia greeted me with the words of the deputy chief of the penal colony, Lieutenant Colonel Kupriyanov, who is the de facto head administrator of our colony. “You should know that when it comes to politics, I am a Stalinist.” Colonel Kulagin, the other head administrator – the colony is run in tandem – called me in for a conversation on my first day here with the objective to force me to confess my guilt. “A misfortune has befallen you. Isn’t that so? You’ve been sentenced to two years in the colony. People usually change their minds when bad things happen to them. If you want to be paroled as soon as possible, you have to confess your guilt. If you don’t, you won’t get parole.” I told him right away that I would only work the 8 hours a day required by the labour code. “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!” was Kulagin’s response.
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.
No one dares to disobey these orders and not submit such petitions regarding entering the work zone on Sunday, which means working until 1 am. Once, a 50-year-old woman asked to go back to the residential zone at 8pm instead of 12.30am so she could go to bed at 10 pm and get eight hours of sleep just once a week. She was feeling ill; she had high blood pressure. In response, they held a unit meeting in order to take the woman down, insult and humiliate her, branding her a parasite. “What, do you think you’re the only one who wants more sleep? You need to work harder, you cow!” When someone from the brigade doesn’t come to work on doctor’s orders, they’re bullied as well. “I worked when I had a fever of 40C and it was fine. What are you thinking –who is going to pick up the slack for you?”
My residential unit in the camp greeted me with the words of a fellow prisoner finishing off her nine-year term. “The pigs are scared to touch you themselves. They want to do it with the hands of the inmates.” In the colony, the inmates in charge of the brigades as well as their senior members are the ones tasked with depriving fellow inmates’ rights, terrorising them, and turning them into speechless slaves – all on the orders of the administration.
For the maintenance of discipline and obedience, there is a widely implemented system of unofficial punishments. Prisoners are forced to “stay in the lokalka [a fenced-off passageway between two areas in the camp] until lights out” (the prisoner is forbidden to go into the barracks – whether it be autumnl or winter. In the second brigade, consisting of the disabled and elderly, there was a woman who ended up getting such bad frostbite after a day in the lokalka they had to amputate her fingers and one of her feet); “lose hygiene privileges” (the prisoner is forbidden to wash themselves or use the bathroom); “lose commissary and tea-room privileges” (the prisoner is forbidden to eat their own food, or drink beverages). It’s both funny and frightening when a 40-year-old woman tells you: “Looks like we’re being punished today! I wonder whether we’re going to be punished tomorrow, too.” She can’t leave the sewing workshop to pee or get a piece of candy from her purse. It’s forbidden.
Thinking only of sleep and a sip of tea, the harassed and dirty prisoner becomes obedient putty in the hands of the administration, which sees us solely as free slave labor. Thus, in June 2013, my salary was 29 (29!) rubles [57p] for the month. Our brigade sews 150 police uniforms per day. Where does the money they get for them go?
The camp has been allocated funding to buy completely new equipment a number of times. However, the administration has limited itself to repainting the sewing machines with the hands of its labourers. We sew using physically and morally exhausted machinery. According to the labour code, when equipment does not correspond with current industry standards, quotas must be lowered in relation to typical trade conventions. But the quotas only rise, and suddenly and miraculously at that. “If you let them see that you can deliver 100 uniforms, they’ll raise the minimum to 120!” say veteran machine-runners. And you can’t fail to deliver, either, or else your whole unit will be punished, the entire brigade. The punishment will be, for instance, that all of you will be forced to stand in the quad for hours. Without permission to use the bathroom. Without permission to take a sip of water.
Two weeks ago, the production quotas for all colony brigades was arbitrarily increased by 50 units. If previously the minimum had been 100 uniforms per day, now it is 150. According to the labour code, workers must be notified of a change in the production quota no less than two months before it is enforced. At PC-14, we just woke up one day to find we had a new quota because the idea happened to have popped into the heads of the administrators of our “sweatshop” (that’s what the prisoners call the colony). The number of people in the brigade decreases (they are released or transferred), but the quota grows. As a result, those left behind have to work harder and harder. The mechanics say that they don’t have the parts necessary to repair the machinery and that they will not be getting them. “There are no parts! When will they come? Are you kidding? This is Russia. Why even ask that question?” During my first few months in the work zone, I practically became a mechanic. I taught myself out of necessity. I threw myself at my machine, screwdriver in hand, desperate to fix it. Your hands are pierced with needle-marks and covered in scratches, your blood is all over the work table, but still, you keep sewing. You are a part of the assembly line, and you have to complete your task as well as the experienced sewers. Meanwhile, the damn machine keeps breaking down. Because you’re new and there’s a deficit, you end up with the worst equipment – the weakest motor on the line. And now it’s broken down again, and once again, you run to find the mechanic, who is impossible to find. They yell at you, they berate you for slowing down production. There are no sewing classes at the colony, either. Newbies are unceremoniously sat down in front of their machines and given their assignments.
“If you weren’t Tolokonnikova, you would have had the shit kicked out of you a long time ago,” say fellow prisoners with close ties to the administration. It’s true: others are beaten up. For not being able to keep up. They hit them in the kidneys, in the face. Prisoners themselves deliver these beatings and not a single one of them is done without the approval and full knowledge of the administration. A year ago, before I came here, a gypsy woman in the third unit was beaten to death (the third is the pressure unit where they put prisoners that need to undergo daily beatings). She died in the medical unit of PC-14. The administration was able to cover it up: the official cause of death was a stroke. In another unit, new seamstresses who couldn’t keep up were undressed and forced to sew naked. No one dares complain to the administration because all they will do is smile and send the prisoner back into the unit, where the “snitch” will be beaten on the orders of that same administration. For the colony administration, controlled hazing is a convenient method for forcing prisoners into total submission to their systemic abuse of human rights.
A threatening, anxious atmosphere pervades the work zone. 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.
Those who found themselves in PC-14 in 2010, the year of smoke and fire, said that while the wildfires were approaching the colony walls, prisoners continued to go to the work zone and fulfill their quotas. Due to the smoke, you couldn’t see two metres in front of you, but, covering their faces in wet handkerchiefs, they all went to work nonetheless. Because of the emergency conditions, prisoners weren’t taken to the cafeteria for meals. Several women told me that they were so horribly hungry they started writing diaries in order to document the horror of what was happening to them. When the fires were finally put out, camp security thoroughly rooted these diaries out so that none of them would make it to the outside.
The hygienic and residential conditions of the camp are calculated to make the prisoner feel like a filthy animal without any rights. Although there are “hygiene rooms” in the dormitories, there is also “general hygiene room” with a corrective and punitive purpose. This room has a capacity of five; however, all 800 colony prisoners are sent there to wash themselves. We do not have to wash ourselves in the hygiene rooms in our barracks – that would be too easy. In the “general hygiene room”, in the eternal press, women with little tubs attempt to wash their “nursemaids” (as they call them in Mordovia) as fast as they can, heaped onto one another. We are allowed to wash our hair once a week. However, even this bathing day gets cancelled. A pump will break or the plumbing will be stopped up. At times, my unit was unable to bathe for two to three weeks.
When the plumbing breaks down, urine splashes and clumps of faeces fly out of the hygiene rooms. We’ve learned to unclog the pipes ourselves, but our successes are short-lived – they soon get stopped up again. The colony does not have a snake for cleaning out the pipes. We get to do laundry once a week. The laundry is a small room with three faucets pouring weak streams of cold water.
It must also be a corrective measure to only give prisoners stale bread, heavily watered-down milk, exclusively rusted millet and rotten potatoes. This summer, they brought in sacks of slimy, black potatoes in bulk. Then they fed them to us.
The living and working-condition violations at PC-14 are endless. However, my main and most important grievance is bigger than any one of these. It is that the colony administration prevents any complaints or claims regarding conditions at PC-14 from leaving colony walls by the harshest means available. The administration forces people to remain silent. It does not scorn stooping to the very lowest and cruelest means to this end. All of the other problems come from this one – the increased quotas, the 16-hour work day, and so on. The administration feels untouchable; it heedlessly oppresses prisoners with growing severity. I couldn’t understand why everyone kept silent until I found myself faced with the avalanche of obstacles that falls on the prisoner who decides to speak out. Complaints simply do not leave the prison. The only chance is to complain through a lawyer or relatives. The administration, petty and vengeful, will meanwhile use all of its mechanisms for putting pressure on the prisoner so she will see that her complaints will not help anyone, but only make thing worse. They use collective punishment: you complain there’s no hot water, and they turn it off entirely.
In May 2013, my lawyer Dmitry Dinze filed a complaint about the conditions at PC-14 with the prosecutor’s office. The deputy head of the colony, Lieutenant Colonel Kupriyanov, instantly made conditions at the camp unbearable. There was search after search, a flood of reports on all of my acquaintances, the seizure of warm clothes, and threats of seizure of warm footwear. At work, they get revenge with complicated sewing assignments, increased quotas, and fabricated malfunctions. The leaders of the unit next to mine, Lieutenant Colonel Kupriyanov’s right hands, openly requested that prisoners interfere with my work output so that I could be sent to the punishment cell for “damaging government property.” They also ordered prisoners to provoke a fight with me.
It is possible to tolerate anything as long as it only affects you. But the method of collective punishment is bigger than that. It means that your unit, or even the entire colony, is required to endure your punishment along with you. This includes, worst of all, people you’ve come to care about. One of my friends was denied parole, for which she had been awaiting seven years, working hard to exceed her work quotas. She was reprimanded for drinking tea with me. That day, Lieutenant Colonel Kupriyanov transferred her to another unit. Another close acquaintance of mine, a very well-educated woman, was thrown into the “stress unit” for daily beatings because she was reading and discussing a Justice Department document with me, entitled: “Regulations for the code of conduct at correctional facilities.” They filed reports on everyone who talked to me. It hurt me that people I cared about were forced to suffer. Grinning, Lieutenant Colonel Kupriyanov told me then, “You probably don’t have any friends left!” He explained that everything was happening because of Dinze’s complaint.
Now I see that I should have gone on hunger strike in May when I was first found myself in this situation. However, the tremendous pressure that the administration had put on my fellow prisoners due to my actions led me to stop the process of filing complaints about the conditions in the colony.
Three weeks ago, on 30 August, I asked Lieutenant Colonel Kupriyanov to grant the prisoners in my work brigade eight hours of sleep. We were discussing decreasing the workday from 16 to 12 hours. “Fine, starting Monday, the brigade will only work for eight hours at a time,” he replied. I knew this was another trap because it is physically impossible to fulfill the increased quota in 8 hours. Thus, the brigade will not have time and subsequently face punishment. “If anyone finds out that you’re the one behind this, you’ll never complain again,” the Lieutenant Colonel continued. “After all, there’s nothing to complain about in the afterlife.” Kupriyanov paused. “And finally, never request things for other people. Only ask for things for yourself. I’ve been working in the camps for many years, and those who come to me asking for things for other people go directly from my office to the punishment cell. You’re the first person this won’t happen to.”
Over the course of the following weeks, life in my unit and work brigade became impossible. Prisoners with close ties to the administration began egging on the others to get revenge. “You’re forbidden to have tea and food, from taking bathroom breaks, and smoking for a week. Now you’re always going to be punished unless you start behaving differently with the newbies and especially with Tolokonnikova. Treat them like the old-timers used to treat you. Were you beaten? Of course you were. Did they rip your mouths? They did. Fuck them up. You won’t get punished.”
Over and over, they attempt to get me to fight one of them, but what’s the point of fighting with people who aren’t in charge of themselves, who are only acting on the orders of the administration?
Mordovian prisoners are afraid of their own shadows. They are completely terrified. If only yesterday they were well-disposed toward you and begging, “Do something about the 16 hour work day!” after the administration started going after me, they’re afraid to even speak to me.
I turned to the administration with a proposal for dealing with the conflict. I asked that they release me from the pressure manufactured by them and enacted by the prisoners they control; that they abolish slave labour at the colony by cutting the length of the workday and decreasing the quotas so that they correspond with the law. The pressure has only increased. Therefore, beginning 23 September, I am going on hunger strike and refusing to participate in colony slave labor. I will do this until the administration starts obeying the law and stops treating incarcerated women like cattle ejected from the realm of justice for the purpose of stoking the production of the sewing industry; until they start treating us like humans.
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