Upon arrival at the IK-1 penal colony in the Russian town of Yaroslavl, Ruslán Vajapov should have received a new mattress, pillow and bedding. But what awaited him on the bunk in the two-room barrack he shared with 130 other inmates were belongings inherited from another inmate who had already served his sentence.
“And nothing more. Beds full of bedbugs, four bathrooms and four sinks for more than a hundred men, no hot water. And I work, ”recalls Vajapov, 39. In that center, which came to lightAfter a leaked video revealed the beatings of a prisoner, he spent more than five years on a case that civil rights organizations consider fabricated.
Vajapov, who worked as a transporter, was arrested in 2012 after stopping to urinate on the roadside and convicted of exposing himself to minors, after refusing to pay bribes to authorities, his lawyers claim.
Russia bases its prison system on centers like the IK-1. Penal colonies inherited from the former USSR that are composed of centers enclosed with wires and concertinas, with large wooden or brick barracks in which the inmates live together, in large rooms, regardless of the crime; although there are more or less strict colonies depending on the severity of the crime.
A structure that started in tsarist times but developed from the forced labor camps of the Soviet Gulagand in which the prisoners must, as in those days, work. Colonies, most of them scattered throughout the vast geography of the capital Eurasian country, in which specialized organizations denounce constant human rights violations. “Slave labor, lack of medical attention, abuse, torture”, explains the coordinator of the organization Russia in Prison, Inna Bazhibina. “Deep down, the gulag is still the gulag,” he says.
It is the system that the prominent opponent Alexéi Navalni may soon face . This Saturday, a Moscow court rejected his appealand ratified a sentence of three and a half years in a penal colony for the activist.
The most prominent critic against the Kremlin was convicted on February 2 of violating the terms of the probation issued in a controversial 2014 ruling that the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg considered four years ago “arbitrary and unfair.”
Navalni, 44, known for exposing the corruption scandals of Russia’s political and economic elite, missed mandatory court reviews while in Germany recovering from the poisoning he suffered last August in Siberia. An attack with a neurotoxin for military use from Soviet times, of which he directly accuses Russian President Vladimir Putin, and after which the West points to the hand of the Kremlin.
The Russian justice has not yet determined which colony Navalni will go to, which has other open judicial processes – this Saturday he was sentenced to a fine of about 9,500 euros for defaming a World War II veteran – and that he can still remain an indefinite time in provisional prison until they are resolved.
In addition, transfers are usually very long and opaque, according to organizations such as Amnesty International, who describe trips by inmates in closed and windowless wagons; journeys sometimes lasting a month to the destination neighborhood, which they do not know until they get there.
For the moment, the Russian authorities have ignored national and international pressure and the ruling of the Strasbourg Court that on Wednesday demanded in an infrequentPrecautionary resolution to release the activist.
The variety is wide. There are about 670 penal colonies in Russia and just a dozen prisons (centers more similar to Western prisons, with small cells, which are usually for the time of provisional or preventive detention), according to data from the Ministry of Justice.
Colonies in depopulated Karelia, which borders Finland, where the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky spent time , after passing through a Siberian colony where he worked sewing gloves after being convicted in a fraud case that is considered political; in the White Sea; in Mordovia, where Nadia Tolokonnikova, of the punk movement Pussy Riot, was for a couple of years, making police uniforms to pay her penalty for “motivated vandalismfor religious hatred ”after a protest against Putin in a Moscow cathedral; in Primorye, in the Far East by the Sea of Japan.
Places scattered throughout the territory and linked to the concept of economic development of the Soviet era, when forced labor of prisoners played a crucial role in the structure of the State.
Russia is, in proportion, the country with the most prisoners in Europe; although far from the figures of the United States or Brazil. In the Eurasian country (about 144 million inhabitants) 483,000 people are serving sentences today.
In 2020, for the first time since there are counts, the number of inmates was less than half a million, explains Eva Merkachova, an expert in penal colonies and a member of several official commissions, who highlights that the absence of the concept of “minor crime” in the Penal Code leads in a very high percentage to custodial sentences.
Furthermore, a small percentage of court cases end in acquittal. “When I started visiting centers I came to see such a saturation of prisoners that some had to sleep on the floor, others had made hammocks that hung from the bunk beds, the food was terrible, it smelled horrible”,
Alexei Polijovich believes that, to a certain extent, he was lucky. He was arrested in 2012, aged 22, during mass demonstrations in Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square in rejection of electoral fraud and against Vladimir Putin , and sentenced to three years and six months in prison for participating in “riots” and threats or use of violence without risk to health against government officials.
However, he had to serve his sentence in a neighborhood “close” to his family, in Ryazan, just over four hours by train from the Russian capital. “My parents could come and go in one day. Not like other people, who have to catch a plane and spend a lot of money to visit their loved ones, “says Polijovich, now an activist, by phone.
There is no law that dictates that inmates must be close to their families, says Oleg Novikov, of the Public Verdict Foundation, a legal aid organization, who points out that the colony authorities pressure, blackmail and punish inmates using the visits from those close to you.
According to the informal division dating from the extensive prison culture of Soviet times, the Russian male colonies are divided into red, brutal centers, firmly controlled by the prison governor and where the rules are strict and numerous cases of torture have been detected. , and black, where the rules are lighter and the criminal leaders of the colony negotiate with the prison authorities and informally “control” the rest of the inmates through tacit rules; although the same rulesof the criminal world. Polijovich was in one of the black ones. ”
It was a good colony,” he says. “It could even be called a commercial colony, because the system was more flexible than in a totally black colony, if someone violated the rules the situation could be resolved by paying,” he says. He served his sentence in one of the textile workshops associated with the prison.
He earned about 400 rubles (just over 4 euros) a month for eight hours of work five days a week. He received his salary in the form of cigarettes, which he used to “buy small services,” says Polijovich.
The maximum working day cannot exceed 40 hours a week, according to the law, which also indicates that inmates of penal colonies must receive a salary. And that contributing to the work also guarantees some incentives, such as additional visits. However, says activist Bazhibina, the rules are not being followed.
There are people who cannot work and are penalized for it. Or that they are forced to do it in positions that barely provide them a couple of rubles a month. An amount so small that they cannot even buy toilet paper, a luxury good in the colony, says a recluse in a handwritten letter, in which she explains that if she had money to buy glasses she could work in the sewing workshop of the center and get a little more profit.
With a month’s salary making official uniforms, Tania Kuznetsova was given to buy a jar of instant coffee and two bags of the cheapest candies from the colony store.
The 53-year-old woman served six and a half years in a correctional colony in a fraud case against the travel agency where she worked. He says that his shift was 12 hours a day, six days a week; and that in order to “circumvent” labor regulations and possible inspections given the proximity of the center to Moscow, the prison authorities forced the inmates to sign that they wanted to “voluntarily” work overtime.
The Federal Penitentiary Service is a powerful financial machine. The colonias have contracts with state organizations – sometimes also private – and production quotas are not set by law, so they are sometimes enlarged to the maximum. In addition, in some regions, such as Mordovia, what the penal colonies contribute has become essential for the regional budget. So the labor machinery that inmates pull never stops, says Inna Bazhibina.
Despite this huge structure, inmates often lack basic products, says Russia’s Prison coordinator. Tania Kuznetsova says that all the prisoners in her colony had to wear a uniform and scarf constantly, but that they only received one set, without a replacement.
“So without the possibility of changing or washing it, some girls tried to sew another by stealing fabric from the factory for themselves or to resell it,” she says. Only once in the entire time she was imprisoned was she given a package of sanitary products: travel-size toothpaste, toothbrush, paper, and pads. And one time only, shoes. “And the soles were so thin, like paper, they couldn’t hold. We ended up discovering from the labels that they were the kind of slippers used to bury the dead, ”says the woman.
Organizations such as Public Verdict – which helped uncover the torture in the Yaroslavl prison where Ruslán was imprisoned and obtained the conviction of several officers – have documented numerous cases of labor exploitation, explains its spokesman, Oleg Novikov. However, inmates have a hard time reporting.
They fear retaliation. The “opportunities” to punish inmates are many. The activist Konstantin Kotov was admitted to an isolation cell by using gloves that another inmate had lent him. Tycoon Khodorkovsky, for accepting a few fruits from other inmates after one day he missed dinner. Punishments that alienate prominent inmatesof the rest of the prisoners and their relatives, and that they are “more common” than physical violence in high-profile cases.
For others, the reality is different, says Vajapov, who today helps other inmates to navigate the complex penal system, and who speaks of “preventive” beatings twice a year, lack of medical care and criminalization of the sick: ” In Russia, in the penal colonies, what prevails is the culture of impunity ”.