“Nothing personal, just business”: Human Rights Council Confirms Tolokonnikova’s Claims

“Nothing personal, just business”
Presidential Human Rights Council Confirms Tolokonnikova’s Claims of Violations at Penal Colony
September 27, 2013
Maxim Solopov
Gazeta.Ru

Photo_-Ilya-Shablinski

Members of the Presidential Human Rights Council who visited Women’s Penal Colony No. 14 in Mordovia have confirmed the claims made by Nadezhda Tolokonnikova in her complaint. According to the human rights advocates, many of the inmates are intimidated and afraid. The penal colony administration said the increase in the length of the workday had resulted from obligations to their business partners: they had a large order for police uniforms. Meanwhile, Gazeta.Ru has obtained access to video evidence and testimony from relatives regarding a hunger strike at a neighboring men’s penal colony where inmates are afraid for their lives.

After visiting Penal Colony No. 14 in Mordovia, Ilya Shablinsky, a member of the Presidential Human Rights Council (HRC) and professor of constitutional and municipal law in the Law Faculty at the Higher School of Economics, has confirmed Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova’s claims regarding human rights violations at the prison. According to the fifty-one-year-old professor, whose mother was born in practically the same camp in 1939, he tried to interview as many inmates as he could before talking to Tolokonnikova herself. He managed to have in-depth conversations with eight other prisoners. Shablinsky said their stories made “[his] hair stand on end.”

“The prison administration, it has to be said, let me speak with inmates face-to-face in the office of the penal colony’s deputy chief warden. But that’s not all: most of the women froze up in response to my questions and refused to speak.”

“One of the women, whose nose was bashed to one side like a boxer’s, simply burst into tears after one of my questions about the length of the workday,” Shablinsky said.

“After that, I met with a few courageous women, whose names should be known: Natalia Karatina, Ulyana Balashova, and Ksenia Ivashchenko. Their lives and well-being are currently in danger,” Shablinsky said. “They decided to submit detailed evidence in written form, confirming all of the facts described in Tolokonnikova’s letter.”

According to the evidence collected by HRC members at the penal colony, the eight-hour workday is definitely exceeded due to required production quotas. The administration claims that inmates volunteer to work overtime in order to make these quotas, sometimes staying until one in the morning. The inmates themselves say it is their shop floor managers who require them to work late and on weekends. As penal colony warden Alexander Kulagin explained, two Sundays per month are usually designated workdays, with three such days at the end of the quarter.

“The administration has a purely economic interest, there’s no sadism involved. We’re only fulfilling contractual obligations to our partners. It’s nothing personal, just business.”

According to the warden, the inmates are also interested in earning money.

“It was some textile institute in Ivanovo that came up with the production quota of 150 police uniforms per shift,” Shablinsky said.

In interviews, inmates said they earned three hundred to five hundred rubles [nine to fifteen US dollars] per month, with overtime. In the presence of their supervisors, in the sewing workshop, inmates unanimously said they earned nearly a thousand rubles [thirty US dollars] a month.

“This is for backbreaking work and includes all of their overtime pay,” Shablinsky said.

Another problem, according to Shablinsky, is the casual violence women face from fellow inmates. Punishment in the form of being forbidden to enter the barracks until lights out, implemented year round, led to one of the inmates getting such severe frostbite on her hands and feet that they had to be amputated.

“I found this woman. She was afraid and dejected, but she wanted me to photograph her,” the professor said.

The story of a Gypsy woman being beaten to death in one of the dorm units where corporal punishment is employed, described by Tolokonnikova in her open letter, was also confirmed by her fellow inmates, human rights advocates said. The official cause of the thirty-year-old woman’s death was a stroke.

“The women who, according to other inmates, use force on fellow prisoners really do look dangerous, like men. I personally confronted one of their presumed victims. She refused to say anything and covered her face with her hands, but there was a yellow stripe on her badge indicating a suicide attempt. You have to see this with your own eyes,” Shablinsky said.

“I am grateful to the women who had the courage to come forward. These are desperate, exhausted women. Twenty-eight-year-old Natalia Karatina spent several months in solitary,” Shablinsky said.

“You can still see traces of her feminine beauty and dignity, but she has gone all gray. She’s most afraid of losing her teeth. One has already been knocked out. And she is supposed to get out in November.”

HRC member Maria Kannabikh was more subdued in her assessment of the situation at the penal colony. In an interview with RIA Novosti, she said she had met with Tolokonnikova, who “looked fine,” and whose cell was warm.

“I met with women who work with Tolokonnikova, and they assured me there were no conflicts and that Tolokonnikova is a normal person,” said the Public Chamber member.

Kannabikh verified that the inmates actually do work eleven- or twelve-hour shifts periodically.

“The women I spoke with told me this happened from time to time when there was a rush order,” the Public Chamber member explained.

Meanwhile, rights advocates and relatives of inmates at neighboring Men’s Penal Colony No. 12 (PC-12) said that nearly thirty inmates at that facility have gone on hunger strike fearing for their lives following threats from the prison administration. Gulagu.net project coordinator Mikhail Senkevich notified Gazeta.Ru of this.

“There are even more people there who have been on hunger strike for several days now. Official complaints have been filed. No one is responding to them,” Senkevich said.

Valentina Savinova, an acquaintance of a PC-12 inmate, reported the same thing. She provided Gazeta.Ru with a video appeal from the inmates, as well as a secret audio recording of a conversation with inmate Yuri Zhernovykh, where the latter explains that he is unable to continue paying the prison administration the money they extort from prisoners. According to Savinova, similar evidence and complaints have been sent to the Investigative Committee and Prosecutor’s Office.

A source released from PC-12 several months ago who wished to remain anonymous for his own safety told Gazeta.Ru there was a longstanding practice at the institution of beating and threatening inmates who had fallen afoul of the administration. Last September, Mordovia Federal Penitentiary Service personnel beat several inmates during a search. One of them, Alexei Kaknayev, documented his injuries and wrote a statement to investigating authorities. The same day, after lights out, he was summoned to the penal colony’s headquarters. The young man was later found hanged in the clothes storage room in his dorm unit.

“Most likely, they had threatened to rape him,” the informant speculated.

The press service of the Mordovian Federal Penitentiary Service was unavailable for comment throughout the day.

Photo by Ilya Shablinsky

Translated by Bela Shayevich

Originally published on the web site of The Voice Project. The Voice Project’s Pussy Riot Support Fund is used to keep Nadya and Masha clothed, supplied, visited and monitored in the labor camps (this is critical for their ongoing safety), and for their legal expenses and children’s care. For more information or to donate: voiceproject.org/pussyriot

Advertisements

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova: “I Won’t Be Able to Forgive Myself If I Don’t Try and Change Something”

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova: “I won’t be able to forgive myself for the rest of my life if I don’t try and change at least something”
September 26, 2013
Vera Kichanova
Slon.Ru

On Monday, convicted Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova said in an open letter she was going on hunger strike to draw attention to numerous violations at the penal colony where she is serving her sentence. According to her, the workday there lasts sixteen to seventeen hours, production quotas are constantly raised, and convicts are punished for not fulfilling quotas: they can be deprived of the right to go to the toilet, to eat, and to drink. Human rights activists who have visited the penal colony have essentially confirmed what she described. Tolokonnikova also claimed she has received death threats and asked to be provided with protection; she was then transferred to solitary confinement. In a telephone conversation with Slon.Ru, she explained why it had been necessary to complain, why all the other inmates are silent, and how, in her opinion, to fix the system.

Nadya, how do you feel?

So-so: I have aches, dizziness, a headache, and feel like I’ve been poisoned. In fact, this is from the hunger strike, but at Penal Colony No. 14 the conditions are such that a hunger strike is relatively easy to take, because there are so many psychological problems that physical problems somehow don’t bother you that much.

Are you really in solitary confinement?

As always happens, it turned out very funny: I’m in a solitary confinement cell to which this morning, before the inspection commission arrived, they attached a sign that read, “Provision of a safe place.” In fact, it differs from solitary confinement only in the sense I can have my personal belongings here, and after numerous complaints about the cold they have put a heater in here.

Did anything change after the human rights activists visited the penal colony?

I can’t tell you anything about the penal colony: I have simply been isolated in solitary confinement so that I wouldn’t be able to monitor the state of affairs in the penal colony. I have thus been put in a position where I cannot monitor the things I’m demanding in my own hunger strike. All my communication with the other prisoners has been cut off. I only know that they’re undergoing standard preparations for an inspection, preparations that involve eliminating all shortcomings and flaws. But as far as I know, most of the prisoners support me and they still have high hopes that things will change. However, my experience of dealing with the administration tells me this is totally unlikely.

You’ll be getting out soon, but you go and write this letter. Had it really become unbearable, or do you want to help the others you’ll leave behind?

The others are the reason. I realize that six months will elapse and I’ll leave. But these people will remain, and I won’t be able to forgive myself for the rest of my life if I don’t try and change at least something. I won’t guarantee that something will change for the better, but I need to do this.

Yevgenia Khasis [a Russian nationalist sentenced to eighteen years in prison for acting as an accomplice in the murders of Stanislav Markelov, a human rights lawyer, and Anastasia Baburova, a journalist and anti-fascist activist, in downtown Moscow in January 2009 – Trans.] has said to journalists that you’re exaggerating about the intolerable conditions, that you actually don’t have support, and—

You can stop right there. I’m not interested in talking about Yevgenia Khasis, because she has already shown herself in such an extremely negatively light, including in those criminal cases in which she was involved. She is a figure who deserves no respect, and her words mean nothing to me.

Did you really talk the other day with an archpriest [Russian Orthodox Archpriest Alexander Pelin – Trans.]? And he gave you an icon?

Yes, he gave me an icon and conveyed Patriarch Kirill’s blessing, which was very cute during a hunger strike.

He said that, in his opinion, you didn’t write the letter yourself and are even poorly informed about its contents. Did someone help you draft the letter?

I’m quite offended a question like that could occur to you. That was said to vilify me. In fact, I wrote the whole letter from beginning to end in a single passionate outpouring: I wanted to tell people what was going here. And I’m ready to take a lie detector test, if necessary, and prove everything I say there is true.

Has a doctor examined you during the hunger strike?

A doctor examined me today: he said my blood sugar level was 2.2. As far as I know, this is fairly low. He didn’t say anything else interesting. But I want to tell you about a strange incident that happened today and, frankly, shocked me somewhat. Tonight, the administration resorted to violence against me for the first time. The on-duty inspector entered my cell and demanded I surrender my water to him. As you know, I can drink water while on hunger strike. So I couldn’t understand why I had to give him the water that had been given to me by [journalist and Presidential Human Rights Council member] Elena Masyuk. I asked him to show me a warrant for confiscating the water. However, in response, he just snatched the water by force: he grabbed me by the arms and legs and pulled me away, while a convict who works as an orderly in the solitary confinement wing just made off with the water. I tried to get it through their heads that their actions were illegal, and they were confiscating my things without a warrant. However, they continued these actions until all the water I had in the cell had been confiscated.

You say the prisoners generally support you. How do they show their support?

After the letter was published, I was isolated. Our paths could cross only when people were going through the penal colony and could say a few words—“Nadya, you’re beautiful!” or something like that.

That has happened?

That has happened a number of times. Things like that happen quite often when I walk through the penal colony. People have hopes. Their hope doesn’t fade, although, of course, the mind makes them act differently, so when an inspection commission comes, they’re afraid to tell the truth. They would simply be destroyed in here for telling the truth. And yet they support me, hoping that I alone will pull them through. Although I know very well that without their help, without their testimony, my words do not mean much, as long as I am the only one. They really do fear for their health and their lives. It’s a stalemate, and I just can’t imagine how to get out of it. So I went on hunger strike.

This morning, human rights activist [Ilya] Shablinsky said he was shown new bathrooms and so forth in the penal colony, but that he had strong suspicions that everything had been prepared specially for the commission’s arrival. Could this be?

Those are in units where they really have new bathrooms, so naturally it’s not hard for them to take a human rights activist to those very units. In my dorm unit, the sewer periodically clogs up so that the shit—excuse my language—comes gushing out. There are no new bathrooms in my unit, and if the prisoners were not afraid of reprisals against them, they would have said the same thing.

Have you seen Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin’s letter?

I know the gist of what he said. Let God be his judge. I am not going to make any judgments on this score.

Is there a church in the penal colony? Have you had talked with the priests?

There is a church here, but the priests are not particularly willing to talk to me. Honestly, there is no time for it. Vital issues—sleeping, eating, and working—occupy my attention. There are things that are on the front burner: I really want to help someone. But intellectual and spiritual issues have receded into the background. Now the question of survival is front and center.

Are there many believers in the penal colony? What have they said about your story?

These things are generally not discussed in the penal colony. It is not what is discussed. What gets discussed is whether we’ll be punished today by being forbidden from eating our own food, whether we’ll be able to drink tea today, whether we’ll work today until one in the morning or whether we’ll be let off work at eight in the evening once this week. There is no space here at all for intellectual dialogue.

Have they tried to talk you out of the hunger strike?

Of course, this happens all the time.

In what form?

They leave me food for two hours: it sits in the cell and stinks. Today, I wrote a complaint to the penal colony warden saying that I’m being tortured psychologically. I’ll see what fruit this complaint bears.

Do you and your fellow inmates know whom you’re sewing for? Today, [the newspaper Izvestia] wrote that you’re working for a former State Duma deputy.

I think that is not important in this case. If our production quotas are reduced and we’re given a decent amount of working hours, it won’t matter for whom we’re sewing. That is an ideological issue. Maybe it is not clear to you people on the outside, but here issues of survival are the priority.

How can all this be fixed? Are people the problem, or is it the whole system?

I think that solutions for all this can only be centralized, coming directly from the central authorities, because without great political will it is impossible to seriously reverse this. Discrete changes, great and small, are possible, but a rollback is inevitable, unfortunately, without great political will.

Meaning, if Putin says something about humanizing the penal system in his [upcoming state of the nation] address. . .

I think that until Putin is removed, nothing will change. He has a stake in this system’s being as punitive as possible.

But if he’s removed, no Stalinist wardens will be left in the penal colonies?

If he’s removed, there is a vast number of ways things could evolve. But I think that if we take matters into our own hand, we will be able to reform the system the right way.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova: Day Two of the Hunger Strike

PC-14, Day Two of the Hunger Strike

Thank you to everyone who did not remain indifferent to the slave-like living and working conditions in this penal colony and who spoke out in support of me and my demands.

Yesterday, at 9:30 in the evening, I was transferred to a solitary confinement cell, which PC-14’s warden, Colonel Kulagin, calls a “safe place.” I opposed the transfer because I do not consider my being put in a “safe place” an adequate solution to the problem. My relations with my fellow inmates are fine when the administration isn’t attempting to artificially turn them against me. Problems arise for me when the administration uses certain inmates to intimidate me and try and force me to keep my mouth shut, for instance, by threatening to “fuck [me] up and kill [me].”

The greatest threat to my welfare comes from the prison administration. Especially now, when I am breaking through the informational blockade, writing about the illegal conditions in the prison that no other PC-14 inmate has dared to speak openly about for fear of finding herself under incredible duress for the remainder of her time in prison.

In solitary confinement, I am alone against the administration. To me, this does not seem like a safe place.

It is incredibly cold in solitary confinement. It’s an old method, well known to camp administrations since Soviet times. They make the solitary confinement cells so cold that punishment turns into torture. The only difference between myself and someone who is forced into solitary as punishment is that I do not have to wear a special orange uniform. I can keep my regular prison clothes. But even five layers of sweaters do not protect me from the piercing cold.

I am writing on a cold, narrow bench. I am not allowed to sit on the bed, and especially forbidden from lying on it. It is very hard to sit in the cold all day while on hunger strike. My body temperature is low and I’m dizzy. The light is cold and dim, and the water in the faucet is cold, too. This is what solitary confinement is like.

I believe that in order to avoid further persecution from the PC-14 administration, I need to be transferred to another prison colony. It’s clear to me that the camp administration here will spend the remaining five months of my incarceration taking revenge on me for creating problems for them.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova
Solitary Confinement Cell, PC-14
September 24

Translated by Bela Shayevich

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova: Why I Am Going on Hunger Strike

On Monday, September 23, I am declaring a hunger strike. This is an extreme method, but I am absolutely convinced it is my only recourse in the current situation.

The prison wardens refuse to hear me. But I will not back down from my demands. I will not remain silent, watching in resignation as my fellow prisoners collapse under slave-like conditions. I demand that human rights be observed at the prison. I demand that the law be obeyed in this Mordovian camp. I demand we be treated like human beings, not slaves.

It has been a year since I arrived at Penal Colony No. 14 [henceforth, PC-14 — Trans.] in the Mordovian village of Partsa. As the women convicts say, “Those who haven’t done time in Mordovia haven’t done time at all.” I had heard about the Mordovian prison camps while I was still being held at Pre-Trial Detention Center No. 6 in Moscow. They have the harshest conditions, the longest workdays, and the most flagrant lawlessness. Prisoners see their fellows off to Mordovia as if they were headed to the scaffold. Until the last, they keep hoping: “Maybe they won’t send you to Mordovia after all? Maybe the danger will pass you by?” It didn’t pass me by, and in the autumn of 2012, I arrived in the prison country on the banks of the Partsa River.

My first impression of Mordovia was the words uttered by the prison’s deputy warden, Lieutenant Colonel Kupriyanov, who actually runs PC-14. “You should know that when it comes to politics, I am a Stalinist.” Colonel Kulagin, the other warden (the prison is administered in tandem) called me in for a chat my first day here in order to force me to confess my guilt. “A misfortune has befallen you. Isn’t that right? You’ve been sentenced to two years in prison. People usually change their views 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 I would work only the eight hours a day stipulated by the Labor Code. “The code is the code. What really matters is making your quota. If you don’t, you work overtime. And we’ve broken stronger wills than yours here!” Colonel Kulagin replied.

My whole shift works sixteen to seventeen hours a day in the sewing workshop, from seven-thirty in the morning to twelve-thirty at night. 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 “voluntarily” apply to work on weekends. In fact, there is nothing “voluntary” about it. These applications are written involuntarily on the orders of the wardens and under pressure from the inmates who help enforce their will.

No one dares disobey (that is, not apply to go to the manufacturing zone on Sunday, meaning going to work until one in the morning). Once, a fifty-year-old woman asked to go back to the dorm zone at eight p.m. instead of twelve-thirty p.m. so she could go to bed at ten p.m. and get eight hours of sleep just once that week. She was not feeling well; she had high blood pressure. In response, a dorm unit meeting was called, where the woman was scolded, humiliated, insulted, and branded a parasite. “What, do you think you’re the only one who wants more sleep? You need to work harder, you’re strong as a horse!” When someone from the shift doesn’t come to work on doctor’s orders, they’re bullied as well. “I sewed when I had a fever of forty Centigrade, and it was fine. Who did you think was going to pick up the slack for you?”

I was welcomed to my dorm unit by a convict finishing up a nine-year sentence. “The pigs are scared to put the squeeze on you themselves. They want to have the inmates do it.” Conditions at the prison really are organized in such a way that the inmates in charge of the work shifts and dorm units are the ones tasked by the wardens with crushing the will of inmates, terrorizing them, and turning them into speechless slaves.

There is a widely implemented system of unofficial punishments for maintaining discipline and obedience. Prisoners are forced to “stay in the local until lights out,” meaning they are forbidden to go into the barracks, whether it is fall or winter. [The “local” is a fenced-off passageway between two areas in the camp — Trans.] In the second unit, where the disabled and elderly live, there was a woman who ended up getting such bad frostbite after a day in the local that her fingers and one of her feet had to be amputated. The wardens can also “shut down sanitation” (forbid prisoners to wash up or go to the toilet) and “shut down the commissary and the tearoom” (forbid prisoners to eat their own food and drink beverages). It’s both funny and frightening when a forty-year-old woman tells you, “So we’re being punished today! I wonder whether we’ll be punished tomorrow, too.” She can’t leave the sewing workshop to pee or take a piece of candy from her purse. It’s forbidden.

Dreaming only of sleep and a sip of tea, the exhausted, harassed and dirty convict becomes obedient putty in the hands of the administration, which sees us solely as a free work force. So, in June 2013, my monthly wages came to twenty-nine rubles [approx. sixty-seven euro cents]twenty-nine rubles! Our shift sews one hundred and fifty police uniforms per day. Where does the money made from them go?

The prison has been allocated funding to buy completely new equipment a number of times. However, the administration has only had the sewing machines repainted, with the convicts doing the work. We sew on obsolete and worn-out machines. According to the Labor Code, when equipment does not comply with current industry standards, production quotas must be lowered vis-à-vis standard industry norms. But the quotas only increase, abruptly and suddenly. “If you let them see you can deliver one hundred uniforms, they’ll raise the minimum to one hundred and twenty!” say veteran machine operators. And you cannot fail to deliver, either, or else the whole unit will be punished, the entire shift. Punished, for instance, by everyone being forced to stand on the parade ground for hours. Without the right to go to the toilet. Without the right to take a sip of water.

Two weeks ago, the production quotas for all prison work shifts were arbitrarily increased by fifty units. If previously the minimum was one hundred uniforms a day, now it is one hundred and fifty. According to the Labor Code, workers must be notified of a change in the production quota no less than two months before it is goes into effect. 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 wardens of our “sweatshop” (that’s what the prisoners call the penal colony). The number of people in the work shift decreases (they are released or transferred), but the quota grows. As a result, those who remain have to work harder and harder. The mechanics say they don’t have the parts to repair the machinery and will not be getting them. “There are no spare parts! When will they come? What, you don’t live in Russia? How can you ask such questions?” During my first few months in the manufacturing zone, I nearly mastered the profession of mechanic, out of necessity and on my own. I would attack my machine, screwdriver in hand, desperate to fix it. Your hands are scratched and poked by needles, your blood is all over the table, but you keep on sewing. You are part of an assembly line, and you have to do your job alongside the experienced seamstresses. Meanwhile, the damned machine keeps breaking down. Because you’re the newcomer and there is a lack of good equipment in the prison, you end up with the worst equipment, the most worthless machine on the line. And now it’s broken down again, and once again you run off looking for the mechanic, who is impossible to find. You are yelled at and berated for slowing down production. There are no sewing classes at the prison, either. Newcomers are immediately plunked 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 wardens. It’s true: other prisoners are beaten up. For not being able to keep up. They hit them in the kidneys, in the face. Convicts themselves deliver these beatings and not a single one of them happens without the approval and knowledge of the wardens. A year ago, before I came here, a Gypsy woman was beaten to death in the third unit. (The third unit is the “pressure cooker”: prisoners whom the wardens want subjected to daily beatings are sent there.) She died in the infirmary at PC-14. The administration was able to cover up the fact she had been beaten to death: a stroke was listed as the official cause of death. In another block, new seamstresses who couldn’t keep up were undressed and forced to sew naked. No one dares complain to the wardens, because all they will do is smile and send the prisoner back to the dorm unit, where the “snitch” will be beaten on the orders of those same wardens. For the prison warden, managed hazing is a convenient method for forcing convicts to totally obey their lawless regime.

A threatening, anxious atmosphere pervades the manufacturing zone. Eternally sleep-deprived, overwhelmed by the endless race to fulfill inhumanly large quotas, the convicts 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. She was stopped from finishing the job.

Those who found themselves at PC-14 in 2010, the year of smoke and wildfires [throughout Russia — Trans.] said that when the fire would approach the prison walls, convicts continued to go to the manufacturing zone and fulfill their quotas. Because of the smoke you couldn’t see a person standing two meters in front of you, but, covering their faces in wet kerchiefs, they all went to work anyway. Because of the emergency conditions, prisoners weren’t taken to the cafeteria for meals. Several women told me they were so horribly hungry they started keep diaries to document the horror of what was happening to them. When the fires were finally put out, prison security diligently rooted out these diaries during searches so that nothing would be leaked to the outside world.

Sanitary conditions at the prison are calculated to make the prisoner feel like a disempowered, filthy animal. Although there are hygiene rooms in the dorm units, a “general hygiene room” has been set up for corrective and punitive purposes. This room can accommodate five people, but all eight hundred prisoners are sent there to wash up. We must not wash ourselves in the hygiene rooms in our barracks: that would be too easy. There is always a stampede in the “general hygiene room” as women with little tubs try and wash their “breadwinners” (as they are called in Mordovia) as fast as they can, clambering on top of each other. 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 dorm unit has been unable to bathe for two or three weeks.

When the pipes are clogged, urine gushes out of the hygiene rooms and clumps of feces go flying. We’ve learned to unclog the pipes ourselves, but it doesn’t last long: they soon get stopped up again. The prison does not have a plumber’s snake for cleaning out the pipes. We get to do laundry once a week. The laundry is a small room with three faucets from which a thin trickle of cold water flows.

Convicts are always given stale bread, generously watered-down milk, exceptionally rancid millet and only rotten potatoes for the same corrective ends, apparently. This summer, sacks of slimy, black potato bulbs were bought to the prison in bulk. And they were fed to us.

One could endlessly discuss workplace and living conditions violations at PC-14. However, my main grievance has to do with something else. It is that the prison administration prevents in the harshest possible way all complaints and petitions regarding conditions at PC-14 from leaving the prison. The wardens force people to remain silent, stooping to the lowest and cruelest methods to this end. All the other problems stem from this one: the increased work quotas, the sixteen-hour workday, and so on. The wardens feel they have impunity, and they boldly crack down on prisoners more and more. I couldn’t understand why everyone kept silent until I found myself facing the mountain of obstacles that crashes down on the convict 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 all the means at its disposal for pressuring the convict so she will see that her complaints will not make anything better for anyone, but will only make things worse. Collective punishment is employed: you complain about the lack of hot water, and they turn it off altogether.

In May 2013, my lawyer Dmitry Dinze filed a complaint about the conditions at PC-14 with the prosecutor’s office. The prison’s deputy warden, Lieutenant Colonel Kupriyanov, instantly made conditions at the camp unbearable. There was search after search, a flood of disciplinary reports on all 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 defects. The forewoman of the neighboring unit, Lieutenant Colonel Kupriyanov’s right hand, openly incited prisoners to sabotage the items I was responsible for in the manufacturing zone so there would be an excuse to send me to solitary confinement for damaging “public property.” She also ordered the convicts in her unit to provoke a fight with me.

It is possible to tolerate anything as long as it affects you alone. But the method of collective correction at the prison is something else. It means that your unit, or even the entire prison, has to endure your punishment along with you. The most vile thing of all is that this includes people you’ve come to care about. One of my friends was denied parole, which she had been working towards for seven years by diligently overfulfilling quotas in the manufacturing zone. She was reprimanded for drinking tea with me. Lieutenant Colonel Kupriyanov transferred her to another unit the same day. Another close acquaintance of mine, a very cultured woman, was thrown into the pressure-cooker unit for daily beatings because she had read and discussed with me a Justice Department document entitled “Internal Regulations at Correctional Facilities.” Disciplinary reports were filed on everyone who talked to me. It hurt me that people I cared about were forced to suffer. Laughing, Lieutenant Colonel Kupriyanov said to me then, “You probably don’t have any friends left!” He explained it was all happening because of Dinze’s complaints.

Now I see I should have gone on hunger strike back in May, when I first found myself in this situation. However, seeing the tremendous pressure put on other convicts, I stopped the process of filing complaints against the prison.

Three weeks ago, on August 30, I asked Lieutenant Colonel Kupriyanov to grant the prisoners in my work shift eight hours of sleep. The idea was to decrease the workday from sixteen to twelve hours. “Fine, starting Monday, the shift can even work eight hours,” he replied. I knew this was another trap because it is physically impossible to make our increased quota in eight hours. So the work shift would lag behind and face punishment. “If they find out you were the one behind this,” the lieutenant colonel continued, “you definitely will never have it bad again, because there is no such thing as bad in the afterlife.” Kupriyanov paused. “And finally, never make requests for everyone. Make requests only for yourself. I’ve been working in the prison camps for many years, and whenever someone has come to me to request something for other people, they have always gone straight from my office to solitary confinement. You’re the first person this won’t happen to.”

Over the following weeks, life in my dorm unit and work shift was made intolerable. Convicts close to the wardens incited the unit to violence. “You’ve been punished by having tea and food, bathroom breaks, and smoking banned for a week. And now you’re always going to be punished unless you start treating the newcomers, especially Tolokonnikova, differently. Treat them like the old-timers used to treat you back in the day. Did they beat you up? Of course they did. Did they rip your mouths? They did. Fuck them up. You won’t be punished for it.”

I was repeatedly provoked to get involved in conflicts and fights, but what is the point of fighting with people who have no will of their own, who are only acting at the behest of the wardens?

The Mordovian convicts are afraid of their own shadows. They are completely intimidated. If only the other day they were well disposed toward me and begging me to do something about the sixteen-hour workday, they are afraid even to speak to me after the administration has come down hard on me.

I made the wardens a proposal for resolving the conflict. I asked that they release me from the pressure artificially manufactured by them and enacted by the prisoners they control, and that they abolish slave labor at the prison by reducing the length of the workday and decreasing the quotas to bring them into compliance with the law. But in response the pressure has only intensified. Therefore, as of September 23, I declare a hunger strike and refuse to be involved in the slave labor at the prison until the administration complies with the law and treats women convicts not like cattle banished from the legal realm for the needs of the garment industry, but like human beings.

This is an extensive revision of the translation, by Bela Shayevich, originally published here.

The original Russian of Ms. Tolokonnikova’s letter can be read here, among other places.