- Griner faces a penal colony after losing his drug appeal
- In the Russian system, inmates had to work long hours for low wages
- Threat of harsh penalties for breaking trivial rules
- The language barrier makes the ordeal even more difficult for foreigners
LONDON, Nov 3 (Portal) – Tedious manual labour, poor hygiene and lack of access to medical care – these are the conditions facing US basketball star Brittney Griner in a Russian penal colony after she lost her appeal to a nine-year-old girl last week drug penalty.
It’s a world familiar to Maria Alyokhina, a member of the feminist art ensemble Pussy Riot, who spent nearly two years as an inmate for her role in a 2012 punk protest in a Moscow cathedral against President Vladimir Putin.
The first thing to understand, Alekhina said in an interview, is that a penal colony is no ordinary prison.
“This is not a building with cells. It looks like a foreign village, like a Gulag labor camp,” she said, referring to the vast punitive network set up by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin to isolate and exterminate prisoners.
“Actually, it’s a labor camp, because according to the law, all prisoners have to work. The rather cynical thing about this work is that prisoners usually sew police uniforms and uniforms for the Russian army, with almost no salary.”
The colony was divided into a factory area, where prisoners made clothes and gloves, and a “living area” where, according to Alyokhina, 80 women lived in a room with only three toilets and no hot water.
Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, could soon be transferred to a colony in the absence of another appeal or agreement between Washington and Moscow to trade her for a Russian arms dealer jailed in the United States — a possibility that was floated months ago , but has yet to materialize.
In a Pussy Riot show that has toured the world and is now set in the UK, Alyokhina relives the memories of her time as an inmate – snow-covered prison yards, plank-like beds, long periods of solitary confinement and punishment for minor infractions such as an unbuttoned coat or a poorly fitted name tag .
She was constantly filmed by prison guards “because I’m a ‘famous provocateur,'” she added.
The Russian Prison Service did not respond to a request for comment on this article.
Yelena, a recent penal colony inmate, described a regime similar to that of Alekhina a decade earlier.
Yelena, 34, served eight years in a Siberian colony after being convicted of drug possession. She said she was paid about 1,000 rubles (US$16) a month for 10 to 12 hours of daily work at a sewing workshop.
“Girls with strong, athletic builds often get much heavier jobs. For example, they load flour sacks for a prison bakery or unload mountains of coal,” she says.
Prisoners could be punished for inexplicable “offenses,” such as leaving a wristwatch on a bedside table. The ultimate sanction was solitary confinement known as “the Vatican.”
“Just as the Vatican is a state within a state, solitary confinement is a prison within a prison,” Yelena said.
A gynecologist paid monthly visits to her colony, which held more than 800 women.
“They do the math, what are the odds of getting through to a doctor? Virtually zero,” she said.
It is more difficult for a foreigner with little or no Russian to navigate the system and deal with the isolation.
The brother of Paul Whelan, a former US Marine serving 16 years in a Russian penal colony on espionage charges which he denies, said he has a 15-minute phone call to his parents every day and cannot call other family members or friends and has no access to email or the internet.
David Whelan said his brother had to work at least eight hours a day, six days a week on simple tasks like sewing buttonholes, which led to repetitive strain injuries.
Inmates sleep in barracks-like buildings and access to many necessities, including medicines, depends on paying bribes to prison guards, he said. The conditions can greatly depend on the whims of the guards, the warden, or the elderly inmates.
Paul seems to use his military training “just to get through the day figuring out what battles to fight and what battles not to fight,” said David Whelan.
“His phone calls even to our parents are recorded. His letters were all translated before they went out. So you know everything you do is being watched and you really have no sense of individuality.”
Alyochina said receiving cards and letters from the outside world represents a rare glimmer of hope, and she urged people to support Griner in this way.
She said they should use machine translation and broadcast the text in both English and Russian to make it easier to get through prison censorship.
“Don’t leave anyone alone with this system,” she said. “It’s totally inhuman, it’s a gulag and when you feel alone there it’s a lot easier to give up.”
Reporting by Mark Trevelyan in London, Filipp Lebedev in Tbilisi and Simon Lewis in Washington; additional reporting by Caleb Davis and Humeyra Pamuk Editing by Gareth Jones
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