We are publishing a letter by Ihar Alinevich where he commented on the trip of the human rights organization Platforma (The Platform) representatives around the correctional colonies and described in detail the system in which he had been forced to live for the last 5 years. Currently, the political prisoner is serving time in the Vitba 3 colony.
– Leaving, once again, the punishment cell, I found that the situation with prisons was being discussed in the press again. With a smile, I read an article by Elena Krasovskaya-Kasperovich [head of the human rights organization Platform-Innovation- Ed.] telling how “the situation has changed for the better in the last five years.” I personally saw the arrival of Krasovskaya-Kasperovich and Likhovid at the prison and their so-called inspection. Mr Likhovid was in a red jacket with a hood that covered almost the entire face, like Kenny from the South Park. Apparently, he wanted to avoid being recognized. But the guys from the 10th colony identified Nikita since they met him after the solitary, helped him. It is unfortunate that, after walking close past me, he did not ask me. I would have told him how the solitary prisoners now have their underpants taken away from them in winter, how administration would not let them have them bring a towel and soap for feet, mug for drinking. In his times, five years ago, it was still there.
It is funny to read all this, because in front of my eyes penitentiaries turned into camps of the late Stalin period known as the Special LAGs [system of special GULAG camps for political prisoners]. There are no longer numbers on the back, and that’s progress. As I remember it, the only improvement was an increase of the buying limit [the ability to purchase goods in the shop at the prison] for repeat offenders from one base unit to two – 360 thousand rubles. There were plenty of degradations though… fruit parcels were banned, weight of personal hygiene products were included in the weight of the packages, retention of earnings increased from 75% to 90%, personal basins/buckets were also banned, time of meetings reduced and legal literature banned – you name it. It’s time to tell you how things really are. Let everyone know.
The principal differences between the post-Soviet penitentiaries and the GULAG were as follows: no hunger, barracks are more or less heated, no self-destructive labor, a convict murder is no longer routine. The modern pens have almost no mass beatings of prisoners. Back in 2001, at the Zhodino Central [prison 8 in Zhodino] the arrested were met with mallets and told “Welcome to Chorny Busel [black stork]. People there are beaten just in case. The Vitebsk prison was drown in blood already in 2006-2010. My adventure in the American prison [KGB prison] is only child’s play compared to those prisons. Although in 2012 a group of prisoners was beaten in the pen once. Useless one-off beatings continue today.
There is no ravaging violence in pens, but this is thanks to the protection of the prisoners’ informal code. Using unwarranted violence towards another prison mate is off limits, and it is properly punished. However, jailers are actively squeezing out prison traditions; when that happens, there will come a real mess.
In recent years, the material support has improved. This is done using the prisoners themselves, the role of jailers is reduced to extortion of funds. However, they only improve the material state where it can be shown off to the inspections. That’s the reason for the plasma screen and good redecoration in the recreation rooms in the colonies. But we know where there is a show – there is bullshit.
Together with external beauty, outlets in residential sections were banned, and toilet cubicles have no doors. Officially, of all the dishware, only mugs are permitted (ceramics is prohibited). What to cook oatmeal and salads in? For this purpose, there are plastic containers, which are now banned in parcels. Electric kettles are seized.
You cannot wear a wool sweater. In winter and summer the shoes are the same, normal shoes are often seized. Officially you cannot have shorts and sports cap. No interseason things are allowed: raincoat, jacket, coat. It is either prison uniform or padded jacket. Even nail clippers/scissors are not in the list of permitted items, it is taken away at the staging point. What can I say – I haven’t been able to buy a toothbrush for three months.
But material conditions are not the most important thing. You can live in the ruins if you are with human beings. Much more important are the social conditions: the legal status and cultural and psychological atmosphere. And here Stalinist ways are in bloom and almost intact.
The main feature inherited from the GULAG is the atmosphere of permissiveness on the part of the jailers. The prisoner is not considered a regular person, anything can be done to him. It is felt from the very start.
Mechanics of slavery begin with a monolith called regulations. Every day a prisoner is obliged to go to the dining room, regardless of their own wishes and the weather. Often, no time remains to cook for oneself. There are also useless club sessions and useless educational activities. Visit to the infirmary, store, bath also happens in order and strictly by command.
The whole day turns into a stupid movement back and forth, always in formation, no stretching, five people in a row. It is specifically observed. Not reaching the local area by some 20 meters, the on duty warden would stop the formation and make the line up of 5 in a row just to make the last few steps like that.
Just before dinner, it began to rain, but you still have to go. We came to the industrial area, the workshops, drenched to the skin. Let me remind you, we have no raincoats. Right now the guys are locked in the small camera, where they put the prisoners during a search of cells, because they sunbathed in the local territory. After all, based on the internal regulations, prisoners are to be in uniforms.
All the time, not occupied by the dining room, club, industrial zones, and so on, we spend in our buildings. A unit is 100-200 people. The local part of the building is a small enclosure behind a fence and barbed wire. Going to other local units and buildings can only be done with the permission of the police officer. Getting around the area is arranged so that prisoners would not come across each other. In the pen there are actually dozens of micro penitentiaries.
We live in sections of 25-70 seats. You cannot choose a place, the head of the detachment or the police officer do it for you, as well as activists. According to regulations, all have to spend their spare time sitting in the recreation rooms in sections on stools. This was thought out by some strange people, so majority does not observe this rule. The sections are formed on the principle of putting together completely different people, so that there is no male group, to keep people as fragmented psychologically as possible.
After the mass stupidity of the regulations comes the stupid personal touch. In the heat they pick on the undone upper button, in the cold – to the raised collar of padded jacket or uniform. Or they prohibit calls if you leave later, not to stand two hours in a queue. Or they let you meet with relatives not in the morning, but after lunch, even if they have arrived at 8 am. Or they send the package back, “forgetting” to make a mark in a personal card.
I cannot even tie the scarf the way I want to, officer personally tells me off for it. I remember we had to raise a wave of indignation … to get washed. I’m not joking, if they caught you pouring water on yourself over the sink, they put you in a punishment cell for “violating the regulations.” It is done when a shower is 1 time per week. This is considered sufficient by the Penitentiary Department.
To call home, I need to write more than one application for each call, submit them along with others on certain days, to be signed in 2-3 weeks. That is, each month the pen produces several thousand sheets for absolutely senseless signing ritual. After all, the call will still be written down in a single log. All this red tape is introduced with one purpose: to discourage any desire of the prisoner to call home.
Sometimes it has tragic consequences. On May 18, a guy from my unit, with suicidal tendenceis, was not allowed to make a call home to his mother. There were some issues with the upcoming meeting. The same evening, Vitalik hanged himself at the industrial zone. Do you think anything has changed? No. The head of the unit was sent on leave for six weeks, until all settled. As one officer in charge said, “It’s more difficult for me to write off a stool than a prisoner.”
If previously jailers satisfied their sadistic tendencies through violence, rudeness, lawlessness, now they mask them under the regulations of the correctional facility, the daily routine and schedule. There is only a modification of bestial attitude to man. Indeed, in a normal shed, cattle are kept warm, fed well, not beated or shouted at. Same in camps. Only the shed is a shed and cattle are cattle. You may ask: “How do you all stand that?” Occasionally, outbreaks occur, because there is less and less understanding between jailers and inmates. Just recently, we had disturbances in the exemplary third prison. On June 22-23, the convicts refused to take their meals. The guards, most of whom used to work in the colony for juvenile prisoners, still could not understand that they are dealing with adults with their morals. Their ‘activists’ transferred a person to the category of the lower class in the prison caste system, the people did not understand it and grew indignant.
But such actions are rare. After all, the administration is in control over the early release of any prisoner. Also, the principle of divide and rule works well. Activists are much less subject to regulations. Previously, they were called “the camp assholes” and now simply “assholes.” Activists are the lower link of the prison administration from among the prisoners themselves. Officially, they are to be chosen by the convicts in the units, but in reality they are appointed from above.
The guards provide them with a better life in exchange for service. Sometimes, an activist has a stronger influence than many employees. They are allowed more meetings, given three days, more calls, more parcels, officials turn a blind eye to their violations. They are allowed to go on a visit to other local units or the stadium or to the shower off schedule. Sometimes they are provided their own offices.
But these are small things. Having access to a particular warden, they can solve various issues. An extra day for a meeting, the weight of received food products, the additional package, sleeping bed, position of activist, and most importantly – the early release; even set a jailers to the disagreeable prisoner, or on the contrary, save him from penalty – everything is possible.
The assholes from Prison 10 were very frank. They boasted about received positive characteristics for a couple of cigarette packs, using offices scandals to remove their enemies from similar positions. Not to mention corruption: all was sold.
Issue solving is, of course, done on a reimbursable basis. But not so much in the own pocket (though it also happens), but through the official cover-up: the colony fund. Building materials, paint, wallpaper, window, money in the official account, subscriptions to newspapers Trudovoy Put’ (Working path) – this is the main flow. The redecorations that Krasovskaya liked so much were made at the expense of prisoners’ relatives, well-functioning system of the proceeds of extortion. An artificial scarcity of material and social benefits is created in the pen. Accounts are replenished to “overcome” them.
Get the position of activist – “put on a mug” – is cherished dream of many. It is not only a relief of own life, but also possibility to be closer to authority. For the sake of this, there is a real war in the pen going on every day. The prisoners and the jailers (I’m not exaggerating) get together in clans. Who influences whom is hard to tell.
In addition to open privileged class, there are hidden classes among the prisoners. Spies, informers, whistleblowers – in a word, bitches. You get a couple of scoundrels in the unit. Alas, jailers want to bitch everyone up.
The proposal to cooperate is received at every opportunity. A unit officer boasted that he had 65 snitches of 120 people in his unit. Hopefully, that’s a lie. However, in the prisoners’ environment no one has spoken openly for a long time.
Whisper, nods, veiled phrases … All that was publicly said will get to the jailers – such is the general judgment. Sometimes, it happens within a few minutes. As a rule, the bitches are not subject to lustration. It is better to know who is who, to neutralize the bitch at the right moment or put disinformation in his ears.
Convicts turn bitches for different reasons. For some, this is the first step on the “red stairs” to become a goat, an activist. For others – the promise of early release. Some have material gain (poor informants get cigarettes and tea). Others – the ability to go on a visit to other units, immunity from minor violations.
But the worst thing is that there are a lot of volunteers and enthusiasts, who inform out of pleasure. With the general oppression and humiliation, a snitch feels his importance through secret power. As I found out years later, there were people who helped me with one hand and at the same time informed on me. Apparently, they liked to play with destiny. In general, the prison system helps people turn to snitching.
Life in constant confrontation with jailers, assholes and bitches leaves its mark. Intrigues, someone got removed, someone got framed – these are the main daily pieces of news. But what else to expect in hierarchy and deficit?
Incentives include the right to improve conditions of detention. It is the right to buy extra for several hundred thousands and the right to extra visits and parcels. How is that? They train you like a dog. The thing is most prisoners cannot afford to even spend the standard limit of 900 thousand rubles (5 basic units). Moreover, many people do not even have 360 thousands (2 basic units), the minimum limit repeat offenders and prisoners liable to pay the claims of victims or the State.
It is similar with visits: the majority are simply visited by nobody. Moreover, in prison, only close relatives are allowed to visit. There could be no uncles, aunts, cousins and sisters, friends, colleagues, classmates. It sounds incredible, because we are accustomed to stereotypes from movies, but it’s true. The Department of Corrections promotes the importance of maintaining social ties, and at the same time it cuts them.
But I’ll tell you more about money. How is it that people do not have even 900 thousands to spend? The vast majority of prisoners are dependents living on the money sent to the personal account. Because you cannot make an honest living in prison.
The majority (approximately 80%) are employed only formally, there is no work. They are taken to the industrial zone as a formality (which in itself corrupts people). Those who work are divided into two unequal groups.
The first one – a few dozens of lucky convicts – can really make millions, as they are employed in high- profit industries (tents, furniture). The second group – those hundreds of prisoners on whose work the entire industrial area is based. Their “salaries” cannot be called money.
For example, a person operating full-time a board edging machine receives to his account… 40 thousand rubles. According to the code, first the cost of support is repaid, but not less than 10% of income goes to the personal account. It means the salary is 400 thousand rubles. But how? The minimal salary is several times bigger. Another friend of mine was working hard at a sawmill, even at a time when at least 25% was credited to the personal account (until autumn 2013). Working at one and a half rate, for 12 hours, on weekends and at night, he received 90-120 thousands.
The Prosecutor’s Office and the Ministry of Labor cover it all, complaints are useless. The employment contract with the convict is not signed, the corresponding item in the Code was edited a few years ago. In fact, the country has a system of slave labor, affecting tens of thousands of people.
People survive as they can, secretly engaging in all sorts of crafts. But it is forbidden, and people get punished immediately, if there is no roof on the part of the jailers. You think that if a prisoner agrees to the “red roof”, he will get his share? No. The jailer takes all, and in return – only relief in regulations (even digital music players are allowed), help with any issues, including early release. Is this not a serf economy?
It turns out that a person can make boxes, backgammon, chess, paintings, clothing, shoes – but for free, for the warden to profit. As a result, people cannot provide for themselves or help the family, or reimburse the cost of support or extinguish a claim or to save money for the release. Any prison can become self-sustainable tomorrow if only the jailers did not interfere. But where there is devastation, there is looting. No authorities really need it.
In addition to repair funds, the administration gives primary importance to the repayment of criminal case claims. Everywhere there are tables and stands with graphs, showing how much each unit repaid each month. The entire prison system is tuned for it. First, the amnesty: it does not apply to those who have not redeemed the claim. Second, those having a lawsuit are not eligible for early release (although it is not in the code). Third, the repayers are severely limited in the store: 360,000 rubles (2 basic units) per month. If the prisoner is also deprived of parcels, it means half-starved existence. Also the repayers get fewer days for long visits and are allowed to bring back almost no food. Old mothers arriving on public transport have to take the rest back.
The jailers regularly brainwash convicts with ‘pay, pay, pay.’ And how can they pay if it is impossible for them to earn. To this the administration has super response: 1) pay out of the money sent by relatives; 2) let the relatives pay; 3) if the family has no money, let them take a bank loan. Banks are missing a huge opportunity here, because if only they offered the “prisoner” loan – there would instantly appear a target audience.
As you can see, a system of legalized extortion is operating in the pen. And it affects not only the prisoners, but their relatives. However, jailers did not stop there.
In 2013, in the “era of significant improvements,” the buying limit was also cut for those with a civil suit, which is criminal case unrelated. It is absolutely illegal, so usually jailers step back if the con starts complaining. Although some of these perturbations end up with the cons being certified as “malicious violators” with the same minimum limit of 360 thousand. Those wishing to get out early are told in every way that they should pay civil claims, otherwise the commission would reject their appeal.
How are the disagreeables punished? I remember the first time the warden told me: “I do not know what you did to them, but they decided to put you in the punishment cell. You’re cleaning sink, but you’re not going to wipe the toilet door, right? So it’s nothing personal. ” That’s it: if you even wipe the toilet handle – you are heading to the camera with the low-life, if you refuse – you get into the punishment cell.
There are plenty of ways to put a prisoner in a desperate situation. Sometimes, when the morning alarm is heard, you do not have time to get down from the bunk before the guards go in. They were already standing there ready to note minor violations and punish for them. They write a report that a con “failed to comply with the ‘wakey’ command.” If you fail to stand up when the guards go into the section (and they come several times a day) – they file a report. Or they could turn the mattress on the bunk and note it down as “unsanitary condition of the bed.” Or they tell the snitch to watch when you go wash with a basin of water or watch when you fall asleep on the bunk. Although there is no such violation as “bathing in the sink” or “sleeping during the day.” They write it down as a “violation of regulations”, because if there are officially three hours of mass-cultural events (and there is none), the con is still to blame. You have to sit on a stool or watch telly. Ms Krasovskaya should read the regulations before analyzing the prisoners’ rights. It is very convenient to wave papers at conferences saying “Look! It is all humane there.” But the ‘paper rights’ in life are nonexistent.
Another common method of repression is a search of personal belongings and checking for their compliance with the inventory. None of the prisoners has it matching, it is simply impossible to accurately take into account everything. In November 2014, they planted me a phone charger and 40,000 of Belarusian rubles. It is maybe a coincidence, but it was then that I received the printouts of my complaints to prosecutor’s office. The point is that prisoners only deal in USD, the whole pen was laughing at this trick. Usually they plant SIM cards.
You follow the regulations or you don’t – there is no difference. When it has been decided to set you up, there is no chance. You could only seek influence with assholes, jailers or prisoners from among the service staff, that are allowed to go outside the unit. They may put in a word for you.
In this pen, I was first ordered to do the cleaning not allowed for anyone except the lowlife, the black job. In the end, I no longer cared. Now it is emphasized that the places for cleaning are for ordinary prisoners. They first compromise their approach and then “sincerely” wonder why I refused.
Here comes a young guy demanding that here and now someone began to clean up right in front of him. That is, they treat you like children, as if adult men are not able to agree upon daily things in their units. Naturally, it is humiliating in any group, and therefore is a favorite way of jailers. For them, it’s kind of like wagging a finger, saying, “we know everything, we see everything.”
In addition to the punishment cell, they deprive you of visits (2 long and 3 short in a year) and parcels (3 per year), limit the buying capacity to 360 thousands as if you were a malicious violator. That’s how in the XXI century a man is punished by food deprivation and ban from seeing his parents and relatives. This alone is a shameless bestiality. But that’s not all.
Small set-ups in the unit, such as searches of the bed table, reading of correspondence, inciting assholes and bitches or demonstrative punishment of the unit/section are ordinary. Closing the man in a concrete patio called a “glass” for hours or even a day is a daily routine.
After the punishment cell, the prisoner can be put in the camp prison for six months. There he is not only deprived of visits and parcels, but also calls. This is regarding the issue of maintaining social ties, advocated by the authorities.
And after the camp prison the next stop is the “covered” pen, only for violators. In Belarus, there are two of them: in Mogilev – for first time offenders, Grodno – for sentenced to strict regime. People are sent there for three years, then back to the camp. Many people went there simply not to have the camp bestiality, not to become idiots. I read about things like that in the memoirs of the GULAG prisoners, when people in the camps dreamed of returning to the monastic cells of political isolators.
But there is more. The Penal Code contains Article 411 called “Willful disobedience”. Formally, it is about violation committed within one year after spending time in the cell-type premises, punishment for worst offenders. It adds up to two years to the sentence. You can get in prison for a year but spend there 25 all according to the law. In other words, in Belarus it does not matter what article you have, the term is limitless. The person will spend in prison as much as the authorities decide. How is this different from the Stalinist approach of the NKVD, when the people received new sentences upon release?
There is no public control whatsoever. When important commissions come, the prisoners are driven to the special room, and employees are placed in all the key points of the prison. In May 2015 here came a delegation headed by some Austrian. We we driven to the shop in the industrial zone, the officer stood at the entrance, so that we would not be seen.
But then why complain at all? In March 2014 came the chief of the Corrections Department. He walked over to two cons in the dining room, asked about the quality of soup. I must say, the soup that day was shit, just like water, of what the guys told him right away. After 2 hours, they were both in the punishment cell. There were violations found.
There is almost no legal connection with people outside of prison. Any letter goes through censorship, including complaints. Without the permission of the administration you cannot write to a newspaper. Not all complaints to the Department of Corrections and the Prosecutor’s Office leave the prison: depends on the sender. Administration usually presses the person, checking if he would stand back. If he shows toughness, and there is support from outside, chances are bigger. Although what prevents the public prosecutor from collecting the complaints once a week on their own?
However, there is almost no good of the complaints. I have never heard that the Prosecutor’s Office or the court would cancel the unjust decision of the administration. Official answers – formal reply without substance like “everything is fine, no violations found.” It is always like this.
The guards found an interesting way of dealing with complainants: they would not give them to you, and no copies are made. You have to sit and copy them by hand. It is a recent innovation.
But the most recent “legal upgrade” is the ban on ownership of codes and other legal materials. In February 2015, in the 3rd colony, I myself had updates to the Criminal Code and Penitentiary Code seized from me, they even drew a formal note of it. You can only use legal literature by taking it from the head of the unit. Such prisoners are taken note of. This is done so that there are fewer supervisory complaints of the criminal case.
A typical example of lawlessness, arbitrariness and mutual responsibility is happening right now with my friend Victor Shaman. In the spring of 2015 he had a penalty imposed for having allegedly put a tattoo on his back. Someone informed on him. Victor explained that the tattoo had been done out of prison. However, the medical record had no description of the tattoo due to negligent examination by a doctor. After all, every prison newcomer is inspected, his tattoos are recorded in the card, often carelessly. Victor wrote a complaint to the Prosecutor’s Office asking for patient card from Zhodino prison (ST-8), which had data about this tattoo. The complaints were not released.
Then Victor sent them illegally, for which he spent time in the punishment cell. The Vitebsk Prosecutor’s Office said that the prison administration had committed no violations: penalty was legitimate. The inquiry with ST-8 was never done. But Victor wrote to ST-8 himself, they sent a response that the patient card had been sent to the prison with him. Thus, the proof of innocence is right here, in the personal file. But no one cares. And it is amnesty which is at stake, which does not apply to Victor because of this penalty.
The prisoners on the whole do not consider it necessary to fight because, early release is in the hands of the administration. It decides if the prisoner has gone straight. Few people know that to get a parole, a person has to admit guilt. This is how one hand washes another, covers up traces and investigative judicial lawlessness.
As to the special attitude to the political prisoners, it is obvious that the very prison system is a special relationship. Political prisoner takes a position of the unwanted prisoner, to whom a sharpened set of repressive methods is applied. Some of the more concrete are as follows: a meeting with a lawyer takes place only through the glass in the room of short visits; most of the letter recipients is blocked. I cannot get letters from old friends who have nothing to do with politics.
Living in a heavily regulated environment, the prisoner almost loses space for initiative, self-realization. Cultural life in the camp is poor, for show. Serfdom and slave labor, legalized extortion, refined mockery of the person – are all characteristic features of the prison.
Who comes out of the camps? The essence of “correction” is to turn a man into a weak-willed machine, cringing before the authorities. Prison does everything possible to remove a person from the community, so he had nowhere to return. Some leave being angry, penniless, without faith in the justice and humanity. Others have crossed all conceivable moral borders: society for them is a testing ground of their lust for power and deformed morality. Still others leave prison as weak-willed vegetables, with their will killed.
Official recurrence is 54%. More than half. Even of the so-called “embarked on the path of correction” there is a quarter. But do not be mistaken about the rest. Having gone through “prison universities” many do not get caught, becoming professional criminals. Another part leaves the country altogether, knowing that they would be caught at the first opportunity. Camp psychology poisons the whole society, because there are hundreds of thousands who have passed through a meat grinder prison.
The camps have become a little better financially, because the time goes. But mentally – what’s most important! – it’s the same old GULAG.