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Letter from jailed member of Pussy Riot punk band causes popular outcry

September 26, 2013, 14:51 UTC+3 Zamyatina Tamara

MOSCOW, September 26 (Itar-Tass) - Women’s penitentiary No. 14 in the republic of Mordovia (Central Russia) has been the focus of attention of Russia’s human rights activists and the media for the past few days. One of the convicts serving a prison term there, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, convicted alongside other members of the Pussy Riot punk group of an act of hooliganism at Moscow’s Church of Christ the Saviour, addressed the mass media with an open letter to disclose the details of unbearable conditions she says she and other inmates have to put up with. Also, she declared a hunger strike of protest.

Tolokonnikova says that women convicts have to toil away at the penitentiary’s sewing shop for 16-17 hours a day. “We get four hours of sleep a day at best. There is only one day off every six weeks. All Sundays are working days,” Tolokonnikova said. “The sanitary conditions at the penitentiary force each inmate to feel like a deprived dirty beast.” As follows from the letter, there is only one hygiene room for five per 800 inmates. Taking a shower in some cases is impossible for two or three weeks in a row.

“The laundry is a tiny room with just three trickling cold water taps,” Tolokonnikova says. “As of September 23 I declare a hunger strike and refuse to do slave work at the labour camp until the prison authorities begin to obey laws and treat convicted women not just as outcasts and working horses good only for clothes making, but as human beings,” Tolokonnikova said. Also, she claims to have received repeated murder threats.

Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service has stated in response that the working conditions at the penitentiary are normal, just as elsewhere, that there is an eight-hour working day and the sewing factory works in two shifts. The women make uniforms for the Federal Penitentiary Service personnel and robes for other convicts.

For security purposes, the prison authorities have moved Tolokonnikova to a solitary confinement cell, where, the convict says, it is very cold: 14 degrees above freezing at the most.

A large group of human rights activists and journalists from Moscow visited the penitentiary on Wednesday. Members of Russia’s Public Chamber and the presidential Human Rights Council studied the conditions. A member of Mordovia’s Public Chamber, Archpriest Aleksandr Pelin, told the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda there was nothing special about Tolokonnikova’s cell. “It’s an ordinary room. The heating is still off, but there is no sign it is kept exceptionally cold on purpose.” He acknowledged that there were some problems with the amenities. “Some blocks still lack hot running water.” Archpriest Pelin made no difference between the conditions women convicts are kept in at penitentiaries and those in the barracks for military servicemen. He recalled that when he was on active army service himself, the conditions in barracks were far worse.

Human Rights Council member Maria Kannibakh told Komsomolskaya Pravda in an interview that she had seen only some violations of sanitary regulations at the penitentiary. “This correctional establishment is like any other. It’s an average one. There are pit toilets outside, but each block has its own ones, too.”

Higher School of Economics lecturer Ilya Shablinsky has had a word with some women serving terms at Penitentiary No. 14 to say afterwards that he heard some “hair-raising stories.”

The daily described as unprecedented the very instance of a group of 50 human rights activists and journalists visiting a penitentiary following a complaint from one of the convicts. The Prosecutor-General’s Office is sending a whole panel of inquiry there.

In Moscow on Wednesday, several pickets were seen in front of the Justice Ministry and the Federal Penitentiary Service in support of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. Many of the activists campaigned not so much in support of Tolokonnikova as for law and order at correctional establishments. “Our system of penitentiaries is tooled to make the convict suffer. This approach is ineffective because it is unable to help the individual who has gone astray to find a way back to normal life. Even at the emotional level it causes revulsion, hatred and merely adds to the ex-convict’s wish to break the law again,” picketer Dmitry Kuminov told the daily Novyie Izvestia in an interview.

The daily Izvestia wonders why Tolokonnikova has risen in revolt with just 160 days to go before the end of her two-year sentence. The daily believes that “Tolokonnikova’s message is not about her personal fate, but about the appalling conditions at the penitentiary for the other women.” Izvestia also points to many intolerant comments over Tolokonnikova’s message in the social networks, such as: “Is it right to come out against law and order first and then call for the observance of the law???” “Each person chooses one’s own fate.” “That’s what punishment is all about. It’s about losing freedom. It’s about being not free. It’s about compulsion. It’s about taming a human beast to a state in which the punished will shudder at every sudden noise and pee down one’s knees. Can it be otherwise?” “All this was written in Facebook by people at least with higher education and having highly-salaried jobs,” says Izvestia.

The daily says that “Tolokonnikova’s letter is about the hundreds of women being subjected to torture and humiliation. A time when well-educated and successful men are posting ‘it-serves-them-right’ messages one 23-year-old jailed woman stands up instead of all these men and gets into the line of fire.”

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova is serving her prison term for a conflict with the Russian Orthodox Church, so it would be appropriate to quote a message left in his blog by Archdeacon Andrei Kurayev, a lecturer at the Moscow Theological Academy and senior researcher at the Philosophy Department of the Moscow State University. “This exasperation of ostensible Christians over the letter from the penitentiary looks strange. The message is not about some special suffering experienced by the author, but about the suffering of thousands of other jailed women. It’s a human being’s protest caused by pain and humiliation.”

“As for my own personal attitude to the author of the message, I will put it this way. Tolokonnikova’s life before the arrest looked very disgusting to me. Her behaviour after it appears as decent,” Archpriest Kurayev said.