Grigory Pasko: Life Behind Bars, Part 2

[Read part 1 of this series here] Life Behind Bars – Part 2 By Grigory Pasko, journalist In every barrack in a colony there is a television. Therefore, in time free from work, the prisoners have the right to watch television shows until 22:00. Inasmuch as there are practically no people with a higher education in the camps, in the main there’s youth sitting there, so they watch the shows that correspond to their level of intellectual development. As an example, they watch absolutely pointless television shows such as «House-2» [a “reality show”, somewhat racier than similar ones in the US—Trans.].


This tattoo says “CPSU – We’re going the right way, comrades!” (Photo courtesy of

There’s plenty of talk about sex. Sometimes pornographic magazines are leafed through (without advertising it, naturally). Privileged prisoners, close to the administration for one or another reason, have the opportunity to watch pornographic films in the commissaries. But for the majority of the zeks this is unobtainable.In every zone, and in a “red” one as well, there is a category of prisoners named “roosters”. This is a rather diverse category, because people become “roosters” for a variety of reasons. There are also the “blues” [homosexuals—Trans.] They say that sexual contacts are in principle possible and do take place. But this no doubt does not take place without the knowledge of the employees of the administration, because to get some privacy in the camp is practically impossible.So is there private life in camp? There is a surrogate thereof. This is when experienced zeks have already learned not to pay attention to the reality that surrounds them (and the people who surround them) and to just do their thing: read books, play the guitar, write verses, look out the window… We had a guy named Ivanich in our barrack. At times you’d get the impression that he lives all by himself, while the camp is something separate entirely. He interacted with a very narrow circle of people, and more often – with a cat. Moreover, he and the cat, it seems, found a common language more quickly with each other than with anyone else. Ivanich didn’t go anywhere: not to work, not to morning exercises, not to the cafeteria, not to club social events… Sometimes people would come to him from other barracks. Say what you will, but I don’t know another person who was as well informed about the life of the whole camp. At the time when the entire barrack went outside for morning exercises and then to breakfast, Ivanich remained inside only with the on-duty group – 2-3 people out of the number of convicts. While we jerked around in the freezing cold, making like athletes, Ivanich would brew himself up some chifir [incredibly strong tea preferred by zeks, largely undrinkable by mere mortals—Trans.], slowly drink it, and contemplatively look out the window. Through the window was seen the building of the ShIZO, the long fence with barbed wire along the perimeter, and – far off – a road to nowhere, into the smoky distance of the Ussuri taiga. It’s hard to say whether this part of Ivanich’s life was his private life. I think it was. Because in other hours he rarely managed to be alone.It is noteworthy that international norms for holding convicts in places of deprivation of liberty consider an indispensable condition to be the separate holding of men and women, adults and minors, the previously convicted from “first-timers”… Such norms are prescribed by Russian legislation as well. However, in civilized states, all prisoners are usually placed for the night in individual cells or two in a cell. And another thing. In those same European Penitentiary Rues, it is said that sanitary facilities and access to them must be such that each prisoner may at any moment heed the call of nature in conditions of decency and cleanliness. In so doing, by conditions of decency are unequivocally understood closed toilets. If they are open, like in Russian jails and camps, then this is considered a violation of human rights and is regarded as an affront to human dignity.Some more about visitations. Three lengthy visitations per year – this, of course, is idiocy, not justified by anything. Just like the four telephone calls. Who, and on what grounds, decided that their quantity must be precisely this? No doubt this was thought up by some sadist or fascist, while the legislators for some reason aren’t in any hurry to change the existing state of affairs. And if we also take into consideration that the administration of the camp speculates on even this negligible quantity and even wheels and deals in it…In its time, a discussion unfolded in the Russian press about the causes of godkovshchina-dedovshchina [hazing in the navy and army, respectively—Trans.]. This is such an ugly phenomenon in the Russian army (it also existed in the Soviet army as well), when old-timers beat, sometimes to death, young soldiers-sailors. In the number of other reasons, doctors named lengthy sexual abstinence in a male collective, which provokes aggressiveness. But soldiers-sailors at least have discharges and more or less lengthy leaves. Prisoners in this regard are without rights, like slaves on galleys. The lack of this kind of private life too leads at times to knife-fighting, fights with a reason and without any reason.The constant and ubiquitous public nature of camp-and-jail life affects the human psyche heavily in the same way as does lengthy solitary confinement. Moreover, neither the one nor the other are justified by anything: the sadists from the MVD, the Ministry of Justice, and the FSB simply want it that way. They just don’t like the Russian people. They just don’t want convicts to return to human life as normal people.…Of non-public deeds in the Criminal Execution Code I found only one – execution by shooting. (See Article 187 CEC RF – “Procedure for the execution of the death penalty”). And even here, four are obligated to be present during this: a procurator, an executioner, a jailer, and a doctor. Apparently, only in the grave does the opportunity arise for a convict to be alone.It is obvious that the Constitutional provisions about the impermissibility of the gathering, storage, use, and dissemination of information about the private life of people (Art. 24) do not extend to prisoners. It is considered that about convicts, the administration of a colony is obligated to know absolutely everything, right on up to and including what he’s doing with a wife who has come to him for a short-term visitation. Moreover, I have grounds to assert that this is done not for the sake of the notorious “prevention of the commission of a new crime”, but with the aim of exerting moral-and-psychological pressure on a person.In jurisprudence, included the concept of private life is confidential information comprising personal, family, secrecy of correspondence, postal dispatches, telephone conversations, secrecy of voting. To personal secrets belong information about the state of health, secrecy of communication and creativity. To family secrets – information about kinship and the acceptance of children for upbringing…I can not recall a single variety of secret of private life that would not have been violated in the Russian penitentiary system. Moreover, I can cite nearly all the examples from my own personal experience. Thus, all my conversations at visitations with lawyers and my wife were listened in on. All telephone conversations from the strict-regime colony took place in the presence of an employee of the colony. An operative worker in conversation with me mentioned on numerous occasions the fact that I am bringing up children who are not my own. My notes (journals, articles, outlines, verses) were regularly looked through both in the SIZO [investigative isolator—Trans.] and in the colony. (I even recall how one officer, having read my verses, said “We don’t like THIS”).The fact of the perusal of my letter became once the subject of a lengthy verbal showdown between myself and the administration of the colony. In the letter, addressed to my wife, I had written: “I wish I knew what scoundrel crossed me off the list of those rewarded for work…” For this line, they accused me of having a negative attitude towards organs of state power, a disrespectful attitude towards the administration, a lack of desire to step on the path of correction and sincere remorse for the crime committed. As a result, a severely negative character reference written about me was presented to the court that was deciding the question of my early conditional release on parole. Luckily, the judge did not give it nearly the level of attention that the “authors” had hoped for.I’ll give you another example. During the time of the first period of being found in the SIZO, I was acquainted with one prisoner whose live-in girlfriend was found in this same SIZO. Knowing this fact from the personal life of the prisoner, the investigators used it to the utmost to exert pressure on their “client”: they would threaten him that because of his refusal to talk, his girlfriend could get a term much greater than that prescribed by law.And should we be surprised after this by the uproarious laughter with which Russian prisoners accompany American films where is heard the phrase of the “cop”: “You have the right to remain silent…” You can understand them. First, confessions can be beaten out along with your teeth. And second, the investigators-jailers are going to find everything out anyway: from conversations, denunciations, the opening of letters. And their arsenal is great indeed: blackmail, pressure both psychological and physical.As I was going through my papers, I ran across a small yellowed sheet. On one side of it was my signed receipt from when I turned in a “jacket, waterproof, black, one unit 10.09.2002” to the clothing storehouse of the strict-regime colony. And on the other… Oh, this is a real original piece of work! It’s called “Attachment 47 to Instruction (item 1.4.1) Signed Receipt”. Here’s what it says: “I, convict (in parentheses to indicate – surname, name, patronymic, year of birth, art. CC [under which article of the Criminal Code of the RF you were convicted—Trans.], term of deprivation of liberty, commencement of term) have been informed by the administration of the institution (name) about the use of audiovisual, electronic, and other technical means of surveillance and control with the purposes of obtaining necessary information on the behavior of convicts. (Signature of convict). Signature taken by (position, rank, surname, initials, signature). Typ.12. Zak.580”.And now, for contrast – a citation from Article 137 of the Criminal Code of the RF (as amended 1996): “Unlawful gathering or distribution of information about the private life of a person, comprising his personal or family secret, without his approval …committed by a person with the use of his service status shall be punished by a fine in a size of from five hundred to eight hundred minimal sizes of the remuneration of labor …or arrest for a term of from four to six months”.Did you feel the difference? In the first instance, we are dealing with a paper of a notificational character, while in the second, you need to get a paper, drawn up voluntarily, without coercion and “encouragement”, at the personal initiative of a citizen who is just burning with a desire for the implementation of close surveillance over him and his personal life on the part of whosoever feels like it.As we can see, our very own state isn’t used to standing on ceremony with us: just sign here – and put your worthless, good-for-nothing life under the bright rays of the spotlights of supervisory personnel and your tongue, your enemy – right in front of the microphones. And remember: every bit of you – all your guts and innards, all your personal, family, and other secrets – belongs to the state, in the person of its operatives, vertyhais, overseers, and seksots [“undercover agents”, citizen-informants—Trans.].