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The Black Market in Penal Colonies. Who is to Blame?

22 February 2013 

Vera Vasileva

On 21 February 2013 a seminar entitled The Black Market in Penal Colonies. Who is to Blame? took place in the Andrei Sakharov Museum and Public Centre, as part of the Prison Economy series. It was organised by the Sakharov Centre and the NGO Russia Behind Bars.

It is well known that places of detention everywhere have always served as fertile ground for the growth of ‘black’ markets and underground commercial transactions. But the scale, specific features, institutions and dynamics of the underground prison economy differ from place to place. Those taking part in the discussion about how the underground prison economy functions in contemporary Russia included the physicist Valentin Danilov, who spent around 10 years behind bars on charges of espionage; the businessman Igor Kroshkin, who served 6 years in detention; the head of the legal department of the Public Verdict Foundation and a member of the Public Oversight Commission for Perm province, Elena Pershakova; and Olga Romanova, a journalist and head of Russia Behind Bars. 

In addition, the moderator of the discussion, journalist and blog editor for the Sakharov Centre Anastasia Ovsyannikova, read out a report by Paul Podkorytova, a lawyer, businessman and volunteer for Memorial in Ekaterinburg, on the subject of underground services in remand prisons. 

Valentin Danilov, who linked up with the Sakharov Centre from Novosibirsk via Skype, stressed the need to review the legal framework governing time spent behind bars. In his opinion, that framework fails to meet modern-day realities.

As the scientist noted, the list of particular items that prisoners are forbidden to have in their possession includes electronic computers, typewriters, copiers and other office equipment.

"This rule is 70-80 years out of date," said Valentin Danilov. Meanwhile, according to Danilov, the United Nations has recognised the right to use the Internet is an inalienable human right.

"The world is changing, and around a million of our citizens are living outside of it. Russian legislation governing prison sentences lacks any such concepts as the Internet or card readers that allow you to read eBooks.

Valentin Danilov spoke about a few cases he knows of in which prisoners have attempted to challenge the rules. But those people did not have any success. The courts consider them to be interested parties and view them with suspicion.

Any active attempt to revise the relevant laws must be undertaken by a credible body. The physicist expressed the hope that the Public Oversight Commission might serve as such a body.

Igor Kroshkin shared the story of how he tried to establish the production of bullet-proof vests in Russia's Federal Penitentiary Service Penal Colony No. 1 in Ryazan oblast. The former businessman and current activist of Russia Behind Bars spent 6 years in detention and was freed three months ago.

"I have a degree in communications engineering, plus I studied at the Special Centre for Government Communications and spent 18 years working in the civil service. Even so, I was assigned to the sewing room as a sewing machine operator.

At first I met and exceeded the quota and was praised by the management for that in the first month. 21 working days a month, an 8-hour working day, and terrible conditions, as the products were sown from split leather, which is semi-manufactured hide, with added chemicals. The sewing room is polluted and full of dust, which causes severe allergic reactions.

I then discovered that my average wage for the first six months amounted to 34 roubles per month.

Naturally, people are refusing to work and for that they get 6 months’ in special regime barracks. It’s a basement area with very poor living conditions. Plus – no visits or messages. It goes without saying that the person is denied the chance of parole.

People find themselves trapped: either work for one and a half roubles per day, or end up in terrible conditions."

Manufacturing activity fizzled out after six months. The management asked the businessman to help restart production. Over the course of one month, Igor Kroshkin attracted orders worth two million dollars.

Notably, the colony received an order worth about 1 million dollars for the production of bullet proof vests.

"When the machines got going with the material, with the fabric, people started turning up at work. I was curious to see how much the people doing the sewing would be earning when the orders that I had attracted came in. By that time I had experience of owning around ten clothing factories so I had an idea of how clothes production should work", said Igor Kroshkin.

Imagine the prisoner’s surprise when he saw accounts done by economists at the colony saying that the order for producing body armour was unprofitable, though the losses were covered by the prisoners' earnings.

The businessman contacted his colleague who had placed the supposedly loss-making order. Afterwards it transpired that the cost of producing one bullet proof jacket – 1500 roubles – mysteriously became 500 roubles when it went through the management of the colony. Given the size of the order, it turns out that $300,000 had vanished somewhere along the line.

"I began to get angry and wrote to the head of the colony. As a result I was kicked out of the manufacturing area, denied the chance of parole, and other funny business started", said Igor Kroshkin in conclusion.

The businessman is convinced that many other places of detention operate along similar lines. "According to my calculations, around 10 million former and current prisoners have been defrauded like this. The government is under an obligation to reimburse the money these people have earned," he said.

However, very few convicts appeal against low wages, noted Elena Pershakova. According to her, even those convicts who do go to court often withdraw their complaint at a later stage and refuse to see it through.

Meanwhile, a human rights defender has reported the results of her rough analysis of publicly available data on the income of employees of Federal Penitentiary Service institutions.

The 2011 salary of the Chief Accountant at Penal Colony No. 28 in Berezniki, Perm province, for example, where Maria Alekhina of the band Pussy Riot is serving her sentence, amounted to 1, 743,654 roubles. His deputy got 1, 610,000 roubles; the head of the colony 800,000 roubles; and the head of the Economic Planning Department 1,044,000 roubles.

Elena Pershakova conceded that that income may have been received from various sources, including, for example, from investment dealings. "But it raises questions in my mind," she stressed.

"The average daily wage of a convict in 2012 was 185 roubles and 34 kopecks. This wage will not exactly correspond to the income received by members of the management. But how is it that one person can earn 145,000 roubles per month, while another gets 5, 560 roubles, in the same place and in the same area?"

The lawyer added that complaints had reached the Public Oversight Commission from Penal Colony No. 28 in Perm province about prisoners having to work in excess of 12 hours per day, and some 16 hours. In addition, the parole requests of those working hard at sewing were not being brought to court.

"I spent the whole of my term, which was 5 years, behind bars without leaving remand prison. Of course, there is no such thing as an economy in a remand prison. There is the underground circulation of money and services," amongst other things, says the report by Pavel Podkorytov, which was read out by Anastasia Ovsyannikov. The Memorial volunteer cited a price list of services from the report, which, as Podkorytov writes, one can obtain illegally by paying the remand prison.

"What Elena said about working conditions for women-prisoners is the case almost everywhere. I heard the same thing from [former Yukos lawyer] Svetlana Bakhmina, who was serving a sentence in Penal Colony No. 14 in Mordovia, where Nadia Tolokonnikova [member of Pussy Riot] is currently serving time. The same thing is happening in Kineshme, in Women’s Penal Colony No. 4. The girls write that they are working double shifts for almost no recompense. In 2012 they were taken to be bathed three times, and the rest of the time it was wet towels," testified Olga Romanova.

But the very worst penal colonies, in the view of the journalist, are "those where no complaints are made. If there are no complaints, it means they have been coerced at Special Section level".

"On handouts and kickbacks. I would sum up what I had seen and heard with my own eyes in three main strands. Low-level corruption (fridges, TVs, food supply, drugs, alcohol, sexual services), the business in manufacturing, and the trade in parole".

Olga Romanova states that, "there are three parties to the trade in parole: the management, i.e. the Federal Penitentiary Service, the Public Prosecutor's Office and the judges. It is difficult for a judge to release a convict without it having been recommended by the management".

However, the leader of Russia Behind Bars observed that, "a large number of them do not stand up for their rights because those who do are those who are able to get released with the help of connections on the outside."

"Of course, we can carry on telling one another prison stories endlessly because it's scary, funny, stupid and monstrous every time. And it seems like there isn’t anything to be done about it.

But I think I know how to fight against these abuses. It is not General Prosecutor of Chaika who is to blame for this. The head of Russia's Investigative Committee, Bastrykin, is not to blame. Federal Penitentiary Service Director Kornienko is not to blame. President Putin is not to blame. We are to blame for allowing this to happen to us. We replicate the gulag again and again. Again and again we are afraid to fight. Again and again we are afraid to open our mouths.

Yet there are more terrifying things than prison. Like the loss of one's dignity. The loss of one's self-esteem. We must not allow ourselves to be trampled on," urged Olga Romanova.