Igor Sutyagin on Preserving Individual Identity in Prison

posted 27 Jun 2011, 13:42 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 27 Jun 2011, 13:48 ]
Source: HRO.org (info), 20/06/11

· Yukos Affair   · Igor Sutyagin

Even a week after the news that the former co-owners of the Yukos oil company had been sent from Moscow to serve their sentences, there was still no official information about the whereabouts of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev. Their locations subsequently became known through unofficial sources. Mikhail Khodorkovsky is in a penal colony in Karelia; Platon Lebedev is in a colony on the Kola Peninsula.

Of the seven-and-a-half years that the businessmen have spent in custody on charges of tax evasion and money laundering, they have only actually spent a little over a year in a penal colony. Initially they were in prison during the investigation and their first trial, following which they were placed in a pre-trial detention centre while the second set of criminal charges were investigated. Khodorkovsky and Lebedev were both given second sentences of 13 years imprisonment each, to include the amount of time already served. If they are destined to serve the full term in custody, they will be released in 2016. Both should already be able to expect release on parole and have submitted their applications, but the court has yet to hear them.

Imprisonment lasting many years spent among a multitude of other prisoners poses the problem how to preserve one’s identity as an individual and as a professional. It is precisely this, and not just a line in a biography, that is meant by those who say that prison and penal colonies destroy life. How did the academic researcher Igor Sutyagin, who spent almost 11 years in Russian prisons and penal colonies, manage to overcome this problem?

- Do you think that an intelligent person such as Khodorkovsky who has found themselves in a Russian prison or penal colony is able to somehow satisfy or, let’s say, maintain their spiritual and intellectual interests?

- It is possible, provided the prisoner has support from the outside. With that kind of support he can receive newspapers allowing him to stay abreast of what is going on and he can order books because prison rules do not restrict the arrival of books ordered through the "Books by Post" system. That really helps a great deal. Prison libraries are extremely poor, hence it is very difficult to think of them as actually of any use. They are rather peculiar places. Generally speaking people think of them as places you can only get to as a favour from the prison administration. And the administration often only gives a favour like this to the kind of people who are useful to them. And the ones who are useful to them are the ones who don't like books. That's why prison librarians don't keep an eye on the books and often destroy the libraries themselves. The administration thoroughly dislikes all those who like books, who are too intelligent, because these are the people who make things more awkward and in a sense more dangerous - for the administration. It is more difficult to deceive people who are intelligent, to force them into doing something, to coerce them.

- How much does this have to do with Mikhail Khodorkovsky? Do the conditions in which he is incarcerated differ from the norm?

- They are different, but not fundamentally. Because he is so very well known, the prison administration treats him really very carefully indeed. It's because nobody wants to be left holding the baby if something goes wrong, and primarily that means the prison administration representatives. That's why Khodorkovsky and people like him are not quite treated the same as ordinary prisoners. But it is not exactly that extreme, it has both a positive and a negative side. The positive side is that people in the administration will not abuse him too openly. There is a negative side, however. Because he stands out from the rest, he won’t be forgiven many things that others can get away with. The administration won't turn a blind eye to things that they would ignore in other circumstances.

- Mikhail Khodorkovsky has just been transferred to a camp in Karelia to a work unit engaged in servicing the penal colony. What does this mean?

- Camp maintenance. It is a type of isolation from the main body of prisoners. It is quite likely that they will now try and find him some kind of position, in the library for example, like they found for me in my second penal colony. They simply put me in the library and kept me closely supervised by specially trained people picked from amongst the prisoners, right up to the operations unit. They kept me overloaded with work, and work that I found interesting. In that way they kept to a minimum all my contacts with the outside world. Incidentally, this option is the smartest. It worked better than all the other options I saw during my 11 years in prison. The penal colony in Udmurtia where they did that falls into the same category as the penal colony in Karelia. It is said that it is an absolutely "red” colony [a colony strictly controlled by the prison administration through networks of prisoners – ed.]. It is therefore highly probable that this is the approach they are now going to try out with Mikhail Borisovich. I was also in a camp maintenance unit in exactly the same way, then they put me in the library and practically kept me locked up there.

Source: Natalia Golitsyna, Radio Svoboda
Rights in Russia,
27 Jun 2011, 13:47