Moscow: If a Moscow judge sends the three young Pussy Riot punk rockers to a corrective labour facility on Friday, they could face the harshest conditions possible for jailed women, sharing barracks with more than 100 others.
The state prosecutor said the women deserved “isolation from society” for staging a protest stunt against President Vladimir Putin in a cathedral, saying they should serve three years in a penal colony with a “general regime”.
Ringed with high fences, barbed wire and watchtowers and set in the countryside, more than 40 such corrective labour colonies around Russia currently house about 59,000 women.
As soon as they enter, prisoners must exchange their civilian clothes for a baggy green uniform with their name marked on the chest.
Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich could then find themselves sewing uniforms for prisoners, soldiers or police - the most common line of work.
Less than half of prisoners are assigned any labour, however, and those who do can earn as little as 100 to 500 rubles ($3 to $16) per month, Yelena Gordeyeva of the Moscow-based rights group Prison and Freedom, said.
Women sleep in barracks holding 100-120 people, she added, saying that many coveted jobs to simply kill time.
Their long day begins at 6.00am and is punctuated by periodic roll calls that only move indoors if the temperature falls to minus 30 degrees Celsius (minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit).
Communicating with loved ones is problematic as well.
Women can usually call home only once a month, with each conversation limited to 15 minutes.
Officials are not obliged to send them to colonies in the Moscow region even if that is where they were convicted, meaning that both Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina could be sent far from their families even though they have young children.
As well as such regular hardships, the women risk encountering violence from prison officers.
In October, the deputy governor of a women’s colony in the Far Eastern Amur region was captured on video hitting and kicking two prisoners.
He was later given only a suspended sentence. His case has now gone to retrial after a public outcry.
The women’s time in jail will also depend on their relations with wardens, rights observers say.
Each colony offers prisoners three different levels of custody: general, light or harsh, depending on how their behaviour is assessed by prison officials.
The ordinary level allows prisoners to meet family members for six short visits and four long visits, including overnight stays, per year.
More favoured prisoners under “light” custody enjoy supplementary visits and unrestricted purchases of food and toiletries.
Those under strict custody for violations such as drinking alcohol, taking drugs or refusing to obey staff, are held in isolation cells.
They are forbidden to make phone calls or have visitors, and are only allowed out each day for exercise breaks.
The jailed former oil tycoon and Putin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky, viewed as a political prisoner by his Western and Russia supporters, ended up in isolation for offering some of his food to other inmates.
Timeline of the Pussy Riot saga
- February 21, 2012: Five band mates of the Pussy Riot punk band wearing brightly coloured balaclavas belt out a song called “Punk Prayer” in Christ the Saviour Cathedral. The song says the Russian Orthodox Church has become too close to the Kremlin and calls on the Virgin Mary to “drive out Putin”. The performers are dragged out by guards.
- March 5: Two members of the band - Maria Alekhina, 24, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22 - are detained on a broad hooliganism charge that includes a motive of religious hatred, which carries a jail term of up to seven years. Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, a third member of the group, is arrested later.
- April 22: Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill holds an open-air prayer service with thousands of worshippers gathered outside the building, accuhsing Pussy Riot of desecrating holy relics kept there.
- June 27: Around 100 Russian cultural figures sign a petition demanding the release of the Pussy Riot members, saying that their trial “discredits the Russian judicial system”.
- July 20: The trial begins.
- August 2: Putin says he does not favour a tough punishment for the Pussy Riot protesters.
- August 7: US pop icon Madonna says at a concert in Moscow she prayed for the freedom of Pussy Riot. Other international music stars who have joined a chorus of protest include Sting, the Pet Shop Boys, Who leader Pete Townshend, Bjork, and John Lennon’s artist widow Yoko Ono.