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Russian regions: doing porridge

Life for ex-prisoners is not easy in any country in the world, but there are so few opportunities in provincial Russia that it is hardly surprising a high percentage of the prison population in the Orenburg region are habitual re-offenders, says Elena Strelnikova

My colleague and I were sitting on a park bench after work and discussing everyday matters. A young man of about 20 (or perhaps a bit more) approached us and asked for a cigarette. He looked kind of scruffy and his face was a bit lopsided – not the sort of person you instinctively make friends with in the street. He told us in passing that he had just come out of prison: he’d been sent down as a teenager for pilfering and now he didn’t know where to go. He went to a friend’s house, but the friend had moved. Tried another, but that one didn’t want to have anything to do with a former criminal. He should go to his parents in the country, but he didn’t have the money. Could we by any chance give him 50 roubles for the ticket? We did, but weren’t at all sure that he didn’t then go in to the next shop and buy some beer with it.

"The Orenburg region currently has 16 penal institutions with a population of 15,000. If one counts in the numbers of people on the register, then the overall figure is more than 23,000. It’s a small town, which is distributed all over the region."

Few people are able to get back to a normal life after time in prison. My neighbour is 33 and has already been in prison 5 times: robbery, larceny and affray. 2 or 3 years each time, so he doesn’t really ever manage to adapt to life outside…or perhaps he doesn’t want to.

Orenburg as a place of exile

For the tsars the Orenburg Region, far away from central Russia and with its continental climate, was a place of exile. In the 18th century people were sent here for ‘wicked behaviour.’ 276 soldiers from the Semyonov Regiment were exiled here when the regiment was disbanded after the uprising in 1825. Subsequently the Polish revolutionaries Zygmunt Serakovsky, Bronislav Zalessky and others kicked their heels here; the Russian poet Alexei Pleshcheyev and Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko served as soldiers in Orenburg’s Special Corps and the well-known Russian composer Alexander Alabyev was exiled here. At the end of the 19th and in the early 20th century activists from the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party were exiled here – Sergei Gusev, Alexander Dolivo-Dobrovosky, Mikhail Bagayev and others. 

Police_jail_Orenburg

There are over 850,000 people in 10 000 Russian penitentiary institutions. About 717,000 of them are in one of the country's 700 correctional colonies, 46 of which are exclusively for women (and where 69,000 female convicts serve their punishment). Russia’s rate of 610 prisonners per 100 000 people is one of the highest in the world.

Today’s prisoners are somewhat different. 4% of them are doing time for rape, 13% for drug dealing, 11% for violent attack, 9% for robbery and 20% for larceny. Murderers constitute about 23% of the prison population.

Alexei

I ring the prison to talk to a murderer with a 17-year sentence. I’m scared. It may only be a telephone call, but I’m nervous. We introduce ourselves and from his first words I understand that this is someone whose work was not unlike mine. It turns out that he was indeed in TV some 10 years ago and even worked on the programme ‘At this time of night,’ about crime in our region. The Lord really does work in mysterious ways.

Alexei has two degrees, a family and he had a job. He was convicted of premeditated murder 6 years ago, though he maintains it was self-defence and wants his case to be reviewed and made public. I can’t take sides: I’m not a lawyer and know nothing about the case, but Alexei himself says: “Every convict has his own story. 90% of them say they have been wrongly convicted and in the beginning I believed them, listened to their stories. Now I have learnt to distinguish between the truth and the lies. Any prisoner’s story will be full of lies: they are trying to exonerate themselves, even while they’re inside. You don’t turn into a philosopher in here; after 5 years of prison life you start going downhill. Development is frozen and your mind decays.

“Some people get religion – that’s one more lie. Before I got in here I really did believe in God and had made pilgrimages round most of Russia’s holy places, but now I’ve moved away from religion. The prison chaplains are just there for the PR. You can’t make someone who has murdered, robbed or raped more than once believe in something good and luminous. Any prisoner wants to find his niche behind bars and create his own image and that’s what he does: I have found belief in God, as it were, and he will teach me how to live correctly so I shall never again tread the path of shame. The prison management makes concessions to prisoners like that and the chaplain earns his bonus.  Then the criminal gets out and starts all over again.”

“I now realise that everything about prisoners on TV, radio, in articles and the papers is too upbeat,” Alexei tells me. “I would make it all much harsher, showing how revolting it is to be in here. I would stress the complications, the living conditions, the relations inside the prisoner group and with the administration. Prison doesn’t correct, it grinds people down and makes them embittered.” 

Prison_church

Prisoners praying in the Novotroitsk maximum security prison IK – 3. In February 2011, the Russian Orthodox Church and the country’s Federal Penitentiary Service signed a formal agreement on mutual cooperation.

Perhaps he’s right and the next generation should be taken on an excursion to a modern prison to put them off, rather than to see Pugachev’s [leader of the largest Cossack-peasant revolt in Russia’s history] cage in the Historical Museum. I’ve been in the prison in the course of my work and it was shocking. Every three steps you take there’s a gate with a lock, on and on…. But in spite of this the official statistics show that 50% (unofficially that figure is 70%) of released prisoners end up back there. The Orenburg prison population today contains 20% re-offenders i.e. those behind bars for the 3rd (or more) time. They’re greeted as family. 25% of prisoners have broken the law for the 2nd time, but, as my new friend says, anyone who comes back for a 2nd time will come back a 3rd too. Of course everyone hopes that he will never go back there, but when they get out, there’s nowhere for them to go. 

“Life outside is different,” says Alexei. “You have to find somewhere to spend the night and the search for money and food never lets up. Here it’s all found: white sheets, food, cigarettes – even clothes. Why should one be in a hurry to get back outside? Especially when the world wants nothing to do with ex-cons.”  Not many of them have anyone waiting for them. Prison life – change your wife. “I’m lucky,” says Alexei, “my Kate is waiting for me. She often comes to visit. As soon as I heard the sentence I told her ‘you’re young, divorce me’, but she wouldn’t. She’s always suggesting we have a baby, but I’m not ready for that – I can’t see any stability ahead.”

Life after prison

A family is usually prepared to wait and to help after a prison sentence, but only the first time. After that they often don’t let you over the threshold. Few mothers would not be fearful of the influence a hardened criminal father might have on the children. Look at my neighbour – he has no family and perhaps he’s right, because without education it’s very difficult to find a job.

"Everyone behind bars dreams of early release on parole and has his own way of trying to achieve it. Some work from morning to night, earning the approval of the administration.  Others simply keep their heads down, don’t rock the boat and repent. Yet others write appeal after appeal for their case to be reviewed."

The Labour Ministry publicises its employment programmes for ex-prisoners and even sends its people out into the penal settlements. But the system doesn’t work. You can only get a job through friends and even your closest friend can’t guarantee that an ex-prisoner won’t let his employer down. 

If the employer is your own mother, it’s different. There’s a young man we knew as he was growing up in the next block to ours. He was convicted of murder at 19 (little did I think that with a bit of research I’d be able to find so many prisoners), but he’s been lucky.  His wife and 2 small children are waiting for him at home. So is his mother, who’s in business. He promises not to let them all down when he gets out, though at the beginning he’ll only be able to get temporary work. But the majority of ex-prisoners will be unlikely to get a job, even loading work, though they too need to eat every day and would like it to be good food. Now I come to think of it, I haven’t seen my neighbour for some time…perhaps he’s back inside again.

Prison_rehearsal

Republic of Bashkortastan, Prison IK – 16. Rafik Dzhafarov’s group has qualified for the Orenburg final of the nationwide song contest for prison inmates. The contest is very popular all around Russia as its finalists count on early conditional release. In order to conduct their rehearsals Dzhafarov’s musicians have been freed from their daily prison duties.

Two recent robberies in Novotroitsk grabbed my attention because they were quite unusual. A 27-year old man attempted to rob the same shop twice. The first time he stole 40 (!) roubles, beer and cigarettes at knifepoint. He was immediately arrested and readily confessed to his crime. He had to give an undertaking not to leave the area, then he was released. After 2 days he returned to same shop: this time he took 2 bottles of beer and 2 packets of cigarettes. The police were summoned once more, they wagged their finger at him and let him go. The young man started crying and shouting “Put me in prison!  I want to go to prison!” Perhaps it was the youth we met in the park. Perhaps he’d left someone he cared about behind in prison….?

Clothes made by prisoners are better quality

The Orenburg region currently has 16 penal institutions with a population of 15,000. If one counts in the numbers of people on the register, then the overall figure is more than 23,000. It’s a small town, which is distributed all over the region. This densely populated unit makes maximum use of the time spent within its walls. Just like everywhere else.  For those who want to study there are schools, professional training institutions and even the possibility of a degree by distance learning. The majority of Orenburg prisons are self-sufficient: they rear their own cattle and poultry and grow vegetables and plants. In Orenburg city the bread baked in one of the local settlements is considered not only the cheapest, but the best. Metal working, carpentry and sewing enterprises make a considerable profit for the prison budget. In the world-famous ‘Black Dolphin’ the lifers make slippers which are shipped all over the world, recognisable by the small dolphin on the sole. Clothes made by prisoners are better quality than Chinese consumer products.  But work with the ‘zone’ [prison system] is voluntary and many prefer to do nothing at all, the idea being that the work will always be there if I want it.

“If someone has been used to working hard before he got into prison, then he’ll find something to do inside,” says Alexei. “I’m educated and have some knowledge of the law, so people ask me to write their appeals for them. I’ve written masses of them – not for nothing, of course. I’m on good terms with the administration and have a mobile, which I use to monitor the business I’ve left behind outside. It’s building supplies: timber, beams and building materials. I employ ex-prisoners there, by the way. I have a good look at them in here first, see what they’re really like and how they approach their work. I ensure they have somewhere to live and food. At the moment I have 6 people working for me, but many don’t stay the course and scarper. They simply don’t want to work. I also dabble on the stock market on the internet, but that’s more of a hobby than a source of income.”

Police_action

According to Russian Newsweek (2008), the most dangerous Russian cities are Surgut, Perm, Syktyvkar, Berezniki, Khabarovsk, Chita, Yakutsk, Irkutsk, and Abakan, each having crime rates exceeding 395 crimes annually per 10,000 people.  Suchs statistics mean that one in every 25 residents  was affected by crime during the last 12 months.

I have to say I have my doubts about Alexei’s sincerity, but I know that there have been cases in the region of businesses being run from places not nearly so far away, so I concede that Alexei probably is telling the truth. I just have the feeling that he will still make something of himself when he gets out. I really hope he does.

Early release

Everyone behind bars dreams of early release on parole and has his own way of trying to achieve it. Some work from morning to night, earning the approval of the administration.  Others simply keep their heads down, don’t rock the boat and repent. Yet others write appeal after appeal for their case to be reviewed. 

Some prisoners become creative: they write poetry, compose music and take to the stage.  Orenburg recently saw the country-wide competition for the best performance by a prisoner of the song ‘Red Snowball Tree’ [also the name of a famous Soviet film about an ex-con]. There were guards and special forces in plain clothes in the hall and the journalists were warned not to do anything unexpected: there were 32 convicts on the stage from 13 regions of Russia. A murderer gave a tender rendering of the famous ‘Orenburg down shawl’, and a thief sang his own song, while a burglar’s plaintive reflections on freedom reduced people to tears. Singing helps when you’re doing time.

"The Labour Ministry publicises its employment programmes for ex-prisoners and even sends its people out into the penal settlements. But the system doesn’t work. You can only get a job through friends and even your closest friend can’t guarantee that an ex-prisoner won’t let his employer down."

After the competition 4 lucky people were given their early release documents: they’re sure they’re on their way to a great career on the stage and can’t imagine doing anything else. Mothers and wives embrace them tearfully and the director of the Russian Penitentiary System wrings them warmly by the hand, as do the parliamentary deputy responsible for culture and the governor. He has managed to put aside regional problems for half an hour to listen to ‘Red Snowball Tree’. As they say, jail is never far away.


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