Reuters

Tedious manual labor, poor hygiene and lack of access to medical care – these are the conditions facing American basketball star Brittney Griner in a Russian penal colony after losing her appeal last week against a nine-year sentence for dope.

It’s a familiar world for Maria Alyokhina, a member of the feminist art ensemble Pussy Riot who spent nearly two years as an inmate for her role in a 2012 punk protest at a Moscow cathedral against President Vladimir Cheese fries.

The first thing to understand, Alyokhina said in an interview, is that a penal colony is not an ordinary prison.

“It is not a building with cells. It looks like a strange village, like a Gulag labor camp,” she said, referring to the vast criminal network established by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin to isolate and crush the inmates.

“It’s actually a labor camp because by law all prisoners have to work. The rather cynical thing about this job is that prisoners usually sew police uniforms and uniforms for the Russian army, almost without pay.

The settlement was divided between a factory area where prisoners made clothes and gloves and a “living area” where Alyokhina said 80 women lived in a room with only three toilets and no hot water.

Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, could soon be transferred to a colony unless there is a new appeal or an agreement between Washington and Moscow to exchange her for a Russian arms dealer imprisoned in the United States. – a possibility that was mooted a few months ago, but has yet to materialize.

In a Pussy Riot show that has toured the world and is now playing in Britain, Alyokhina relives memories of her time as an inmate – snowy prison yards, planked beds, long periods of solitary confinement and punishment for minor infractions such as an unbuttoned coat or loosely fastened name tag.

She was constantly filmed by prison guards “because I am a ‘famous provocateur,'” she added.

The Russian prison service did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

A more recent inmate of the penal colony, Yelena, described a regime similar to that experienced by Alyokhina ten years ago.

Yelena, 34, spent eight years in a Siberian colony after being convicted of drug possession.

She said she was paid about 1,000 rubles ($16) a month to work 10 to 12 hours a day in a sewing shop.

“Girls with a strong athletic build are often given much heavier jobs. For example, they are loading sacks of flour for a prison bakery or unloading mountains of coal,” she said.

Prisoners could be punished for unexplainable “infractions”, such as placing a wristwatch on a bedside table.

The ultimate punishment was solitary confinement, known as the “Vatican”.

“Just as the Vatican is a state within a state, solitary confinement is a prison within a prison,” Yelena said.

A gynecologist visited her colony every month, where more than 800 women were imprisoned.

“You do the math, what are the odds of being the one who managed to reach a doctor? Virtually zero,” she said.

For a foreigner with little or no Russian, it is more difficult to navigate the system and deal with isolation.

The brother of Paul Whelan, a former US Marine serving 16 years in a Russian penal colony on espionage charges which he denies, said he was allowed a 15-minute phone call each day with his parents, who couldn’t call other family members or friends, and doesn’t have access to email or the internet.

David Whelan said his brother had to work at least eight hours a day, six days a week, on menial tasks like making buttonholes, which caused him repetitive strain injuries.

Inmates sleep in barrack-like buildings and access to many basic necessities, including medicine, depends on paying bribes to prison guards, he said.

The conditions can depend heavily on the whims of the guards, the warden or the older inmates.

Paul appears to be using his military training “to go day to day, to figure out what battles to fight and what battles not to fight,” David Whelan said.

“His phone calls, even to our parents, are recorded. His letters were all translated before they came out. So you know that everything you do is being watched and you really have no sense of individuality.

Alyokhina said receiving cards and letters from the outside world offered a rare ray of hope, and she urged people to support Griner in this way.

She said they should use machine translation and send the text in English and Russian to make it easier to pass through the prison censor.

“Don’t leave anyone alone with this system,” she said. “It’s totally inhuman, it’s a Gulag, and when you feel alone there, it’s much easier to give up.”

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