Situated in the Southeast of Moscow, Pechatniki Prison is the only all-female pre-trial detention facility in the city. In the 25 years since its inception, the women of Pechatniki have endured some of the cruelest and most invasive living conditions in Russia.
“Russian Limbo” is produced in cooperation with the public historical project “It Collapsed” and hosted and distributed by the Center for European Policy Analysis.”
Inmate 0:01Yes, of course, we’re not going for a walk if we prefer to sit here in the cell and these 60 square meters with 50 people and one open window
Matthew Orr 0:13Hello everyone, this is Russian Limbo, a podcast about some of Russia’s most notorious pre-trial detention facilities or more simply jails. Thanks to lawyers, human rights defenders, and prisoners, you have an opportunity to learn about the formal and informal rules conduct in pre-trial detention facilities. Our audience from behind bars bitterly joke that in this way, people on the outside can understand them a little bit better. For more details, such as photos, videos, and texts, please visit our Patreon page, you will find a link in the podcast description. Your donations will help us improve and expand this project. This is our third episode of Russian limbo.
Have you ever thought about how women are kept in pretrial detention facilities? Women who go through the detention system follow a different path from that of men. However, we know even less about this path because of the close nature of female correctional institutions. But we do know some facts. While some of our audience may know the historical, political, and social context of our stories. We believe the topic of incarceration is relevant in all countries, including in the West. While our stories may seem overly cruel, they are unfortunately real. The voice you heard at the beginning is that of Sandra Feldman, the heroine of the story, who will tell us about her experience in the Pechatniki Moscow’s only female detention facility, located fittingly next to a monastery. She spent six months in this detention center, accused of stealing a watch that cost millions of rubles. She refused to plead guilty. But first things first, let’s look at the numbers. As of 2019, the year when the number of prisoners in Russia declined to a historic low 434,000 people. Almost 9,000 women were kept in detention facilities. Alexandra Graf from the consortium of women’s non-governmental associations, notes
Alexandra Graf 2:03Women’s detention centers are a relatively recent phenomenon for our country. This could help explain the ample space for abuse of women’s rights in prisons.
Matthew Orr 2:13The total number of women in Russian prisons at the beginning of 2019 was 45,000. This is the largest number of female prisoners of any country in the world. In 2017, according to the interior ministry, Russia recorded one of the highest rates of repeat offenses committed by women 39.7% and the number continues to climb each year. Still, women make up just 8% of the total prison population, and they are correspondingly given much less official attention. The media coverage about convicted women is sparse. their problems are rarely discussed on the institutional level, if at all. The organizations that provide women with specialized assistance are few. When a woman ends up in prison, there is a high chance that her husband or partner will break up with her. Moreover, 20% of women in Russian prisons have HIV and do not receive proper medical attention. Every year, several hundred women in Russia end up in prison for murder. Yet in 2019, Russia’s Ministry of Justice assured the European Court of Human Rights that the problem of domestic violence in the country was, quote, “extremely exaggerated.” However, an analysis of court decisions shows that the majority of convicted women in such cases are forced to defend themselves from their partner or experienced some other form of family violence. In 2016 alone, before Russia abolished criminal penalties for domestic violence, there were more than 64,000 cases of domestic violence in Russia, half of which are perpetrated by men against their wives. Sociologist Collin Kardy, who explores the perception of violence against women and society, shows that society makes much steeper demands of women as compared to men. Because women are not perceived as perpetrators of violence, generally speaking, but rather as victims. This creates a double violation. A woman who has committed a crime breaks both the legal norm and the norm of society. This creates a double irregularity. A woman who has committed a crime breaks both a legal norm and a normal society. Before we hear from Sandra Feldman, let’s find out how Pechatniki appeared in Moscow in which infamous souls have haunted this fortress.
In 1987, located on the site of the present detention facility, was a clinic for alcoholic women. By 1993, however, the institution closed and a women’s prison for 810 people opened instead. Before this, Moscow did not have a separate jail specifically for women. Those we talked to recall that in the 2000s and 2010s, one could find people there who used to work in the hospital because of this specific design and distinctive towers. The detention facility is called the “Yellow Bastille.” However, this name is hardly lip service. All cell windows overlook the courtyard. So there has been only one escape attempt from the detention facility in 2016, which failed. The escapee was the leader of the black realtors gang, a man born in 1981, was accused of murder with the purpose of seizing property. And yes, although the detention facility is meant for women, there are a few cells for men, mostly they are former employees of the security services. The Pechatniki detention center initiated the production of garments in 2000. The inmates made workwear, garment covers, linens for prisoners, life jackets for the Navy, and even tank helmets. There’s a print shop at the detention facility, which takes outside orders. And in the courtyard, there is a greenhouse where vegetables and greens are grown from early spring. The greenhouse and the production site employ convicted women from the Household Services Unit if you’re lucky enough to get there. In the 2000s and 2010s, Pechatniki underwent a constant renovation, more structures appearing each year, a bakery, a hanger for vegetable storage, a playground as well. Two of the common cells that were redesigned are housing for women with children under the age of three. You see a convicted woman is sent to a penal facility. Any child older than three years is taken by the relatives or sent to an orphanage if there’s no immediate family. But what about convicted women who are pregnant? What happens to them? human rights activist Alexandra Graf gives us her perspective.
Alexandra Graf 6:38I’d like to tell you about pregnant women in jail. They are an absolute minority of the Federal Penitentiary Service population. In Russia, it is customary to put them in pretrial detention facilities, even if the alleged offense committed is nonviolent and most drug-related. Many expectant mothers end up giving birth in prison guards skirt the women to the nearest maternity clinic. Human rights defenders report cases of women being handcuffed to the obstetric bed as if a woman could form a proper escape during or even after delivery. Following the verdict of the mother, children born in jail, as a rule, accompany her to a penal facility with a childcare center. That is from birth, these babies are already in the penal system. According to the Federal Penitentiary Service of Russia as of 2020, there are 412 imprisoned children. These penal colonies can be located over 1,000 kilometers away from a woman’s place of residence. Women are allowed to see the children for only a few hours a day no more. But why this restriction exists remains unclear, particularly since the mothers are not deprived of parental rights. There is a selective co-residence with only a few rooms designed for it. And not all mothers are entitled to the privilege. The way the administration chooses the best moms is a mystery. According to the internal regulations that detention facilities, expectant mothers, and women who have just given birth should be placed in separate cells, which provide for single beds and furniture for kids. But in reality, this rule is not followed. Pregnant women often stay in common cells, but cellmates swap lower bunks with them. The fates of these children and their mothers are often quite tragic. statistics on suicides, mental disorders, and criminalization are similar to that of a former orphanage inhabitance all of this could have been avoided by not placing a pregnant woman in a detention facility and sentencing her to time in prison.
Matthew Orr 8:49And it’s 25 years in counting, Pechatniki has housed many famous inmates. Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko, who was captured during the war in the Donbas. The poetess Evgenia Vasileva, who was called the “Lover of the Defense Minister” in the media in Major Denise Sukhov, who opened fire with a gun in a Moscow supermarket.
The most notorious visitors arrived in 2012. These are the three members of the Russian punk rock band Pussy Riot, Nadezha Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, following a protest performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, one of Moscow’s grandest orthodox monuments. The Pussy Riot members were charged after screaming, “Mother Mary, please drive away Putin,” or “Mother Mary, please drive Putin away.” The lawyers of the defendants were told that the arrestees were kept in a special cell designed for three to four people. Izvestia reported that Pussy Riot cellmates were neither murderers nor drug addicts, most of them simply accused of fraud. At first, the lawyers’ clients could not receive care packages and other inmates were dissatisfied with having the Pussy Riot girls as co-residents, but the reason was not the band’s sacrilegious actions in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour but rather the actions of the detention facility staff. Every step Pussy Riot took was recorded on camera. Cellmates were displeased with such attention. Obviously, they were afraid that their faces would appear on the internet and elsewhere. The lawyers of Pussy Riot believed that this constant observation was a tactic used to play psychological pressure on the girls. However, the prison staff replied that it was a common measure body cams and guards is a precaution against physical violence. However, not everyone gets into a quadruple cell at Pechatniki. For example, antifascist Irina Lipskaya the main character of Meduza’s report about women in Russian jails and prisons found herself in a cell for 40 people. Lipskaya has spent a year and a half in the detention facility for the organization of violent acts on nationalists. Here’s what she told Meduza.
Irina Lipskaya 10:59The homes for 12 people are terrible. There is no separate cubicle for the toilet, no shower, no privacy. Even in your bed you feel surrounded by people. There is a TV not everyone in the cell wants to watch it. But it’s always on if the senior right person wants it. And if you wish to read a book, good luck. In a cell for 40 people, this is not as much of a problem. Everyone is in the kitchen staring at the TV. There is a shower, three toilets. You can safely smoke a cigarette on the toilet alone, at least that some person’s space. There is not so much space between the bunks but one can pass through the beds that are four singles reserved for the elites. Those who are in the cell for a long time or are fraudsters. The senior put only well of woman there. Women cut and dye their hair, and even do pedicures in the cell. You can receive cosmetics in a care package. A friend of mine, who was a makeup artist, wore makeup every day as if it was a holiday. She also did makeup for others, which is how she used to earn some money. And speaking of money, it can help you avoid the imprints of prison life. There is a hairdresser and a massage chair in the detention facility. And they want to install a tanning booth. Inmates constantly smeared bronzer on their faces to look halfway decent. If you have cash and know how to care for yourself, maybe you can manage.
Matthew Orr 12:46In 2020, the human rights organization “Zona Prava” published a report on the detention conditions of women. They’re allowed to have no more than 10 sanitary towels a month and they can shower only 3 times a week. The detainees are faced with constant video surveillance even in the toilet. They don’t have any bras because of the underwires. This is what you get there you know, who was convicted of murder recollects about the local medical care.
Yekaterina 13:11They would react only once you are almost dying. If relatives pushed from the outside, they could take some measures. Otherwise, it was all horrible. They didn’t pay attention to blood pressure, teeth, cold it was difficult to get a visit to the doctor or medication. But epileptics and patients with pneumonia were given drug treatment.
Matthew Orr 13:41And now we have come to our heroine, Sandra Feldman, who face many of the problems we’ve already detailed. She spent six months in jail, having landed in pretrial detention facility number six in 2016. An acquaintance of Sandra accused her of stealing a watch that cost 2 million rubles. For the time of the investigation. Sandra was sent to Pechatniki later it turned out that the watch did not exist. Sandra was released from jail and the case was closed. We talked to Sandra about how not to break down when you get into jail on trumped up charges. Especially, when you get there for the first time.
Sandra Feldman 14:21I ended up in the detention facility in a state of shock. I was thinking that soon it would all be over the door would open I would be interrogated that they would take my fingerprints to take a picture of me when it looks so awful because I’d been kept in the police department for a long time five or six days. But that would be all. Unfortunately, everything didn’t end so fast. I began to settle in the space where I found myself. I was taken into a cell. It was a holding cell, a cell in which new inmates are kept before they are separated. You could say that I was lucky. I wasn’t kept alone. The conditions were hellish, dirt everywhere. One sink, clogged toilets that were actually just holes in the floor. We were about seven people. I got to the cellar where women accused of economic crimes stayed. My cell was designed for 40 people, although in fact, they were 50 to 55 people, they slept on the floor because there were not enough bunks. My son made some more or less decent. There was one shower for that number of people. There were three toilets, which were distributed among the prisoners. The first stall could be used by those who just arrived at the cell, the second one by those staying a bit longer, and the third one by the most respected inmates. Two things we used to smoke next to them. There were two fridges in the cell, they were bought by several girls who chipped in. The parents pass things from the outside to the warden of the detention facility, it was very expensive because while the refrigerator usually cost $300 to $400, double the amount should have been paid in order for the refrigerator to be delivered to the cell. We had two kettles and a water heater, but no microwave ovens, the TV set too small, but I didn’t watch it, I mostly read and wrote. There were many violations, I passed them to my lawyer because everything I wrote was lost as soon as it passed the doorstep of the cell. There were fights, they happen because some woman had stayed in this pre-trial jail for three years, which is a lot harder, emotionally speaking. The time just drags on. In prison at least you do some work and get to move around. But in jail, you’re just laying like a vegetable. You just lie on your bunk and pace the cell, day in, day out. The wakeup time was six a.m. The light was turned on. Well, we were still able to lie and enjoy the morning, shall we say, I got in line for the shower, washed myself, made my bed went to breakfast. There was a count. We came out of the cell, the whole crowd of people, we had a roll call, and then we returned to the cells. Some people who had a pass went to the gym. The operatives do not like to be bothered. That is they needed to take us to another floor to control us in the gym. Even though it was locked, and they usually went about their business. The people working there were generally lazy, they were too lazy to bring us to the exercise yard. In six months, I probably exercised twice. And when the whole story finished, I took long walks in the street because my feet could not understand what had happened to them during those six months. So because we wanted to avoid being bothered by every little thing. We had to make concessions to these guards who used to say, if you’re not going to walk today, we will not let the federal inspection in your center tomorrow. And everyone was like, “Yes, of course. We’re not going for a walk. We prefer to sit here in a cell in these 60 square meters for 50 people with one open window,” because after every such inspection, we suffered a great loss. They would strip us naked. What about the food? Well, the food was wildly questionable. For some reason, they love to cook fried herring and sauerkraut to stew it and mix it with the smelly herring. It stinks so bad that when the cell door opened, and the cell had its own smell, by the way, even though we cleaned three times a day, the stench was so heavy that I just wanted to bloody die. Not because we were locked up. Not because I wanted to breed the clean air. But because it wasn’t possible. Consequently, no one ate that food. Not even girls who didn’t have any care packages, so couldn’t order from internet cafes. If you have the money you eat well. No money, you eat fried herring and then swell. Also, the bread they gave there was stuffed with hormones. The girls started to grow hair everywhere. Even in places where it definitely should not grow. They began to swell like doves. I remember one time, we fed this bread to a dove that sat on the ledge and after some time it just exploded. I’m not making this up. I swear. Once I decided to try the porridge even though it was an instant one. Although, I wanted to eat real porridge properly cooked you understand? I regret that there was a worm on my plate. When the inspection came, I left my plate and said, “Have you seen what’s inside this porridge?” They kept some out of quiet and promised to take it for examination. This is all unbeneficial spent force. It is very important not to tell anybody anything. When there are any questions about the article and section you’ve been charged under, about how the crime was committed about what people were around. In any case, you can’t tell anyone in the cell about it ever. There are no friends and the walls have ears. Ears are everywhere in this damned place. If you accidentally overheard classified information, absolutely do not pass it on, let it die inside you. That is all. I wish that you not end up in these places because there is nothing good. And for women, it just does not go unnoticed. It remains as a traumatic episode, and however hard you try, it remains buried inside of you.
Matthew Orr 21:08In her research of ex-convicts’ adaptation to life in Russia, sociologist Tatiana Dvornikova studied biographies of women living in nine regions by several parameters: prison term, age, criminal charges, family, and economic situation. After release, their lives usually followed one of three scenarios. In the first group, out of fear and stigma from trying to hide the fact of their conviction, ex-convicts usually get unskilled jobs or have to change jobs and are unable to find permanent employment. The second group of women are those who managed to turn their prison experience into skills useful to others: advocacy, human rights, defense, and public advocacy, even art. The third group is women who at the time of their release, do not have any resources or have completely broken relations with their family. Without the support of social services, they can find themselves on the street, forced to become sex workers, and often return to the places of deprivation of liberty. The fear of release and the desire to get back into the routine of prison life arises not only in Russian prisoners says Dvornikova. The report “Women Integration in Prison” based on the findings of the study of women released from prisons and six EU countries mentioned similar problems. In the summer of 2020, a warehouse with linen caught on fire in Pechatniki. 600 inmates of the pretrial detention facility were temporarily transferred to other detention centers that are already overcrowded.
This has been Episode Three of Russian limbo. Russian Limbo is written by Alexei Yurtaev, narrated by Matthew Orr, produced by Dimitri Okrest and Maria Tchernyh and translated by Valeria Khostina. The program is sponsored by the Human Rights Project, “Team 29,” and the historical project about Russia in the 90s entitled “It Collapsed.” For more details, including links, photos and stories, please visit our Patreon page, you will find a link in the podcast description. Your donations will help us continue bringing you news stories and sounds from Russia’s prisons. Tell your friends and relatives about the Russian Limbo podcasts because no one knows when and in what circumstances they may find themselves arrested. It is worth it to be prepared. Please rate this episode and leave your comments in Apple podcast or on any other podcast application. If you enjoyed this episode, check out the Slavic connection podcast a fresh talk show on events in the Slavic world and beyond. Find us at slavxradio.com