Russian women's prison camps: An ex-inmate's account

A prison officer watches over inmates as they harvest potatoes on the field of a penal colony in Russia. File photo
Image caption Female inmates in Russia are often used to work in the field outside penal colonies

Two members of Russian all-female punk band Pussy Riot, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, have been sent to prison camps in Perm and Mordovia - to what Tolokonnikova's husband has described as "jail hell". Svetlana Bakhmina, a former lawyer for the now defunct Yukos oil company jailed in 2006, recalls her time in one of the "tough" penal colonies in Mordovia, south-east of Moscow.

"I was sent to the FGU IK-14 prison camp six years to the day before Tolokonnikova.

The place could be best described as a tough, Soviet-style camp.

The inmates were all housed in two big army-style barracks - there were anywhere between 50 and 100 people in each one.

The barracks were built in the Soviet times - I guess in the 1920s.

All you've got inside are rows of bunkbeds, a night stand and a stool.

There is also a toilet but you cannot use it as there is no central sewage system. We used to go outside to the so-called 'hole', sometimes when it was -20C in the winter.

In general, the climate in that remote swampy place surrounded by forest was just awful - cold winters and midges in the summer. In addition, there was a nuclear facility about 70km [44 miles] away from our camps.

The administration was very strict with us - rumours of beatings circled around the colony, although I didn't witness any personally. More often there were fights between the inmates themselves.

Mass beatings are usually a feature of male camps - the so-called 'black colonies'.

There was no torture in FGU IK-14, but anyone disobeying the prison rules would be punished by getting sent to "shiza" [Russian abbreviation for schizophrenia] - a solitary cell.

The daily routine was also strict - they would wake us up at 06:00, and we would have morning exercises five minutes later. We had breakfast at 07:00, then work until 13:00 when we would have lunch. There was more work after that until 16:00, followed by dinner. Lights out was at 22:00."

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