Print Save as PDF +A A -A
18 November 2016

Life behind bars

“The redness” of Russian corrective labor colonies is achieved by means of torture

The story of activist Ildar Dadin who accused employees of Karelia corrective labor colony No. 7 of torture refocused public attention on the code which prevails behind bars. According to this code, convicts belong to assigned castes.

A peculiar law of the underworld emerged in the USSR during the 1920s and 1930s. A multi-million-strong army of GULAG slaves was guarded by the almighty wardens of Cheka (the All-Russian Special Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution, Sabotage and Speculation) – GPU (State Political Directorate) – NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs). Still, scarce hours, minutes, moments were spent in damp barracks in which inmates were successful in evading the watchful eye of Big Brother. Hence, additional control – internal control – was introduced in the GULAG. The convicts themselves were largely unaware of the functions they performed.

Life in incarceration gradually started to alter following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Previously, the concept of “family” was the norm whereby 10-15 convicts were grouped according to shared interests, nationality and birthplaces. They backed each other up, ran a common household and shared a cash fund. Such a format of survival was of no use when commodity-money relations and the material stratification of convicts became mainstream. The replacement of the concept of “Family” was replaced by an outlook which can be encapsulated thusly: “Me and my bedside table” (an individualistic approach) and this underworld mantra spilled over into civilian life.

Castes within the prison hierarchy

Typecasting begins even before accused persons are found guilty or become inmates in a penal colony. The stratification process commences as soon as a suspect is apprehended and taken to a detention facility. An individual who has been incarcerated before should inform detention facility staff and other inmates of his status upon his “admission” – this is akin to his “coming out”.

If a man has never served a sentence, his status is to be determined. Should he lie about his status, his life inside will hardly be a picnic. Colony officials carefully research the convict’s biography and other convicts quickly establish the rookie’s credentials through the grapevine.

In general, a community of inmates can be divided into three castes: bosses (“blatnye”), blokes (“muzhiki”) and untouchables (“opushtshennye”).

Criminal lords (“vory v zakonye”) rank higher than bosses and occupy the highest rank in the prison hierarchy. Traditionally, a crime lord has a criminal record and a reputation in the criminal environment. He has to undergo a formal “coronation” ceremony. Crime lords are expected to avoid both stable relationships with women and cooperation with the state authorities. They seek to establish full control over convicts in correctional institutions. This is often exacted through the issuing of ultimatums and by means of threats.

Bosses also belong to an elite criminal caste. They adhere to the underworld code, do not cooperate with the colony administration and are exempted from production line labor. They do not take part in elections since they do not associate themselves with the state. In the days of the GULAG, the practice of formally registering a boss as a production line operative was widespread. However, rather than taking his place at his station, he would retire to the storeroom to smoke cigarettes while another convict of a lower status stood in for him. Today, the boundaries are blurred and hence one may even come across an employed boss.

Blokes are regular convicts and make up the middle class. This constitutes the largest category of prisoners. They do not aspire to become bosses, try to avoid becoming untouchables and carry out work on the production line.

Untouchables are at the very bottom of the prison hierarchy. According to Soviet human rights activist Valery Chalidze, untouchables appeared sometime between the 1920s and 1940s due to the fact that minors over the age of 12 who could be confined to places of deprivation of liberty were forced to perform homosexual acts with other inmates.

Writer Varlam Shalamov recalled that bosses were always accompanied by “young people with swollen, bleary eyes: “Zoykas”, “Mankas”, “Verkas” whom they fed and whom they slept with”.

In other words, passive homosexuals or persons forced to provide homosexual services as well as individuals who grossly violate the underworld code become untouchables.

The untouchable has his own dish in his cell and other inmates give him a wide berth. He is assigned the most undesirable bunk which is often the one closest to the latrine. Untouchables are assigned dirty and thankless tasks such as cleaning toilets, drains and the remainder of the colony’s territory. Tidying of the drag road at the perimeter of the facility (in order to help prevent prisoner escapes) is widely regarded as akin to collaboration with prison guards.

The lives of untouchables can be compared to those of African Americans during times of slavery or serfs of Tsarist Russia. The European Court of Human Rights is now looking into a complaint filed by nine former inmates of the Kostroma Oblast who were labeled untouchables for a variety of somewhat innocuous reasons. One of whom, having lost his balance, inadvertently fell into a wooden toilet for instance.

In my opinion, the conditions of incarceration of the untouchables in Russian colonies violate Article 3 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights as well as Fundamental Freedoms which stipulate that: no person shall be: “subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment”.

Some “low-level convicts” are denigrated by correctional officers too; derisory rituals conducted by prison administrations as reprisals against disliked inmates date back to the Soviet days. For instance, wardens humiliate convicts by filming them in compromising situations. There have been cases in which crime lords have been demoted as a consequence of such actions.

Outcomes can be fatal. In Kalmykia, a man was sentenced for beating the former deputy director of the regional UFSIN (the Department of Federal Penitentiary Service). It was discovered during an investigation that staff of corrective labor colony No. 1 (IK-1) in Elista had brutally tortured the convict to death upon his arrival.

However, as a psychologist with 20 years of professional experience, I would like to emphasize that officers who undertake work in the UFSIN in order to satisfy their sadistic appetites constitute an exception. Of course, one may encounter a latent Chikatilo from time to time but it is prison officials who summon such demonic manifestations of their psyche.

“Red” and “black” correctional facilities

Correctional facilities are traditionally deemed to be either “red” or “black”,

“Red” facilities remain under the control of administration (which abuses power). Correctional officers have a difficult task at hand since “redness” is achieved through torture and threats directed at convicts. In other words, employees intentionally break laws in order to coerce inmates into obedience. However, attempts to create a model colony are usually short-lived and often fail in the aftermath of the first major incident. Let me remind you of the corrective labor colony IK-1 in Kopeysk: its 18 employees together with the director of the Chelyabinsk UFSIN were found legally responsible for the deaths of four inmates.

Prison administrations do not split hairs in “red colonies” and paint everyone with the same brush. In my opinion, this is what happened to Ildar Dadin in the Karelia colony. The IK-7’s administration ignored the consequences of the pressure exerted on the opposition member who suddenly began to demand his rights. I met Dadin several years ago in Mordovia when he helped us inquire into prison abuses in the republic. He is a fighter at heart which is why he chose to speak openly about abuses committed by colony staff.

Should an administration loosen the reigns, a colony naturally turns into a “black” facility run by criminal bosses. Had bosses ruled the roost, they would have put Dadin in his place in order to prevent him from washing dirty linen in public. They would have surely collogued with the administration.

As a chief of psychology services at the UFSIN in Tatarstan, along with some colleagues, I conducted a study into the socio-psychological climate in local penitentiary facilities in the early 2000s. It turned out that, contrary to declarations of the department’s management, all of the colonies in the republic were in fact “black” (and not “red”). I know for sure that colony officials were afraid to enter some of these colonies’ zones. The findings of the study were greatly appreciated by the head office of the FSIN (Federal Penitentiary Service) of Russia with whom we shared them as well as the head of the UFSIN in Tatarstan who did praise us for our work before banishing the matter to history.

The underworld code allows the FSIN to subjugate convicts as well as maintain control over them. The correctional system is often referred to as the “penitentiary” system (from Latin poenitentia — repentance), however, any notions held of repentance or reeducation in a colony should be discarded. When released, a convict will typically wipe the sweat from his brow before saying to himself: “Thank God I’m alive!” Why on earth do we have such a high recidivism rate (60%)? The answer is simple: while incarcerated, a convict witnesses law breaking at the hands of penitentiary facility staff as a matter of course.

Few people are aware that a caste system continues to thrive in the FSIN. Operations and security officers sit at the head of the table and 99% of directors of regional FSIN departments and colony heads are former “operatives” and “agents”.

Operatives ensure the everyday peaceful functioning of the facility (peaceful from the administration’s viewpoint). They are tasked with collecting information – provided by whistleblowers, among others – concerning planned acts of disobedience (riots, drug smuggling) or the general sentiment among inmates etc. They do not get their hands dirty as a rule though.

Agents fulfill the roles of guards or wardens and it is precisely they whom are caught red-handed inflicting torture on convicts.

Other units such as the prison infirmary, logistics or technical units play auxiliary roles in colony life and occupy places further down the pecking order than operatives and agents.

Unfortunately, colony psychologists and educators are forced to take a back seat. Bosses find their research uninteresting and thus their expert opinions about convicts are ignored. Psychological and educational work is often conducted only on paper since one psychologist is incapable of monitoring the levels of morale of hundreds of inmates.

This is how the hierarchical structure of colony officials and personnel mirrors that of Russia’s inmates.

When Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky was asked how we could put an end to torture a couple of years ago, he asserted that the political system would have to be changed which, sadly, remains an entirely different story.

© Intersection - for republishing rights, please contact the editorial team at