Russia’s Boom Business: Forced Labor In Prisons
When Nadezhda Tolokonnikova arrived at penal colony IK-14 in August 2012, a deputy warden proudly announced: “As far as my political convictions go, I am a Stalinist.”
Tolokonnikova soon learned what that meant in practice. One year into her sentence for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred,” the Pussy Riot activist launched a hunger strike to protest “slave labor in prisons.” In an open letter in September 2013, she accused prison officials of treating convicts like “livestock for the needs of sewing production.”
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Since her release in a December 2013 amnesty, Tolokonnikova has dedicated herself to prison-reform advocacy.
The protestations of Tolokonnikova and other activists aside, Russian authorities are ramping up the use of prison labor, despite the unpleasant echoes of the country’s Stalinist experience.
In February, for example, the Federal Penitentiary Service signed an agreement with the Sberbank state savings bank to create a “Trade House” that would facilitate the sale of products produced in Russian prisons. The goal of the project is to increase state revenues from prisoner labor.
And in July, authorities announced that inmates would be used as labor on public-works projects, including the construction of a bridge over the Kerch Strait between Russia and the annexed Ukrainian region of Crimea.
According to “The New Times” magazine, about 30 percent of Russian prisoners — some 219,000 people — are already working in prison, earning the Russian government about $1 billion a year. While many, like Tolokonnikova during her time in prison, labor at sewing machines making gloves or slippers, many others work in lumber mills or metal foundries.
On average, prisoners make 196 rubles (about $5.50) a day, according to official statistics. This despite the fact that prisoner labor is governed by the same legislation as civilian labor.
Tolokonnikova, however, claims that when she told prison authorities she would work only in accordance with the Labor Code, she was told she would have to sit at her sewing machine each day until she met the quotas. She says working days were often 16 hours or more, with only one day off every six weeks.
She says the labor conditions amount to “torture,” by hunger, sleep deprivation, and other means. Any complaints could be punished in a wide array of formal and informal ways.
Nina Starikova, the general director of the firm Spetsodezhdaopttorg, which orders the products produced by the Mordovia prison where Tolokonnikova worked, rejects the activist’s allegations in an interview with Slon.ru.
“Instead of having sex in museums” — a reference to Tolokonnikova’s participation in a 2008 protest in which activists filmed themselves having sex in the state biology museum in Moscow — “she should have studied and learned how to sew,” Starikova says. “She should have earned a qualification and prepared herself to work.”
Other former prisoners interviewed by “The New Times” have echoed Tolokonnikova’s complaints.
Oksana Faskhuldinova served eight years in prison camp IK-6 in Oryol Oblast. She says the sewing workshop was filled with flying dust particles and many of the prisoners suffered lung infections.
“When there were special orders, we had to work more than usual. For instance, from four in the afternoon until five or six in the morning. The shop worked practically around the clock,” she says.
Likewise, Igor Kroshkin worked more than three years in a prison sewing workshop in Ryazan Oblast. He says he officially earned 9,498 rubles during that entire time — about 74 rubles a week. But he was actually paid only 2,374 rubles, he says.
And Dmitry Barmin says he worked 12 hours a day at a lumber camp in Kirov Oblast, even in the winter.
Prison officials repeatedly claimed to have investigated such complaints and found them baseless.
In Mordovia, Tolokonnikova’s complaints were investigated by the head of the regional public oversight commission, Gennady Morozov. He rejected her claims and said prisoners at IK-14 had practically no complaints about their conditions.
Morozov, however, is a former deputy warden of a Mordovia prison. In fact, activists say regional oversight commissions across the country are staffed largely with former employees of the Federal Penitentiary Service.
In May, a delegation from the presidential Human Rights Commission visited IK-14 and again gave it a clean bill of health, according to a press release on the penitentiary service’s website.
“The women at IK-14 work in satisfactory conditions,” says commission member Maria Kannabikh. “The windows are big. The illumination is good. The sewing machines are new.”
RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson contributed to this story
Copyright (c) 2014. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.