Is the Russia Prison System Working Pussy Riot Member to Death?

An incarcerated member of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot has been hospitalized for illnesses related to prison work, reports the Associated Press. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova has reportedly been suffering severe headaches since last spring, when the 23-year-old began serving her two-year sentence on hooliganism charges.


Fellow band member Yekaterina Samutsevich, who was released on appeal in October, told the independent Russian news service Rain TV, "They don't allow [Tolokonnikova] to have any rest; she works nearly round the clock … She said she feels tired, extremely tired.”

Tolokonnikova’s conditions offer a window into Russia’s brutal modern prison system, which have been described as “Gulag lite,” referring to the notorious labor camps of the Soviet Union under Stalin.

In November, a haunting, six-minute video showing prison guards mercilessly beating an inmate went viral, giving many outsiders a look into the kinds of abuse Russian prisoners face everyday.The Guardian reports that the video took off shortly after hundreds of prisoners in Kopeysk protested torture and horrible conditions in their jail.

Russian women face especially harrowing conditions, as documented by several Russian sociologists in the recent book, Before and After Prison: Women’s Stories. The report on women’s prison colonies, gathered from 35 interviews, reveals a horrible lack of privacy and wretched treatment for inmates. One notable section describes women being punished for menstruating onto their bed sheets.

"Lawlessness, despair, devastation, hopelessness are the key words that describe the incarceration of our interviewees," co-author Gyuzel Sabirova told The Moscow Times.

Russia has the world’s third largest prison population with nearly 800,000 inmates. But before Americans denounce Russian authoritarianism, they may want to take a look in their own backyard. The United States, with less five percent of the world’s population, imprisons almost a quarter of the world’s prison population—the majority of inmates being racial or ethnic minorities. And while U.S. prisons aren’t mandatory work camps, the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that the overcrowded conditions inside California’s prison system constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

Both countries, meanwhile, have a penchant for incarcerating activists, and Russia’s crackdown on dissenters continues to draw attention from international human rights groups. Human Rights Watch latest report, released Thursday, says Russia’s record under Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has reached its worst level since the Soviet Union.

"Since Putin's return ... not only has the tentative shift towards liberalisation of the Medvedev era been totally reversed, but also authoritarianism in Russia has reached a level unknown in recent history,” Rachel Denber, deputy director of the group's Europe and Central Asia Division, told Reuters.

Since the group’s arrest in October, Pussy Riot has become an international symbol for Russia’s horrid human rights record. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich, and Maria Alekhina defied Putin’s regime when they performed a “punk protest” at the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in St. Petersburg--a performance that landed all three in prison. (Samutsevich was subsequently released)

The treatment of Tolokonnikova is disturbing enough, but it’s certainly worst for prisoners who don’t have the privilege of fame.

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