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The Spaced-Out

It is summer of 2012. Shklov correctional colony No. 17.In a solitary cell days alternate each other - I make up their contents by myself, so that I don’t get bored. Lunch has just finished, the chow server took away the bowls. There is nothing to do, no mood for reading or learning, the heat of the afternoon sun makes me sleepy. I spread my jacket under the small table (so the light of the lamp isn’t in my eyes), put an Arabic textbook under my head and prepared to pass through another hour of another day in my sleep.

Having snuggled comfortably I began to fall asleep, when suddenly I heard the buzz of the electronic lock and a clang of metal bars at the end of the corridor. ‘Someone else has been brought’, I thought. Every day at about 3 p.m. there was a ‘baptism’ (disciplinary commission) happening in the colony — an event where the governor distributes days you have to stay in the de-seg or SHU (although this is in months), and where any deprivations of visits and care packages as punishment are announced.

...I hear the sound of stomping boots of at least two people. Yeah, an officer brought a prisoner. 'm wondering where they are going: to the de-seg or the SHU cell? Suddenly, the corridor fills with a hoarse, three-pack-a-day voice screaming at the top of his lungs:

Apple trees and pear trees went into blooming! River mists began a floating flow! She came out and went ashore, Katyusha...

Now it’s clear. This is Kolya.

Kolya is a prisoner who’s gone nuts, I think he is in his fifties, or maybe younger — he looks too unhealthy. People like him were called ‘spaced-out’ by the convicts. Kolya and other ‘spaced-outs’ were subjects of local legends: they were said to walk around the prison without a name badge, to not shave, to sauce cops off, and to be free to yell everything they wanted whenever they wanted. During moments of special aggravations he is locked in a punishment cell - so he doesn’t go completely raving mad.

Kolya got ten nights. Of course, this time was fun for him, but obviously not for the other prisoners and cops. Kolya used to amuse himself by not giving back a bowl to the chow server after taking meals. One wasn’t allowed to keep them in the de- seg or the SHU, so they were taken back after each meal. But not from Kolya. Often after lunch, breakfast or dinner I would hear a dialogue like this in the corridor:

Supervisor: Have you eaten?

Kolya: I have.

Supervisor: Give me the bowl.

Kolya: F*ck you!

Supervisor: Give me the bowl, fcking cocksucker! Kolya: Fck you!!!

... This was followed by approximately 15 minutes of wrangles, after which furious supervisor would open the cell, take the bowl himself and concurrently hit Kolya in his liver.

Prisoners didn’t like Kolya because of his night freak sessions. At daytime, he used to doze off, and at night he took the chain

used to fasten to his bunk bed to the wall and hit it against his bed. Hellish noise filled the whole barrack and let neither prisoners nor supervisors sleep.

Having spent those 10 nights (not for the first time) Kolya disappeared. Rumour has it, he was taken to the psyche ward at the 3rd correctional colony in Vitebsk.

Human dementation in prison is a rather frequent phenomenon. Not only because people with ‘limited sanity’ or intellectually challenged people often get here, but the prison itself contributes to the development of various kinds of mental disorders. Here is what Peter Kropotkin wrote about this in his ‘Memoirs of a Revolutionist’:

‘Underneath me was lodged a peasant, whom Serdukdff knew. He talked to him by means of knocks; and even against my will, often unconsciously during my work, I followed their conversations. I also spoke to him. Now, if solitary confinement without any sort of work is hard for educated men, it is infinitely harder for a peasant who is accustomed to physical work, and not at all wont to spend years in reading. Our peasant friend felt quite miserable, and having been kept for nearly two years in another prison before he was brought to the fortress, he was already broken down. His crime was that he had listened to socialists. Soon I began to notice, to my terror, that from time to time his mind wandered. Gradually his thoughts grew more and more confused, and we two perceived, step by step, day by day, evidences that his reason was failing, until his talk became at last that of a lunatic. Frightful noises and wild cries came next from the lower story; our neighbor was mad, but was still kept for several months in the casemate before he was removed to an asylum, from which he never emerged. To witness the destruction of a man’s mind, under such conditions, was terrible’.

To witness the consequence of that destruction myself, was no less terrible.

When I was in the 17th correctional colony, Kuzya - a ‘brat’, was held in one of the de-seg cells. He was locked there not for disciplinary reasons, but for protection from other prisoners. Kuzya’s problem was that he acted weird; particularly, he soiled himself, and anywhere at all. According to prisoners’ stories, he became like this as a result of regular beatings in the section. Kuzya had been beaten for being a ‘brat’ and, most likely, for being ‘abnormal’ before he began to ‘shit’. And after that they continued to beat him, but already for the fact that he ‘shitted’, and it was unbearable to live with him in a barrack. Apart from the beatings there were also admonitions, and many times he had been given clean clothes and bed linen, but everything was in vain. In order to get rid of him, the administration found a ‘wonderful’ way out: they put Kuzya to protective custody, which differed from the conditions of a punishment cell only by the presence of a mattress on the floor. Every few days I heard the swearing of the orderly who cursed Kuzya as the mattress was regularly spoiled. They say, when Kuzya’s mother visited him in prison, she demanded the administration to explain what they had done to her son...

There was another character in Shklov colony No. 17 (I forgot his name). He was put in solitary for stealing from other barrack residents. Cons had beaten him a few times until he asked to be hidden. Almost every day he flew into rage: he began to shout some inarticulate sounds out of the cell and loudly swear at no one and for nothing. This lasted for hours. But one day he even began to batter the unsophisticated ‘furniture’ in his cell, and only then cops reacted - right, he could spoil the state- owned property! - and called for a doctor. The guards tied up the poor fellow, and the doctor gave him some injection. Then the sounds gradually waned, and after half an hour he went completely silent.

Once in a while the punishment section housed several mentally unstable inmates at once, and then real fun began. Just imagine: a corridor with 24 cells, wooden doors that let you hear everything that is happening inside, and concrete walls creating excellent acoustics. You sit alone in your cell and hear voices coming from several sides at the same time:

‘Uuugh... uuuugh... aaaarh... aaaarh...’

‘Fck! Go fck yourselves, fags! F*cking faggots!!!”

‘A-a-a-a-a-a!!! A-a-a-a-a-a!!! A-a-a-a-a-a!!l’

... and this lasts for several hours — until crazy comrades exhaust their energy. Such moments make you doubt whether you are still in prison or in a mental asylum. It starts to feel like you gradually go nuts too.

As I have already written, many ‘spaced-outs’ become real celebrities: problematic cons are moved from colony to colony and their reputation precedes them. Hockey is one of them — a convict from Mogilev colony No. 15. He is a stooped man, of about 40 years old and constantly wearing stubble on his face. He’s got a 25-year sentence for murder of a KGB agent, as other cons say. He spent his first 5 years in Grodno prison convicted for ‘extremely serious crime’, and this is where he apparently went nuts, or KGB agents beat his head off. No one knows the

details because it is impossible to communicate with Hockey closely.

One of the most popular gags about Hockey is about a radio transmitter in his cap. He is sure that cops have installed a mike in there, that’s why he often could be found walking around and muttering swears to his cap addressing them to the police, the government and Lukashenko. Hockey liked to abuse Belarusians as well (for electing Lukashenko), especially while watching TV. Although Lukashenko supporters can hardly be found among the convicts, Hockey was regularly beaten for abusing Belarusians. By the way, he was a Russian himself.

He liked to invent sophisticated curses and write them down in a notebook. Hockey had many writing books all full of notes in microscopic writing. Those who had a chance to look at them say that these notes are just an incoherent incomprehensible word salad full of swears.

However, the most inexhaustible source of fun for the cons was Hockey’s demeanor with the cops. One day he brought some porridge from the canteen and put it on a newspaper with a sign: ‘For Mahoney’ (Mahoney is a nickname of an ex- warden of the correctional colony No. 15, whose last name was Makhankov). Once, Hockey walked around shouting swears out loud to ‘Makhanya and Tolkachikha’. He was called in by the administration: the warden Makhankov and his deputy Tolkachev. They asked him a question:

‘Who are Makhanya and Tolkachikha?’

‘They are my whores from Moscow!”

With an honest look, Hockey departed to the de-seg.

One day some cadets visited the correctional colony in Mogilev. Having walked through the ‘central avenue’ they headed further in order to look around the rest of the prison. One of the cadets came off and started looking at the surrounding sections separated with metal bars. To his misfortune, Hockey was standing in one of the sections. Clutching hold of the bars he stared at the cadet with his crazy eyes and shouted some unthinkable curses in his direction:

‘Who the fuck are you looking at?.. Why come here, faggots?.. Fucking scum pig..."”

The cadet considered it would be better to catch up with the rest...

I don’t know whether he was beaten by the cops at the 15th pen, but he was regularly put into the de-seg. Anyhow, it did not affect his behavior in any way.

The most active hotbed of insanity among the convicts is undoubtedly the prison. The risk group consists of those sentenced to long-term confinement, both those who are in solitary and in common cells. Constrained space, constant conflicts, swearing, heated atmosphere, fear, inability to change the situation, provocations and bullying by cops, many years of imprisonment ahead and, as a result, despair — all these factors contribute greatly to insanity.

There are not enough solitary cells for everyone so the administration usually sends ‘spaced-outs’ to the de-seg. Once, when I was sitting in one of those cells late at night (by the way, they were situated in the basement), I suddenly heard loud rhythmic strokes and a wild cry in one of the neighboring cells:

‘Peeoople!!! Peeoople!!!”

The strokes did not stop for an hour and were alternated with shouts: ‘Let me out of here!!!” - until a block warden came and gave a couple of punches to the brawler. That day he calmed down, but on the following day everything started anew... I asked the guys from the neighboring cells about what had been going on there, but learned nothing apart from ‘one of the scums had gone nuts’. To say that I felt strong compassion for this man would be hypocritical. But trying to imagine the level of fear and despair that made him, sitting in the basement of prison, hammer at the door and call ‘people’, I was really horrified. Monotony, hopelessness, oppressive punishment chambers, mental illness and, perhaps, a long term ahead - this is a real abyss.

It is worth saying that the insanity of most ‘spaced-outs’ manifests itself only from time to time. There are also moments of serenity. This was the case for Sanya - named Shrek - another inhabitant of the prison in Mogilev. This guy was not even 30 years old. As a child, he studied at school for mentally challenged children. Even if he had parents, in prison they did not help him in any way. Doing his time for murder, Shrek had not ever received any support from the outside. As a rule, Shrek was kept in solitary, because he did not get along with anyone. Usually his cell was quiet, but from time to time one could hear swears addressed to the cops on the most trivial pretext. Usually he displaced his anger onto supervisors who looked in the feeder during the mealtime. But the worst times started when Shrek ran out of cigarettes. Since he had no money to buy something in a shop, he was engaged in begging cops for cigarettes. He used to be given 5 cigarettes of the worst brand a day. If he didn’t get them, he began to yell and hit at the door, break furniture in a cell, smash the washbasin, break the glass in the window frame. As a demonstration of a ‘protest’ against the greed of the cops, he refused to go for a walk, cursing them generously. Cops used to beat Shrek often. Sometimes they did it right in the cell, sometimes while calling him to the ‘assembly’, but always without much effect. In moments of particular outrage, when the noise from his cell completely pissed off the orderlies, they simply called the doctor who gave him a shot (as the convicts said - Thorazine), and Shrek calmed down for a day or so.

In the same way as Hockey was a celebrity at the 15th correctional colony, Ira was in the Mogilev gaol. She was one of the few women I met in prison, and she was staying in the next cell to me: [ was in the 18th, she was in the 19th. The level of insanity she demonstrated was simply horrifying. For 5-6 hours every day - regardless of the time of day, it could be early morning or late night - a continuous incoherent text came out of her cell, which was a stream of sick consciousness. I can’t recapitulate even a small part of it: memory refused to record it. Let’s just say she started talking about something, for example, airplanes, or something she saw on TV, or about planets and galaxies, she uttered several sentences about it, then starting from the last words of the sentence she raised a new topic — and this was never-ending. What was most striking to me - she did not just talk, she screamed, shouted so loudly that the whole floor could hear her and all other floors could, too, when she approached the window. She invariably interjected her speech with threats and foul language addressing it to cops. Exquisite and pretentious swears poured on the administration when she was taken out for a walk. Those cops who were smarter just kept silent, the more flawed ones began to abuse her in response.

Ira actively communicated with the neighboring cells through the grilled window begging for cigarettes. And it was a disaster if some rudeness or disrespect was shown to her from some cell: she climbed onto the windowsill and vilified the inhabitants of this cell for hours — and the whole prison heard it.

In retaliation to cops for not giving her cigarettes or just for fun she could stand naked on a daily head count. Or she could start drumming on radiators in the dead of night essentially depriving the entire floor of sleep. In that case the doctor would come and inject her Thorazine.

But those prisoners who had contacted her through mail said that, judging by quite meaningful and even literary letters, 39-year-old Ira was quite a decent woman with a higher education, who had a daughter. As they say, it was in an effort to provide for her daughter that Ira had engaged into drug trafficking from Russia, for which she got 12 years of a strict- regime confinement...

The administration considers the demented people as an unfortunate misunderstanding. If they are ‘quiet’, that is their insanity does not violate the regime (there are loads of such people), then no one will pay attention to them at all. Well, a man has gone out of his mind - so what? It saves me an effort of talking about any treatment: there is only Valeria (to treat all nervous disorders) and Thorazine in the prison medical pack for calming down the ungovernable. It’s ridiculous to talk about the prevention of mental disorders in prison. Each correctional facility has only one psychologist (by the way, it’s a cop in uniform, which clearly does not contribute to building a trustful relationship between them and the prisoners). In correctional colonies where they pay at least some attention to the work with inmates, even if it is just for show, a psychologist meets those who just arrived and talks to them. Sometimes they can organize a visit to the prayer room or a church. That’s all. According to the regime, a psychologist is obliged to conduct regular conversations with every convicted person. But is this really possible if, for example, there are 1,500 people in the colony? In some penitentiaries I did not see a single psychologist for the entire time I was there. That is, a person is listed in the staff, fills in some papers, simulates working, gets paid for it, but does not really do anything at all. And then the Department of Corrections reports to the Ministry of Internal Affairs about the ‘psychological work’ and ‘individual approach’ to convicts. The Ministry, in its turn, tells tall tales to international organizations — how qualitatively and humanely the correctional colony system works in Belarus — and everyone is happy. But prisons and colonies continue to grind someone’s brains, producing morally disabled people by the time of release. The punitive system is built in such a way as to work with the consequences, not the causes. Did someone hang himself in the cell? Why find out what led to this, it is better to take away all the laces, belts and threads from prisoners, so that nobody could hang themselves even if they really want to. Someone went totally nuts and they began thrashing the door accompanying it with wild cries? Injection of Thorazine — let another shift listen to these cries as long as they can! And nobody cares what the reason was: if the regime officials sent back the parcel from relatives, a mother died or simply desperation led them to inadequacy.

Nobody heals the mentally ill in prison. Psych ward at notorious Vitebsk correctional colony No. 3 accepts only those who have completely lost active capacity: either they cannot work or keeping them in a punishment cell has already become harmful. As in any institution of the System people are only concerned with your functionality: do what you are demanded and do not stand out, no matter whether you are a hundred times paranoid, schizophrenic or just a fool. I find it difficult to judge the quality of treatment in the psych ward at 3rd correctional colony, but I have not seen a single person who would voluntarily get back there...

Autumn 2012. The Shklov correctional colony No. 17. I was doing my last months in the SHU - ahead is a court hearing and transfer to the prison in Mogilev. Lunch is over: today it was noodles boiled to the state of homogeneous mass. Well, it’s time to sleep. I prepared my usual ‘couch’, closed my eyes and almost zonked out, when I heard the familiar sounds - a buzz of the electronic lock and a clang of metal bars at the end of the corridor. Who is there this time? I almost fell asleep while they were bringing the prisoner to the guard — and suddenly I was thrown out of my dreams by a piercing voice, like a raven’s croaking:

Apple trees and pear trees went into blooming!

July 2016

The Wizard