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The Last Resort

‘Why do you have scars on your arms? Did you try to kill yourself?’ people ask me from time to time. Many people don’t understand why inmates harm themselves while in prison and what the meaning of it is.

In the prison etiquette there is a concept ‘the last resort’. This includes hunger strike and self-harm. According to the informal prison rules, the last resort is applied in three cases: danger to life, danger to health and danger to personal dignity. The logic of such actions is simple: by putting his life in danger an inmate forces the administration to hospitalise him and thus temporarily avoids staying in a critical situation, since for a dead con the authorities of prison can lambaste a screw or other staff: take them to task, de-bonus, sometimes even fire them.

It was danger to health that forced me to use the last resort in 2015. From the very beginning, things didn’t click with the administration of Gorky colony No. 9 where I was brought after the conviction under art.411 and a new one-year sentence. This was not surprising - they didn’t bring me there to quietly do my time. Among cons the Gorky colony is considered ‘a jawboning colony’, where inmates who stand out from the general crowd (politicals, unruly crime lords, enthusiasts that like to complain about the incarceration conditions) are jawboned particularly harshly.

Hardly had I come to the colony, when vexations started: I went to bed too early (30 minutes before the lights-out), refused to clean the toilets (meaning that I refused to perform the task of a ‘petukh’), didn’t greet the staff properly and so on. ‘Ten days in the de-seg’, this is what I heard from the governor. But I should say that things didn’t go smoothly in the de-seg either. I spent my first term with other inmates, and already there was astonished by the aloofness and cynicism of the administration in regard to everything that concerns the needs of inmates. I thought that after four and a half years in prison nothing could surprise me. It turned out to be not true. For example, after the first ten days in the de-seg a duty officer took me out not at the exact time when my punishment was to be over - around 7 pm - but almost three hours later. I spent a long time in the de-seg in different colonies, and I've never faced anything like that. The screw didn’t react to my concerns about the fact that my punishment was over. Thus, I should have gotten to the section, shaved, washed myself (because I could not do any of this properly in the de-seg) and made it until the lights-out scheduled for 10 pm. If I hadn’t made it, I would have received a ticket in the morning for not being shaven, and generally it’s not S0 nice to go to bed without washing yourself. So I decided that cleanliness was more important than the routine and because I was freshening myself up, I went to bed a bit later than 10 pm. This is what the screws were waiting for and came to the section five minutes after the lights-out and wrote me up for ‘not following the lights-out command’. And now they had a violation of the rules, for which you can be sent to the de-seg again! Such impudence made me angry. Not only had they kept me in segregation three hours longer than I was supposed to stay there, but they also stealthily set me up for committing another violation!

Another unpleasant experience had to do with Gorky’s medics. According to the law, a doctor was to make his round in the de-seg twice a day, to make sure everyone feels well. In the de-seg of colony No. 9 the doctor did the round only once every day apart from Sunday. On Saturday, staying in the de- seg, I caught a cold and on the following day started to ask for a doctor, because it’s not so comfortable to sleep on the plank floor with a fever and cough. To all my requests the screw had one reply: ‘The doctor is not here, today is Sunday!” Cons also confirmed that the doctor doesn’t do the rounds on Sundays. But I knew it was lies. In every colony on any day of the week and at any time there is a duty doctor, and only by lousy custom of this facility he couldn’t be bothered to get out of his office in the infirmary and walk five hundred metres just to bring some pills to some con - perhaps, the latter won’t die till tomorrow! But even all this is an insufficient reason for the last resort. The reason appeared after I was sent to the de-seg for refusing to work. That time I was staying alone in a very peculiar cell - it was situated a metre away from the seat of the guard. This was done allegedly to control me better. But the main thing was that it was a corner house situated in the corner of the barrack. One might wonder, what is the difference? A cell is a cell everywhere. But a regular visitor to the de-seg knows the difference very well. The cops know it too. The thing is that corner cells are the most damp and cold. They are cold even in summer, let alone winter!. When back then, on May 19, I was locked in cell 16, I immediately closed the window, hoping that by the night-time my breath will have brought the room to a more or less acceptable temperature. But these hopes were misplaced.

The most difficult night in my life began. After the lights- out I lay down on the floor and realised it wasn’t plank at all. It was so cold and rough that I first thought it was concrete. But having picked it open in one place I realised the floor was made of chipboard, which is also a law violation, because according to the regulations, the floor in the de-seg and SHU must be plank.

The first ‘round’ of sleep lasted for about thirty minutes. It was the longest one as well. Later I wasn’t able to sleep longer than fifteen minutes, the omnipresent feeling of cold would not allow it. That night I realised how biting and relentless the cold can be: taking every grain of warmth one by one from your body, it forces the mind to think of nothing else other than how to get warmer. This compulsive idea pulses in your head like a woodpecker who never finishes his work; it feels like an always hungry predator whose hunger cannot be sated. Cold, really cold. The cold is in your arms, legs, back, nose and ears. Trousers tucked into socks and jacket tucked into trousers don’t help any longer. Around the middle of the night traditional ‘warm-ups’ - push-ups and squats - stop helping as well. The body doesn’t have any free calories in stock to process them into warmth. On top of that, after a few hundred push-ups and squats there was no energy to do them any longer. The situation became desperate. Closer to the morning (this is how it felt, though I didn’t have a watch) I started experiencing peculiar ‘sleep hallucinations’: T was dreaming that I was asleep at home under a wide warm blanket. I feel very good and comfortable, pleasant and light... A thought pierces my mind: why would I worry so much, jump, do push-ups and squats, if I sleep so well? Here my brain gives a command to wake up. I open my eyes and my whole body is shaking with heavy and painful shivers: I finally understand where I am and that I need to stand up again and try to squeeze some active movements from myself to increase the temperature of the body and sleep for at least a few more minutes. The atmosphere and general experience was enhanced by bright electric light of two bulbs hanging from the ceiling. The lights were left on in the de-seg, and I felt like I was in some amalgam of madhouse and torture chamber.

Finally, the morning came. I ate and was hoping to sleep in order to somehow compensate the hours [ wasn’t able to sleep at night and get back to normal. The guard, of course, wrote me up for that (and that ticket added several more days to my segregation), but I didn’t care anymore.

After the morning check round I lay down and realised that I was naively mistaken: even the daytime temperature in the cell didn’t allow for normal sleeping. So it turned out that I couldn’t sleep either during the day, or at night. I remembered the agonising night and realised that there were at least nine nights like that ahead and, most probably, even more, because the governor for sure would add more punishment. Then I realised that something was to be done.

During the day I was constantly demanding from the duty associate governor who sometimes came by to the de- seg to move me to another cell. The arguments were that the temperature here was lower than should be according to the law, and the floor was from chipboard, while it should be plank, and that was another violation. He would listen to my requests and drop indifferently: “We’ll see... or ‘T’ll clarify...’, but the situation didn’t change. Meanwhile, I understood that if I spent nine more nights like this in the de-seg, I would leave it with a multitude of ills in addition to the ones I had. I needed to leave by any means necessary. [ prepared a razor blade that I brought on me to the de-seg despite the shakedown (thanks to the advice of old-timers) and started to make a plan. Originally it was the following: just after the evening check round I would cut my veins on both arms and the stomach. The main things was to cut properly, not just scratch myself: I had seen a lot of those who ‘harmed themselves’ by scratching their arms and the cops just laughed at them - they would bandage you right in the cell and wouldn’t even ask what you wanted. In order not to freeze in this house, I had to cut myself seriously, but at the same time not too much, because if I did, I could freeze forever. I decided to do the following: first I reach the veins on my arms, scarify them, pour the blood out into my half-litre mug until it’s full (a man can survive after losing up to half of their blood, and I have five litres inside), then I empty it out under the door of the cell (right after the check round there will be the duty assistant governor and a guard - they will notice it for sure), and then I cut open my stomach (two fingers down the belly-button, this is how I was taught), ideally all the way through to the abdominal cavity, depends on the pain limit.

For the hundredth time I asked to be moved to another cell and understood they would not do it and I had to get onto action.

My schemes from the very start were foiled by an unexpected shift in the check round, as a result of which I decided not to wait and started to cut myself earlier.

I hid behind the ‘armour’ (a screen between the toilet and the rest of the house) so that they couldn’t see me through the peephole, crossed myself, took the razor blade and made the first cut on my left arm. Was it scary? Of course, it was. But I understood what I did and why. Contrary to expectations, blood didn’t come out in fountain, but instead a few drops appeared and then fused into a tiny trickle - I spilled just a little into the mug. Then I began to make not simple cuts, but cuts-strokes, so that the thin blade penetrated as deep as possible. A few times I had to strike twice in the same cut to make it wider. Some cuts turned out quite successful: a good half centimetre deep and a centimetre wide. But there was still too little blood. Maybe it left the periphery of the body and flew inside from excitement? They say there is such a biological mechanism of adaptation to danger... Finally, cops lingered at my house - the check round! I hid my arms behind my back, came out of the ‘armour’ and stood at attention like an obedient con. Now the most important thing was that they didn’t notice it - it’s too early!

‘Good evening’, said the duty assistant governor.

‘Good evening. Dziadok. Everything alright’.

“You sure about that?’ I see distrust in cop’s eyes.

‘Tam’, I smile.

The cop looks around the cell fishily...

‘Why are you not wearing a uniform?” before they entered I didn’t manage to put on the jacket and was in a t-shirt.

‘T didn’t manage to put in on, you entered so fast!’ I smile again and think to myself, ‘God, I hope they don’t spot the drops on the floor!”

Finally, the door closes and I'm laughing inside at how I made fools of them. Dorks!

But the alertness of the guard let me down. I immediately went behind the ‘armour’, and the guard, probably instinctively, sensed that something was wrong and continued looking into the peephole instead of going to another cell. He obviously saw either blood, or my arm that showed itself from behind the ‘armour’. I heard the scream behind the door, ‘He’s cutting himself!” In a few seconds the cop unlocks the first lock. I realise that the time is up, take the razor blade in the other hand and quickly, with all my might cut my right arm. The cop begins to open the second lock, on the bar. I'm so lucky it is a screw lock! This gives me a few seconds more, I lower down my trousers and with the greatest possible pressure strike with the blade over my stomach. I manage to do that three times before the cops burst into the cell. I throw the blade into the sink, and it is quite successful, because it goes into the drain at once.

The duty assistant governor and the guard stand and watch. Blood is coming down both my arms and stomach. They take out hand-cuffs and put them on me. They bring me to the exercise yard, it’s walking time actually. I sit and find myself a bit shocked... Now the most important thing is that they fulfill my demands. But I regret that everything went against my plan. Well, so it goes - it worked out in some way.

Ten minutes pass. I hear the conversation of inmates who call to one another from different yards:

‘Listen, what’s the fuss? Why are cops bustling?’

‘Dziadok has cut himself!’



‘Who’s that?’

‘A political’.

‘Dziadok is here!” I enter the conversation.

‘Why did you cut yourself?’ We fall into talk. I explained to them my general situation in the colony, listened to their advice...

Finally, a ‘triplet’ comes into my yard: head of the operative department, head of the security department and head of the medical wing. The security officer tells me to undress - they start to search me. They are only interested in one thing: how did I smuggle the blade? Of course, I don’t tell them that. They probed everything, including the elastic webbing on my underpants, looked at my heels (what if I have something stuck there?) to make sure I don’t have any razor blades and only after that they asked what the reason of my action was.

I lost patience: very emotionally I told them they really overdid it with carrying out the KGB orders and voiced my demands: I need to be moved to any other cell. They listened. The operative asked everyone to leave and ordered the removal of the handcuffs. We were left one on one. The door to the yard closed and he asked me with irritation:

‘What do you want?’ By virtue of his operative nature he can’t believe that my demands are the ones I’ve just mentioned, he thinks I have something else in mind.

Such a question confuses me at first.

‘T will not tell you what I want, because you will always do your best for me not to get this’, was my answer. I didn’t see a point in asking him for more, anyway, I will not be granted acceptable incarceration conditions.

I heard wordy unfinished hints from the operative, like: ‘Don’t you understand who you are?’ (meaning they will jawbone me anyway), ‘There are certain rules of the game...” (I still can’t understand what he meant by that). He also attempted to convince me to live according to their rules: the operative said that even a former crime lord Galey - ‘a respectable man’ - goes to the industry area to work. I didn’t hear a definitive promise to move me to another house from him.

Finally they brought me to the doctor. They ripped off the clothes from my arms and stomach which had almost dried on, and then started counseling whether they needed to stitch the cuts or a simple bandage would be enough. They decided to apply a bandage: then the incident can be qualified as a slight accident, because if they had stitched me, it would have meant that the wounds were serious. This was detrimental for the local administration who, as I later learned, reported this situation to the top officials - the Minister of Interior.

After the dressing I was brought to the house... The same house. And there I made another mistake. Instead of refusing to enter it, I believed the duty assistant governor who said that the matter of my transfer to another cell ‘was being decided’. The cell was turned upside down: my entire modest belongings were ransacked, the rubbish bin was turned over right on the floor. They were looking for the blade. It was about 7 pm...

Approximately every half an hour I began to bang at the door and ask why I wasn’t transferred. They palmed me off with promises to do it ‘very soon’. But when the lights-out time came, I realised that I had been deceived: they decided to turn high-minded, like, ‘he is being uncompromising, and we will not surrender’.

I had a ‘plan B’ for such developments.

In cell 16 before me there was a former crime lord Dima Galeyev (Galey) who was extradited from Sweden to be put into a Belarusian prison. The Ministry of Interior wanted something special from him in their criminal games. As a result, the cell was stuffed with different things that you can’t usually find in the de-seg. One of them I noticed from the very beginning: near the toilet there was a crooked stick of uncertain origin and purpose (probably for ‘working together’ through the disposal system between cells). I took a cloth and covered the peephole in the door so the guard couldn’t see what I'm doing. I took the stick, pushed it through the grating surrounding the bulb under the ceiling. With the stick I hoped to crash the bulb, cut myself with a glass fragment and cut my legs as well - there are more veins on them and they are more dense. This time they will transfer me to the infirmary, there is no way around it! After a few strikes the bulb started swinging (it hung on a cable), but wouldn’t crash. A strike on the grating, another one, it clings but still is not smashed! I couldn’t get enough swing on the stick either, it is limited by a ‘square’ of steel bars through which I had pushed it. I hear the duty assistant governor shout, ‘He is swinging the “accordion”! Unlock the door!” The officer and two guards run into the cell and quickly understand what I am up to. They grab my arms and put me against the wall. I'm angry at their deception and because my plan didn’t work out again, I can’t control myself and start shouting at them and threatening with all deadly retributions. The duty assistant governor commands, ‘Get the handcuffs!” They try to round me up. I resist as much as I can. But there are three of them. They literally tap my hands into the handcuffs: in this tussle the fresh bandaging came off and I started bleeding again. The duty assistant governor wants to handcuff me to a metal stool. There are no sharp objects in the cell, but even if there were, I realised that being handcuffed I will not reach them, so I have to promise not to cut myself again. The cops leave, and I stay in the cell handcuffed. The battle is lost, but not the war. In half an hour the doctor comes and applies another bandage. The lights are out, I go to sleep as is; ‘chained’. After some time cops come and take off the ‘bracelets’.

That night I slept really badly again - apart from cold, pain was torturing me. And I couldn’t really do push-ups with cut arms. But nature made me a present - right on the following day the weather got much warmer and the rest of my time in the de-seg was more or less bearable.

In a few weeks I they had another file on me. Apart from a preventive record categorised as ‘inclined to hostage taking’ I became ‘inclined to committing suicide’. Bullshit, if I wanted to kill myself, I would cut my veins lengthwise, not crosswise.

On the following day there had been a new development: they locked up the ‘enforcer’ of the pen and his assistant, and they made a shakedown in the entire barrack of the de-seg and SHU. They threw away unsophisticated ‘forbidden items’ of the inmates: pills, magazines, ‘extra’ clothing, threads, cords and stuff like that, and didn’t forget to remind that this was happening because ‘the political had cut himself’. In such an unsophisticated way cops were setting other cons on me.

What is the moral of the fable? The is only one moral: if you go to the de-seg, bring two razor blades.

July 2016

The Release