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The De-Seg

‘He who didn’t get to the guardhouse did not serve in the army’, former soldiers often say.

Similarly, one can say, ‘He who didn’t stay in the de-seg, was not in prison’.

Without an understanding of what disciplinary segregation, aka the de-seg, or the dungeon is, you can’t embrace the essence of the prison system and many acts of inmates.

According to internal rules of conduct (IRC) and Correctional Code, disciplinary segregation is one of the most severe measures of disciplinary action that is supposed to be applied only in case of major routine violations. But since the definition of ‘major’ violation is not given anywhere, it is fully down to the governor who imposes this punishment.

What is the de-seg? On the territory of the colony, behind an additional layer of barbed wire and a drag road, like on an island, there is a separate barrack — the barrack of de-seg and secure housing unit (SHU), which represents a kind of special prison within the colony. In this barrack (in the case of the de-seg in a prison, it’s just a basement) there are cells like in a regular prison. In one of such cells, they bring a disturber after a ‘disciplinary hearing’.

Imagine a room about two metres long and a metre plus wide with a plank floor. On this small surface there fits a bunk fastened to the wall (it is unfastened by a turnkey from the hallway), a stool, a ‘dining’ table, a toilet (no toilet bowl, just a shithole closed by a metre-high wall), a sink, and small shelves on the walls. Often they are placed in a way that you can’t make even two steps in the cell without stumbling over something. There is a bulb hanging from the ceiling, and a ‘window’, if it can be called so. Between you and fresh air there is framed glass, bars from the inside and metal blinds on the outside so inmates cannot work together to pass something from cell to cell. This is also meant for larger psychological pressure, so no one can see the sun and the sky. But the administration often shows creativity and makes an additional bar on the ‘windows’ of the de-seg. The screws from Gorky colony No. 9 can be declared champions of this, installing as many as four or more bars plus the glass. The sunlight almost didn’t get to the cell at all. It is very likely they have won praise from the inspection of the Department of Corrections for this know-how.

Before entering the de-seg an inmate will be unavoidably searched. The most important rule is that you can’t bring almost any piece of clothing with you, just the uniform. In some colonies they don’t let in even the uniform — in the de-seg, you get a special one with the inscription ‘Disciplinary Segregation’ on the back. You will be permitted to bring just a towel, soap, toothbrush and toothpaste, and toilet paper. Even razors are not allowed in some colonies. In Gorky colony, for example, those who stay in the de-seg can’t shave in the shower, so they won’t dismantle the razors to get the razorblade and use it, let’s say, to harm themselves. Naturally, nobody thinks of bettering the living conditions of the cons so they stop harming themselves. It’s easier to prohibit shaving. As a result, inmates come out of de-seg as hairy as a bogey man.

Everything else you’d like to bring (food, cigarettes, paper, a pen, letters, newspapers, books) is not allowed. In the de-seg, you should remain alone with yourself and, as envisioned by the screws, ‘think about your behaviour’. However, witty cons who don’t want to be deprived of cigarettes for ten or more days make the so-called ‘torpedo’ — bundles of cigarettes that are leak-proof wrapped up in several layers of overwrap and stuffed into the rectum. Naturally, you can’t bring a lot of cigarettes this way, so you need to pack them in the ‘torpedo’ very tightly — there is a whole technology. As a result, an average ‘torpedo’ containing forty cigarettes is 3—4 centimetres wide in diameter. Most cons cannot bring more than three ‘torpedoes’, but I heard about some experts who brought more than nine at a time. After extracting the ‘torpedo’, the cigarettes need to be stored somewhere safe so they won’t be found and retained during a scheduled shakedown of the cell. This also demands a certain resourcefulness and skill from the con.

Three times a day food is served through the feeder of the de-seg cells. Spoons and bowls are not allowed either, they are given out and taken away after the meal. Before 1998, cons in the de-seg were fed like this: one day they would get the meal in smaller quantities than in the sections, the next day they would be kept on bread and water. ‘One day the weather is flyable — the other it is not’ — this is what the cons called the order, and most of them left the de-seg after 15 days of punishment leaning against the wall. In 1998, the law has changed, but the smaller quantity meal serving remained in the de-seg until 2010. Now the food in the de-seg and in the regular section is identical. Humanisation!

The three meals per day are almost the only thing that you can use to understand what time it is while being in the de-seg, because watches are also forbidden there. Just like everything else that can be instrumental in killing time. You can’t receive visitors while staying in the de-seg, phone calls are not allowed. You can’t receive care packages, parcels or letters. There are no walks — you spend 24 hours a day in the concrete box. So the question arises before the con: how to occupy oneself? He needs to find the answer to it, firstly, if he doesn’t want to go crazy, secondly, so the time doesn’t drag by with such a painful deliberation. The situation is complicated by the fact that cons usually stay in the dungeon alone. Screws know what they are doing. Dumas made an observation: ‘captivity that is shared is but half captivity’. The administration of the colony will gladly let you feel yourself The Prisoner of Chateau d’If! and bring you a mate only when all other cells are occupied.

Smokers solve the problem relatively easily: first, you need to take the cigarettes out from the stash, then you wait till the screw passes the eyehole, then you hastily smoke at the window, and now you have to shift the fumes so they don’t catch you — that’s already some business. Four or five cigarettes a day and the time passes by. Non-smokers have it much more difficult. But in any case, almost all kinds of leisure time activities in the de-seg are forbidden by the internal rules. For that, you can get an additional punishment, for example, an extension of your time in the de-seg. Talking to your mates in the neighbouring cell is forbidden, reading or writing — forbidden (even if you by any chance get to bring something, you’ll be deprived of it after the first shakedown), sleeping in the daytime is forbidden, and if there are two of you in the cell and you mold some checks from bread and decide to play it — this can be followed by a punishment, too. ‘Not prescribed!’ You have little left: pacing about the cell if the ‘furniture’ allows (usually, it’s just five short steps one way), doing sport (if you can call ‘sport’ the exercises in the room that is almost devoid of fresh air), or just sitting and thinking... I personally found an escape in yoga, meditation, dreams of the future and long ‘walks’.

But this all I could do only during the day. The most interesting things in the de-seg start at night. According to the internal rules, mattresses, like other bedsheets, are not allowed in the de-seg, instead of them, a bunk is unfastened for the night. The inmates never sleep on it though, they sleep on the floor, because it’s warmer there. If it’s not thirty or more degrees above zero, at night you will participate in a nice adventure called ‘Try to sleep’. Not only you will have to sleep on the planks which is a bit hard for want of habit, but the cold will rarely let you sleep more than 30—40 minutes. Having slept for half an hour (depends on the temperature in the cell), you will wake up from shivering and realise that you can’t sleep anymore, and you will get on point very quickly why they took away all your warm clothes during the search! The survival instinct will faultlessly prompt you: if it’s impossible to raise the temperature of the environment, you should at least raise the temperature of your body. You will start doing exercises from the school PT class in order to pump the blood along the stiff limbs. If you are successful with this task, you can sleep another half an hour. You will have to alternate exercise and sleep until the morning call, when the chow server will bring you hot (if you are lucky) tea and a bowl of porridge for breakfast.

Over time, you get more experienced: entering the cell, you stick toilet paper on the window frame (there is no fresh air, but it’s warmer), find some spots that are more comfortable for sleeping (I identified them by the worn out paint on the floor: you should sleep on the spot where it’s most worn out, because it points to the fact that many people had slept here before myself), tuck your pants into the socks to save the fractions of warmth, make a nice pillow from your slippers and rolls of toilet paper.

In any case, you will wake up heavy-headed, and you will be sleepy all day long. Finally, giving in to this desire, you will lay down on the floor, and the screw will gladly write you up (didn’t you forget? It’s forbidden to sleep at day time!) In a few days the door will open and you will be informed, ‘On that date at that time this inmate was sleeping on the cell floor number X of the disciplinary segregation by which he violated that article of the Internal Rules of Conduct’. And you will be offered to sign the write-up for another 10 days. Cops consider it an exclusive style to bring this paper in the last hours, even minutes before the release from the de-seg when you relish ahead of time how you are going to drink some hot coffee with a chocolate in a little while and sleep this night in a warm and soft bed.

How long can they keep an inmate in the disciplinary segregation? Until 2008 this term amounted to 15 days. Later, with another wave of ‘humanisation’, it was decreased to ten, but de-facto nothing has changed, since it entails a single punishment, for one violation of the rules. For ‘rule violations in disciplinary segregation’, they can keep an inmate there for as long as they want. ‘Sleeping on the floor’ is not the only reason. In every colony, there is a special typical kiss-off which is written up for a con to prolong his term in the de-seg. In every colony, there are unique ways to prolong the con’s term in segregation. In some of them, it is ‘he didn’t clean up the cell’, in others — ‘an unbuttoned collar’. I will never forget how in Shklov colony No. 17, where I ended up in the de-seg two hours after I had come to the colony, I decided, well, I will not give them a reason now, I will do everything routinely. I’ll be hard to fault, and they will have to let me out in ten days! I cleaned up the cell with a tiny cloth: removed the spider web, dust, dirt, even in the spots which I was sure had not been cleaned since the beginning of times. The evening control. The door opens. Three screws and a duty associate governor altogether literally burst into a confined cell and start frenziedly waggling their heads looking around, passing hands over shelves, edges of the bunk, radiators, the table, bending down, getting under the table and almost grabbing trying to find dust or some grain of dirt. All in vain — the cell is sparkly clean. Then one of the screws, who was passing over the shelf with a slightly peeled off old paint pinched it and rubbed the paint. The frecks of it remained on his hand:

‘Look! Here is the dust! You are getting a ticket!”

I don’t remember what I answered them. But that incident has for good buried the faith that a political in a colony can be ‘left alone’.

Another incident happened in Gorky colony No. 9. A guy who knew that screws were angry with him and were likely to prolong his stay in the de-seg deliberately behaved perfectly — buttoned up his shirt, didn’t sleep at day time, etc. So there comes another day. Lunch is over. A few of his cellmates (he wasn’t alone) hit the sack on the floor. The door opens, the duty associate governor enters into the house. He doesn’t pay attention to those sleeping. The following conversation starts between him and the ‘exemplary con’:

‘Why aren’t you sleeping?’

‘I don’t violate the daily regimen!’

‘Oh, don’t you? Then I’'m writing you up, a ticket!”

And then at the disciplinary hearing, the inmate can do his best to prove that he didn’t sleep or violate some other rule. I haven’t heard of or seen a single case where this reasoning helped anyone to soften the punishment, saying nothing of avoiding it.

In Shklov colony No. 17 in the old times, when you could often see mobile phones in the pen, the operatives hammered in the cons that they will get 30 days in the de-seg for possession of a mobile phone. How come thirty, if it’s only fifteen by law? Basically, the person is not yet in the de-seg, but the cops already know that he will violate the rules there and they will have to give him another 15 days?

The impudence of cops and acceptance of lawlessness by the cons are just comically absurd. One of the ex-cons of Orsha colony No. 8 told me how he received additional days in the dungeon. At the control round, the duty associate governor enters the cell, checks the number of people in the cell according to his list. He sees who is on duty in the cell and if it’s the one who is supposed to be railroaded by request of the operatives, he says without even looking up from the list, ‘Ivanov, the spider web!” and leaves. It means that there is a spider web under the ceiling in the cell — or the duty associate governor believes that it’s there, and it doesn’t matter if it’s really there — and it is the fault of the cell duty who didn’t clean it properly. It means that he will get a ticket, which will be looked into by the governor at a disciplinary hearing where the staff of the colony, in their turn, will decide if they want to impose a disciplinary punishment on Ivanov. But an inmate doesn’t need such a long reasoning. The word ‘spider web’ after his surname means one thing: his stay in the de-seg is extended at least by 10 days. But during this performance nobody even asks any questions, it’s a symbiotic relationship!

I researched but I didn’t find any legal act limiting the period of stay of an inmate in the de-seg without leaving it. The longest period I spent there uninterruptedly was twenty days, and my total days inside there by the release had amounted to half a year. A former inmate Yauhen Vaskovich? would spend thirty days uninterruptedly in the de-seg of Mogilev prison, and allin all, he lost a year there. I was there when one guy was held in the segregation for 60 days uninterruptedly, just because he didn’t want to sign the ‘commitment of law-abiding conduct’.

And my cellie in the Mogilev prison in 2005 spent 180 days in the de-seg without a break! Every 15 days he was taken to the quarters to write up another ticket and then brought back again. And it was like 12 times...

That’s why whenever you will happen to hear from a cop, former or active, or a state journalist, or a corrupt pseudo human rights defender about the humane and European standards of imprisonment in Belarusian prisons, just tell them about the night push-ups, 180 days in a concrete box and ‘the spider web’.

July 2016

The Operative