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The Security

There are cruel phenomena. There are meaningless phenomena. But any phenomena and things seem to be crueler if they are meaningless. This includes prison security — the Moloch for whom the physical and psychological comfort of prisoners, their piece of mind and self-respect are sacrificed.

A person who ends up in prison for the first time initially feels lost and stupefied. With the mind of a normal, free individual he can’t get the idea of what is demanded of him by the guards whose answer to everything is ‘that’s the routine’.

Everything begins with a shakedown. Before putting him in a cell, he is searched and his belt and shoelaces are taken from him. Surprised, he asks:

‘Why can’t I have them?’

‘It’s against the routine!” a cop growls in reply. Later from more experienced cell-mates, he will learn that he will need to pull up his pants all the time and walk in sneakers that resemble funny worn-out slippers because one can hang oneself with shoelaces. But the most interesting things start in the pretrial facility when relatives begin to bring him care packages. Cigarettes? They have to be taken out of the pack and put into a transparent bag. Tea? It can only be passed in a transparent bag, too. Candies? Each of them should be unwrapped (imagine how much work you should do to pass on a thirty-kilo care package. Soda? No way! Cottage cheese, milk, curd snacks, butter — forbidden! Honey? No way! Why? ‘It’s against the routine!” Something in a glass bottle? God forbid! “They will cut each other open!” Tinned food — forbidden, ‘they will make a chiv’!.

And if suddenly relatives go to all kinds of governors and start complaining, they will be shown a long list of various resolutions and warrants, the Internal Rules of Conduct and directives of the sanitation centre. From there, relatives will learn that dairy products are forbidden because they are afraid of epidemics, cigarettes need to be unpacked because you can hide something inside a pack, the same reason applies to candies, and for the same reason every apple, orange, any fruit or vegetable that you want to deliver to an inmate will be pierced by an awl (and it doesn’t matter that it will ‘live’ for just a few days after that). Any vacuum package will be holed, any chocolate broken into small pieces.

But let’s leave pretrial facilities aside. In a colony where an inmate goes after the sentence, he will face new disclosures and new bewilderment. There is a mandatory search on arrival. Everything ‘you don’t need’ is taken away and put in the storing room where it will stay until your release. This is a very dramatic moment for any inmate: everything they had collected over a year or more, everything that former cell-mates had given away when they were packing him for prison transfer goes to the storing room or to the dumpster. But food is just half the trouble. The most annoying thing happens with clothes or shoes bought by relatives. In temporary detention and pretrial facilities, in some colonies shoes are allowed only without a metal shank, since you can do a chiv from it as well. In order to understand if there are shanks in the shoes screws brutally bend a sneaker or a boot, break the sole and put it through a metal detector. If they are your only shoes, they will give you a replacement (the so-called ‘brogans’), and if they are bought by relatives for you, they will simply be returned — the money is wasted.

The Internal Rules of Conduct of Correctional Facilities (IRC) are organised in a very artful way. Instead of listing things that an inmate can’t have, they list things that an inmate is allowed to have. Thus, everything else is forbidden and one can get into the de-seg for having items that are not on the list.

To say that the list of accepted things is insufficient for normal worthy existence, especially for those who have long terms, is an understatement. Take at least such a trifle: every inmate has to move within the territory of the colony in the uniform (a jumpsuit, or officially, ‘a cotton costume’). This is the ‘order of dress of an inmate’. But the jumpsuit has to be washed once in a while. And if you washed it, it should dry. What should you wear to the canteen, to work, or in a small yard next to the block? The only thing that is left is a tracksuit. But what a collision: if you put on a tracksuit, you will do a ‘dress infraction’. You will get a write-up and can be sent to the de-seg. And nobody cares that your jumpsuit is just washed and is drying on a rope. And you can’t not wash it. If they see you wearing a dirty jumpsuit, you can also get a write-up because ‘an inmate should have an orderly outfit’ (IRC). And so cons bustle about to wear clean clothes without getting into the de-seg: some are hiding in the middle of the row on the way to the canteen to avoid the eyes of the screws, some borrow a jumpsuit from dorm-mates. By the way, you are not allowed to have two jumpsuits, if they find it during a shakedown, it’s going to be confiscated and you can get a write-up (again a possibility of the de-seg is on the horizon). This problem — what to wear when you’ve washed your clothes — is years old, but noone, from heads of sections to chiefs of the Department of Corrections, cares about the inconvenience of some cons. It’s easier to send ten, twenty, thirty people from the prison population to the de-seg every year, than to change a few sentences in the IRC once.

The clothes’ saga doesn’t end with this. A few years before my release literally in all colonies the administration initiated entire ‘campaigns’ against zipper jackets, sweaters and tracksuit jackets under ‘cotton costumes’. The fight against zippers was started just to normalise inmates’ clothing. Up to a certain time in the colony, people wore black jackets with zippers that were passed to them by relatives from the outside, until some official from the Department of Corrections came with an inspection and asked a question: ‘Why are your inmates not wearing uniform?’ Because ‘uniform’ means awkward body-warmer (that doesn’t warm you up at all) fitted with rotten wadding and with buttons almost falling off. The madness started: first in one colony and then in others, they began to subtract jackets ‘from the outside’ and give out body-warmers instead. Those who tried to revolt were sent to the de-seg.

This is how the fight with the main enemies of the ‘correctional process’ — sweaters and track jackets — looked. It’s autumn or spring, it’s cold outside. A section of cons goes out to work in the industry area and waits for a search at a checkpoint. Everyone is being searched in turns and forced to unbutton the ‘cotton costume’. If there is a track jacket or a sweater under it, you must go back to the dorm and take it off. If you start complaining, you’ll get into the de-seg. No matter that it’s ten degrees above zero outside and you have just a light t-shirt under your ‘cotton costume’. No matter that after such a search cons will be shivering from cold the whole day and half of the section will rush to the infirmary with a cold or flu. But any authorities who visit the pen will be contented: “The order of dress is observed’.

Such campaigns in every colony are started often, chaotically and unpredictably. Something clicks in the mind of Doroshko?, and a circular travels in colonies, and governors readily demonstrate their ‘can-do’ spirit. Today zippers in jackets, tomorrow — boots of ‘nonregulation pattern’, the day after tomorrow — steel spoons (everyone should have aluminum ones!), then a purge campaign against ‘taking bread out of the canteen’ (it’s when they write you up for bringing your bread portion to the dorm) and so on... Cons identify these campaigns by long lines in front of the checkpoint, where an irritated whisper is heard, ‘Again? What the fuck is this time? Are they checking labels on our underpants? They are fucking kidding...’

In Shklov colony No. 17 there was, or maybe still is, if he wasn’t promoted, a deputy governor Pavel Yegulevsky aka Mercedes, a very diligent old git. During one of such campaigns (back then they were fighting against trousers of a wrong cut) he stood at the checkpoint with a paper knife and literally cut trouser legs on the cons. One of them got his leg cut this way. The guy turned out to be not the most ‘suppressed’. He turned high-minded and started to demand his rights, and his relatives complained to various institutions. But it didn’t bring any results, Mercedes got away with it.

It takes off from there. The reinforcement of security crawls into every crack of the inmate’s everyday life. Every con has a bed table. Do you think they can store everything that is allowed there? Yeah, right! A few years ago in every sleeping room they’ve hung a list of what cons may have on the bed table. The list is very short: one pen, one notebook, two books, one or two envelopes, one pack of cigarettes and one package of tea. That’s all! There is no food on this list. You will ask, where can you store the rest of your things? For that, according to the wise resolutions of cops from the Department of Corrections, in every section there is a ‘storage room for personal items’, or, in thieves’ Latin, ‘the stores’. In charge of this room is a supply clerk, a con who has the key to it. The power and privileges of the supply clerk are obvious. If you are friends with him, then you have a steady clout in the section. But what does it mean to have your things there? What can be easier, you might say, you can come there anytime and take whatever you need. There is no need to clutter up the sleeping block. Exactly, but the room is open twice a day for 20—30 minutes. And you are for sure not the only from a hundred of cons in the section who wants to get there and take something — a new pair of socks, a piece of lard, a book or a pack of cigarettes. ‘Enter the storage room for personal items one by one!’ says an announcement on the door. You finally seized the moment when the supply clerk entered the stores, waited in the line and forced your way through to the precious room to open your bag and take a chocolate from there to have a tea with a companion, or a book to spend a solo evening. You grab your thing, close the bag and leave? Yeah, right! In every bag, there is an inventory of belongings that you’ve made on your arrival to the section. It contains everything, from ball pen refills to underwear, candies, magazines or other unsophisticated belongings that you’ve acquired in the colony. If you take something, cross it out, if you put something inside, write it down. It’s important not to forget it since every few months there is a ‘routine arrangement’, namely ‘an inspection of outer appearance with taking out of belongings’. The section lines up on a small field, everyone has his bags and the governor checks the inventory against the contents of the bags. If something is wrong, you get a ticket. An example that became definitive at that time: Mikalai Statkevich[1] was sent to the de-seg because the number of handkerchiefs in the inventory didn’t match the number of them in his bag.

Often times, like in any bureaucratic and hierarchical system, demands of different superiors conflict with each other. This is very well illustrated by an incident in Gorky colony No. 9. In every cell in the SHU and the de-seg there is a radio (it is switched on and off with the guard’s remote control), but without volume control: yowll have to listen to the radio with the volume a guard has put it. But suddenly this facility was visited by a regular inspection from the Department of Corrections. Some big boss looked at the radio sets in cells and asked, ‘Why is there no volume control on them? That’s improper!”

And right after his departure ‘kozly’ [2] and household staff under the guidance of the administration installed volume controls in every cell. The cons were happy! But time has passed, there came another boss from the same Department of Corrections. He looked up and nearly fainted: ‘Why would you provide them with volume controls? Are you out of your minds?’ In his opinion, that was just unacceptable comfort, an orgy of hedonism and amorality. In a matter of hours, the staff (the same cons who were installing the controls) were already pulling them out of all cells in the de-seg and SHU which amount to twenty.

But it would be naive to think that the level of security concerns only material aspect, what inmates can or can’t have. Like I said, the sense of security is in permeating all spheres of life. The regimen regulates the wakeup and bedtime. If you are a few minutes late, you get a ticket or are maybe sent to the de-seg. If in a colony that can be somehow rationalised (the unit needs to go to the canteen, to work), in the de-seg a strict wake-up and bedtime defies explanation, especially when cells are overcrowded and half of their population doesn’t have an opportunity to sleep at night and goes to bed at daytime. Not only sleeping, you are not allowed even to lay on beds during the day. And the brain of a person who’s just got into prison give up understanding — why? Who would suffer, if a person in custody jail (his guilt is not established yet, he is a defendant, not a convict) lays down on the bunk in the afternoon and sleeps a bit? And what else can you do in a cell? No way, just try and a watchful guard will immediately kick the door: ‘No sleeping!!!’ In Zhodino pretrial facility cops take a step further — you can’t put your legs on a bunk while sitting! But sitting normally, with feet on the floor, is not comfortable — the bunks have iron angles that dig into thighs. Other ‘furniture’, if it can be called so, is obviously designed for anyone, but people. It’s iron-clad, hard, cracked, either too high, or too low. But people get used to it, there is no getting around it…

When someone from the administration enters a cell, a con must report. It looks as follows: ‘Sir governor, there is this number of convicts in cell number X. Sanitary condition is satisfactory. Today on duty is X. No complaints or appeals’. In different facilities, the text slightly varies. Such a report sounds especially funny in solitary, when you sit alone for years and twice a day at the check you say, “Today on duty is Dziadok’ as if yesterday there was somebody else on duty…

From an outside perspective, individually all these rules and requirements can seem inessential. No big deal — to button up a shirt when passing a screw, to suffer the inconvenience with washing the jumpsuit, to report or clean a bed table, all the more so because this is a prison, not a sanatorium. But that just sounds simple. The life of an inmate is composed of such trifles. There are hundreds of them. Everything is increasingly regulated by the routine which complicates your already not so pampered life. And finally, there is no space for your spontaneous actions, even in regard to doing your bed or spending your free time which is not abundant. Every minute you have to act cautiously and think: ‘Did I do it right? Will I be punished for it? Of course, up to a certain time screws don’t pay attention to a lot of slight deviations from the regime, until there comes a warrant saying that there are few people in the de-seg, or until a certain con starts asserting his rights. Then you will be quickly reminded about an extra pen in your drawer, or your unshaven face, or a spider net in the cell. If you are a political prisoner, you will be reminded about it from the very start. The phrasing of the security requirements in the way it’s done at the moment significantly facilitates the task of sending any con to the de-seg and of general all-out jawboning. No need to make anything up, frame up, just wait for a few hours and a con will violate something himself since it’s impossible to follow all the rules. The logic of security officers makes cons perceive basic comfort or any opportunity to obtain their needs as a privilege, for retention of which they should behave as meek as a lamb.

On the other hand, security exists in order to humiliate the inmates, to make them feel disempowered and dependent from the administration even in regard to basic needs. Why do you think in the KGB jail (Amerikanka’) there are no toilets in half of the cells? Is there really no money or possibility to install them? In the 21st century, there is a piss can in the cells, and inmates are taken to the toilet twice a day to go number two. The answer is simple: an inmate should feel that even the call of nature totally depends on the administration, and the best choice of all available is to completely conform to it in other things.

And this is true for everything else. I will never forget how cons cut their nails in cells of Volodarka. To do this simple hygienic procedure which doesn’t take a lot of time on the outside, in prison meant the whole strategic operation. In our cell, we had nail clippers (forbidden item, of course). At first, you had to take them out from the stash out of sight of the screw who could look into the eyehole any time, then bring them to the toilet (a blind spot that couldn’t be seen from the eyehole), turn on the water and only then start clipping your nails. The water was turned on to cover the distinctive sound ‘tchick, tchick’ by the noise of running water and prevent a screw from understanding that there is a forbidden item in the cell. Then you had to put the clippers back taking the same precautions.

It’s emblematic that on the official level cops try to rationalise any interdiction: belts can be used to hang oneself, cottage cheese is banned so that the cons don’t get poisoned, clothes with zippers are not allowed because inmates have to look the same, food can’t be kept in the bed table for sanitary reasons, and so on. But not every interdiction can be rationalised however hard you try. Why do you need to report: ‘One convict in the cell, today on duty is the same convict’? Why not let cons put their legs on the bed? Does it put anyone in danger? You can find answers to these questions. Internal documents of a correctional facility come to rescue; their contents I happened to hear myself. During my stay in the SHU in Shklov colony No. 17, ‘according to the routine’, they used to play excerpts from the Internal Rules of Conduct and various other laws and regulations. I even wrote something down verbatim. Unfortunately, I don’t remember exactly the title of this regulation. So you sit in solitary, and a metal voice broadcasts through the speaker:

‘The security of correctional facilities [...] The correctional function of the security lies in setting of interdictions and limitations in regard to an inmate. The aim of interdictions and limitations lies in causing suffering and emotional stress for an inmate that is intended to make him reflect on his previous behaviour’.

WhenIfirst heard it,I couldn’t believe my ears. What about the Criminal Code which puts in black and white that ‘punishment and other measures of criminal liability DO NOT aim at causing physical suffering or abasement of human dignity’? Finally, in their ‘internal’ regulations, the System exposes itself and demonstrates the true goal of the security. And for a con who is wondering from the first day of imprisonment what all these rules that can’t be explained, justified or rationalised are for, everything falls into place. They are there to make him suffer. And all the semiofficial chatter of the screws about ‘sanitary conditions’, ‘security measures’ and so on is nothing more than the wool over eyes that is pulled in order to add the facade of validity and humanism to hominivorous and ruthless system that has only one aim — to break your will by causing suffering.

Interestingly, the security and its requirements make real idiots of the already not-so-smart staff of the correctional facilities. Once in Zhodino prison, we managed to get a TV-set installed in the cell. But in the concrete box, it got a very poor signal, and it wasn’t possible to move it closer to the window: the cable was short and the extension pole was naturally prohibited. So it just stayed in the middle of the cell. But when it was placed on the floor, people couldn’t watch it from other corners of the cell, we needed to put it up. We didn’t have so much choice and we put it on an overturned wash-basin. After some time security officers enter the cell with a shakedown. Their boss has perky eyes; he turns his head trying to find fault with something. A trained eye notices an anomaly — the TV-set on an overturned basin.

‘Why do you have the TV on a basin?’

‘We can’t see it when it’s on the floor, and the cable is too short to put it on the table’.

His facial expression becomes dissatisfied. A deviation from the routine, non-regulated situation, he needs to react fast:

‘I mean, also..!”” for a moment a good deal of thought is reflected on his face. ‘The basin wears out!”

When the door closed, we roared with laughter from this cop for half an hour, he made our day. We made a conclusion: what a fate, you are in your thirties and go around the cells and tell the cons about the ‘wear-out of a basin’. Well, you’ve got to feel for such people. They created this security for us, but now they, its servants, are even less free than cons in prison.

June 2016

The Untouchables in the Prison Hierarchy

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