Sentenced to Life on Fire Island

MTAn inmate, dressed in prison-issued stripes, looking out of his cell window at Prison No. OE 256/5, better-known as Pyatak.
NOVOZERO, Far North — Dmitry Dokusov would like to resume his studies at St. Petersburg's Shipbuilding University by mail, but he doesn't have enough space in his 2-by-3-meter cell to set up a drawing board.

"It's impossible to make drawings here," Dokusov said, his wrists handcuffed in front of him during a recent interview. "My cell is too small."

Dokusov, 22, is one of the 193 inmates jailed for life in Prison No. OE 256/5, about 400 kilometers north of Moscow in the Vologda region — and he is trying to figure out how to spend his time.

Dokusov, together with a partner, was convicted in 2002 of three murders in an attempted robbery of the company where he worked after classes at the Shipbuilding University. He could have been executed if President Boris Yeltsin had not imposed a moratorium on capital punishment in 1996 to qualify Russia for membership in the Council of Europe. Nationalists in the State Duma called for the moratorium to be lifted after the terrorist attacks in August and September, arguing that only executions can stop terrorists and a growth in violent crime.

In 1994, Pyatak — as the prison is known, for the last digit of its number — became the first to switch to accepting only prisoners serving life sentences. Its first new prisoners had been on death row but were pardoned by Yeltsin. It now holds some of the country's best-known criminals: Boris Bezotechestvo, one of a trio who escaped from Moscow's Butyrka Prison in 2001 by digging a tunnel beside a cell toilet, is imprisoned here, as is Arasul Khubiyev, who took part in four car bombings in southern Russian cities in 1999 and 2000 that killed 32 people and wounded more than 200.

The prison occupies a 16th-century monastery on Ognenny Ostrov, or Fire Island, in the Novozero Lake. Bolsheviks turned the monastery, founded by an Orthodox priest who claimed to have seen "a column of fire" hit the island, into a prison in 1917.

Armed guards with dogs patrol the top of the prison's whitewashed walls, which rise above the frozen lake and are covered with coils of barbed wire. The prison consists of squat white buildings with 1.5-meter-thick walls. Each small cell is home to two to four inmates, although some prisoners are kept alone for medical or psychological reasons, said Vasily Smirnov, a senior Pyatak official who, among other things, is responsible for reading inmates' mail and making sure none is trying to escape.

In addition to steel bunk beds, many cells have electric stoves, television sets, tape players and even Sony PlayStation consoles — all gifts from relatives and a rare sight in Russian prisons. In stark contrast to the high-tech equipment, convicts defecate into buckets or pots in a corner of the cell and empty them at a toilet down the corridor at night.

Plaques on cell doors identify the residents by name and their crime. Some plaques also warn that the resident is an attack or escape risk.

Smirnov is proud of Pyatak and calls it the most inmate-friendly of the five prisons in the country that housed a total of 1,560 prisoners serving life sentences as of September. The United States, by comparison, had 5,260 serving life sentences as of early September.

Interviews with inmates and media reports appear to support Smirnov's enthusiasm for Pyatak.

Institutions in the Orenburg and Perm regions are considered the toughest, and they are known as the Black Dolphin and the White Swan. The other life-term prisons are in the Sverdlovsk region and Mordovia.

"By law everything must be similar. But everything depends on the boss, not the law, in Russia," said Valery Abramkin, director of the Moscow Center for Prison Reform, a nongovernmental organization.

Inmate Vladimir Nikitin complained of brutal treatment and miniscule food rations in the Black Dolphin, where he served part of his life sentence before being transferred to Pyatak this year. When new convicts arrive at the Black Dolphin, guards put black bags over their heads and beat them as they are led to their cells, said Nikitin, who has a tattoo on his throat of a line and the words "Cut Here." Convicts face beatings for infractions such as not drinking all the water in their cups or not returning to guards any bread left over from their meals, he said.

His account was confirmed by a report published in the government's Rossiiskaya Gazeta in October. "Any violation, even a poorly made bed or not opening your mouth widely enough, is considered an attempt to attack the guards," the newspaper said. Violators are punished "with Cheryomukha tear gas or a rubber baton," it said.

Black Dolphin's warden, Anatoly Kilanov, denied that his guards use excessive force. "We do use rubber batons, but only in cases allowed by law such as disobedience or an attack," he said by telephone Tuesday.

The prison's reputation comes from its strict adherence to the law, Kilanov said. "We give prisoners whatever they are entitled to, but we are also very demanding in accordance with the law," he said.

Vasily Borshchev, chairman of the public council at the Justice Ministry, which oversees prisons, said it is against prison rules to beat convicts except in "conflict situations."

Nikitin, 38, who took a break from playing a video game in his cell to speak with a reporter, said he was surprised by Pyatak. "It's good here," he said, smiling widely. "I haven't been beaten here a single time."

Nikitin, who was convicted in 2003 of carrying out a murder of unusual cruelty, said he confessed to an additional crime to get out of the Black Dolphin. Prosecutors brought him to the Moscow region town of Ramenskoye to investigate the new claim and then sent him to Pyatak.

Nikitin complained that a meal at the Black Dolphin was only enough to fill a quarter-liter cup.

At Pyatak, two cooks hauled two big tubs down a prison corridor to serve full bowls of watery soup and pasta with bits of meat for lunch on a recent afternoon. Inmates who have diabetes received a special diet of eggs and porridge.

Smirnov said inmates at the Black Dolphin have to bend over a wall, hold their hands behind their backs, shut their eyes and open their mouths whenever guards enter their cells — a humiliating posture that is supposed to prevent them from attacking. He said he was shocked when he saw the routine on videotape at a prison conference.

At Pyatak, inmates stand facing the wall with their hands behind their backs when a guard opens the door. All prisoners also have to stand against a wall to be searched before and after their daily walks.

Black Dolphin inmates are only permitted to listen to the radio — their only electrical appliance — for about an hour in the morning and evening and three hours in the afternoon, Nikitin said. At Pyatak, inmates can listen to the radio or their tape players and watch television at any time during the day. Inmates also play Sony PlayStation and Sega video games.

"It's better to have them watching TV than have them looking out the window and thinking about which direction to run," Smirnov said.

No one has successfully escaped, although two inmates attempted to flee by sawing through the bars of their cell window, he said. They were immediately captured on the prison grounds.

Escape statistics for the other four life-term prisons were not available.

Smirnov said life might be better at Pyatak than the other prisons, but that a life in confinement is still not easy. "Let those who think that a life sentence is too soft come to this prison and look at how they live," he said, walking down a foul-smelling corridor past cell doors. "A cage can be decorated with gold or diamonds, but it will still be a cage."

The reason why Pyatak is more humane to inmates may go back to 1994, when prisoners pardoned by Yeltsin were sent here, said the prison's psychologist, Svetlana Kiselyova. Staff were sympathetic toward inmates deemed deserving of having their death sentences commuted, and friendlier relations became a tradition, she said.

Basic rules about bathing, mail and visitors are the same at all five life-term prisons, Smirnov said. Inmates can go to the prison's banya once a week and walk in a 2-by-2-meter metal enclosure outside their cells for an hour every day, Smirnov said. They get up at 6 a.m. and go to bed at 10 p.m.

Those who have served less than 10 years are permitted two meetings of two to four hours per year. Those who have served more get two additional meetings of three days each in special cells.

Some inmates are allowed to work in a small sewing room, where they make gloves out of rough fabric for a salary of 100 rubles to 150 rubles ($3.50 to $5.50) per month.

Convicts pass through three stages during their life terms, Smirnov said. For the first year a convict adjusts and learns how to behave in his cell and with the prison personnel. Once used to the routine, he begins to write letters to courts and prosecutors to seek a review of his case or petitions to the local pardons commission.

After three years to 10 years, a convict gets increasingly frustrated as he realizes that he won't ever be released, and this inevitably leads to conflicts with fellow inmates and guards, Smirnov said.

Pyatak swaps cellmates who don't get along. Dokusov said three inmates have moved out of his cell since 2002. "We differed in our views on life," he said. "Someone thinks that raping a child is normal, but someone else doesn't think so."

After 10 years comes apathy, Smirnov said, and a convict learns to see the prison as home and the personnel as "house maintenance administrators" who solve their problems.

Some convicts attempt to commit suicide, but guards usually prevent them from succeeding, Smirnov said. Only one convict has managed to kill himself in the prison's history, and he hung himself with the elastic band from his underwear, Smirnov said.

Crimes that carry life sentences include terrorism, two or more murders, the killing of a law enforcement officer or a judge, or genocide. Women and males under 18 or older than 65 cannot be sentenced to life.

More than half of the convicts at Pyatak have found religion. Vladimir Podbutsky, 35, who was pardoned by Yeltsin after being convicted of stabbing a driver 16 times to steal his car in 1989, said he found God on death row in a Krasnoyarsk prison. He said he couldn't sleep Tuesdays and Thursdays because those were the days when guards fetched prisoners from their cells at 4 a.m. to face the firing squad. "It's sincere when people go to God in such a situation," he said.

Podbutsky is also one of two prisoners here who have gotten married while behind bars. He corresponded with his future wife by mail before tying the knot.

Prisoners have the right to be released if they have served 25 years and have a clean record for the past three, Smirnov said. No one has served that long yet, but Smirnov expressed doubt that any of them would ever be let go.

Given that the average age of a prisoner is 35, many will be about 60 when they can apply for their freedom, he said. "What will a judge think?" he said. "The convict has no mother and father. His relatives have abandoned him. So he will come back to prison or become a bum."

If released, a convict won't be able to find work because he won't have anywhere to live, and he won't have anywhere to live because he won't have any money, Smirnov said.

The youngest convict at the prison, Dokusov, is 22, while the oldest is 55, he said.

Dokusov said he is hoping for an early release. "I'm young, and there's hope," he said. "I will be 46 after I serve 25 years."

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