Pussy Riot Publicizes Human Rights Abuse in Women’s Prisons

Written by Anna C. Manuel

On September 23, 2013, formerly incarcerated Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, who was arrested for hooliganism when her band staged a protest against President Vladimir Putin in a Russian church in 2012, began a hunger strike to protest conditions in the Mordovian Penal Colony.  In her letter posted to Freepussyriot.org, Tolokonnikova explained,

The penal colony administration refuses to hear me. But I, in turn, refuse to back down from my demands. I will   not remain silent, resigned to watch as my fellow prisoners collapse under the strain of slavery-like conditions.     I demand that the colony administration respect human rights; I demand that the Mordovia camp function in     accordance with the law. I demand that we be treated like human beings, not slaves.1

The abuse of female prisoners is a global human rights issue.  From Russia to California, female prisoners report labor abuse, public health crises, and brutal disciplinary practices.

Through her posting on Freepussyriot.org, Tolokonnikova cited numerous Russian Federation Labor Code violations in the sewing shop where she worked at Penal Colony No. 14 (PC-14), in the Republic of Mordovia.2  Anxieties created by 17-hour shifts, sleep deprivation, and unrealistic quotas drove inmates to lash out violently against others and even against themselves.3 The administration pitted women against each other by assigning senior inmates to supervise junior inmates. Tolokonnikova noted that, “controlled hazing [like beatings and beratement] is a convenient method for forcing prisoners into total submission to their systemic abuse of human rights.”

Health conditions in PC-14 are abysmal, and prison officials employ these conditions as part of the inmates’ punishment. There, 800 prisoners share a five-person bathroom, and as a result prisoners cannot bathe for several weeks. Pipes clog, spewing out urine and feces. The food is rotten, and the filth is dehumanizing. An inmate can “lose hygiene privileges," which means that a prisoner is not allowed to shower or use the toilet. This brand of humiliation is unique to women’s prisons, considering hundreds of menses occurring all at one time.

Tolokonnikova contends that seeking legal remedy to these abusive disciplinary methods is problematic. When an inmate’s lawyer takes legal action against prison administration, retaliation is likely to follow against both the complaining inmate and that inmate’s unit. When Tolokonnikova’s lawyer filed a complaint, PC-14 seized all inmates’ warm clothes, delivered extra punishments to Tolokonnikova’s acquaintances, and ordered prisoners to provoke fights with her.4 Further, the Russian state provides no refuge: on October 24th, 2013, investigators dismissed Tolokonnikova’s request to bring a case against the deputy warden of the Mordovian colony.5 Sub-standard infrastructure is attributed to budgetary shortfalls, yet many prisons exploit free prison labor. Inmates of PC-14 are considered unpaid employees of a company owned by former State Duma (Russian Parliament) deputy member, billionaire Vladimir Golovnyov.6 Embezzlement by PC-14 administration is highly suspect, wherein management collects on a garment output produced by five times the workforce size they actually report.7  However, on November 14th, 2013 Tolokonnikova’s husband confirmed that she had been transferred to a prison hospital in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, where she underwent tests in the wake of two hunger strikes.8

The abuses of female inmates are not limited to Gulag-like confinement in Russian republics.9 The United States boasts the highest incarceration rate worldwide, followed by Russia.10  The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that overcrowding in California's prison system violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment because extreme overcrowding fosters health hazards while limiting access to medical treatment.11  For example, in 2011, Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) was at more than 180 percent capacity, and women inmates reported abuse and insufficient medical care. Grossly inadequate toiletry provisions are degrading, pose serious health hazards, and open the door to more egregious abuse: to obtain basic hygienic provisions, some inmates prostitute themselves to prison guards. Inmates report sexual abuse and other breaches of bodily integrity, including forced sterilization and shackling during labor.12

Conditions in both Californian and Russian women’s prisons are designed to break the will of their prisoners, but international advocacy for inmates’ rights is growing.  The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women reported on U.S. women’s prisons, noting that, “At the core of these health concerns is an inadequate system which is insufficiently responsive to gender-specific needs . . . characterized by delays, neglect, and mistreatment of inmates and detainees.”13  Inmates’ rights advocates argue that human rights abuses by these prison systems violate Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—which prohibits cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment—and the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).14

Reconciling the plight of female inmates is a daunting task, but there are international tools available to usher in new standards.  First, prisons must abide by the U.N. Bangkok Rules for the treatment of female prisoners, and by Human Rights and Prisons: A Pocketbook of International Human Rights Standards for Prison Officials.15  In addition, unbiased oversight mechanisms must be established, because current systems are non-transparent and open to corruption.  In Mordovia, for example, six of seven members of the prison oversight commission are former prison wardens, a serious conflict of interest.16   In the U.S., Congress must ratify CEDAW, as the U.S. remains one of only seven U.N. member countries that have not ratified it.17   Additionally, world courts must determine who is in violation of international law, warranting international legal intervention.  The Hague’s International Criminal Court is often reserved for abuse of political prisoners in wartime; however, systematic non-wartime oppression of a government over its alleged criminals and political prisoners deserves equal attention.

Though it is an essential task, the system cannot be fixed solely by addressing the impunity of abusive individuals in prison administration; we must explore the foundations supporting prisoner abuse.  The patriarchal hegemony over women prisoners can be viewed through the framework of structural violence, which is historically entrenched political-economic oppression of social inequality, and the symbolic violence that embodies the internalized humiliations and legitimations of inequality and hierarchy.18  Slave labor conditions and the oppression of female prisoners stems from enduring gender inequality, which is normalized and legitimized in the prison system.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova’s fearless voice has illuminated the otherwise invisible conditions suffered by incarcerated women in prisons all over the world. The system must be overhauled, from inadequate daily provisions within prisoner cells, to the enduring oppressive patriarchal social structure, and everyplace in between.

On December 23, 2013, Tolokonnikova was granted amnesty, “in what was largely viewed as the Kremlin's attempt to head off criticism of Russia's human rights record ahead of the Winter Olympics in Sochi in February.”  Upon her release, Tolokonnikova made clear that, “[E]verything is just beginning now.  Finally I will have a [sic] more opportunities for action.  Well, they never completely ceased to exist because the border between being free and not free is very thin in Russia, a totalitarian state.”19 Tolokonnikova is currently on a human rights tour with Maria Alyokhina, her Pussy Riot bandmate who also received amnesty.  They speak on various human rights issues in Russia under President Vladimir Putin, including on the rights of prisoners.

*A version of this article was published in the Law and Global Justice Forum as a blog post in February, 2014.

 


1. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Why I Have Gone on Hunger Strike, Free Pussy Riot (Sept. 23, 2013), http://freepussyriot.org/documents.

2. Trudovoi Kodeks Rossiiskoi Federatsii [TK RF] [Labor Code] art. 197-FZ (Russ.).

3. Tolokonnikova’s accounts of labor abuse have been confirmed by a former Mordovian inmate using a pseudonym.  For more information, see also: Anna Arutunyan, The Gulag Within: Harsh Realities of Russian Penal Colonies, The Moscow News (Oct. 1, 2013), http://www.moscownews.ru/russia/20131001/191954760/The-Gulag-within-Harsh-realities-of-Russian-penal-colonies.html.

4. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Why I Have Gone on Hunger Strike, Free Pussy Riot (Sept. 23, 2013), http://freepussyriot.org/documents.

5. Nizhny Novgorod, Pussy Riot member's request to open case against prison official dismissed, Russian Legal Information Agency (Oct. 24, 2013), http://www.rapsinews.com/news/20131024/269372782.html

6.Mordovia Inmates Used as Unpaid Laborers for Billionaire, The Moscow Times (Sept. 27, 2013), http://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/mordovia-inmates-used-as-unpaid-laborers-for-billionaire/486704.html#ixzz2jpnj4mfK.

7. Anna Arutunyan, The Gulag within: Harsh realities of Russian penal colonies, The Moscow News (Oct. 1, 2013), http://www.moscownews.ru/russia/20131001/191954760/The-Gulag-within-Harsh-realities-of-Russian-penal-colonies.html.

8. Russian authorities had not informed Tolokonnikova’s husband of her whereabouts for 26 days when she was transferred from PC-14 to Krasnoyarsk.  Tolokonnikova says conditions are much better at the prison hospital.  For more information, see also: Jailed Pussy Riot singer ‘found in hospital,’ BBC News (Nov. 14, 2013), http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-24938951.

9. Jenni Gainsborough, Women in Prison: International Problems and Human Rights Based Approaches to Reform, 14 Wm. & Mary J. Women & L. 271 (2008), http://scholarship.law.wm.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1033&context=wmjow.

10. World Prison Populations, BBC News (last visited Nov. 6, 2013).  http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/uk/06/prisons/html/nn2page1.stm.

11. Brown v. Plata, 131 S. Ct. 1910 (2011).

12. Laura Gottesdiener, California Women Prisons: Inmates Face Sexual Abuse, Lack of Medical Care And Unsanitary Conditions, Huffington Post (Aug. 3, 2011), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/06/03/california-women-prisons_n_871125.html. Doctors under contract with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation sterilized approximately 150 inmates from 2006 to 2010 without required state approvals.  For more information, see also: Corey G. Johnson, Female inmates sterilized in California prisons without approval, Center for Investigative Reporting (July 7, 2013), http://cironline.org/reports/female-inmates-sterilized-california-prisons-without-approval-4917.

13. Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, its Causes and Consequences, Rep. on her Mission to the U.S., U.N.H.R.C., U.N. Doc. A/H.R.C./17/26/Add.5 (June 1, 2011) (by Rashida Manjoo).

14. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, G.A. Res. 217 (III) A, U.N. Doc. A/RES/217(III) (Dec. 10, 1948); Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, G.A. Res. 34/180, 34 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 46) at 193, U.N. Doc. A/34/46; 1249 UNTS 13; 19 ILM 33 (1980).

15. E.S.C. Res. 2010/16, U.N. Doc. E/RES/2010/16 (Dec. 21, 2010).

16. U.N. Office of the High Comm’r for Human Rights, Human Rights and Prisons: A Pocketbook of International Human Rights Standards for Prison Officials, U.N., Sales No. E.04.XIV.5 (2005); Anna Arutunyan, The Gulag Within: Harsh Realities of Russian Penal Colonies, The Moscow News (Oct. 1, 2013), http://www.moscownews.ru/russia/20131001/191954760/The-Gulag-within-Harsh-realities-of-Russian-penal-colonies.html.

17. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, G.A. Res. 34/180, 34 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 46) at 193, U.N. Doc. A/34/46; 1249 UNTS 13; 19 ILM 33 (1980).

18. Philippe Bourgois, The Continuum of Violence in War and Peace: Post-Cold War Lessons from El Salvador, in Violence in War and Peace 425,426 (Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Philippe Bourgois eds., Blackwell Pub., 2004).

19. Anna Nemtsova, Pussy Riot's Nadezhda Tolokonnikova freed from Russian prison, The Guardian (Dec. 23, 2013), http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/23/pussy-riot-nadezhda-tolokonnikova-freed-russian-prison