What kind of prison is better? Aleksandr Podrabinek on the different prison camp regimes

8 February 2024

by Aleksandr Podrabinek

Source: Radio Svoboda

“Life is better now, life is happier,” Comrade Stalin assured the Soviet people right on the eve of the Great Terror. Let us compare eras past and present.

When were political repressions harsher and prisons and camps better—then or now? Let me qualify this right off. Everyone understands what I mean by “now,” but “then” is different in different times. During the Red Terror and Civil War, the Bolsheviks took civilians hostage and executed them without trial, guided by their revolutionary sense of justice. During the Stalinist terror, “enemies of the people” were sentenced to execution by a “troika” of judges; there was no judicial procedure whatsoever and defendants often appeared on one general list—everyone was sentenced at the same time. During the Brezhnev-Andropov days, the Communists tried to create the appearance of legality, political repressions were couched in legal formulas to the extent possible, and the mortality rate of zeks (political prisoners) ceased to be massive. Most often people compare the present day with this pre-agony phase of victorious socialism. In fact, why not compare the 1960s-1980s with today?

The lightest prison camp regime is minimum security. In the Soviet era, prisoners were allowed three short visits a year (two hours in the presence of a guard) and two long ones (three days with the family in a visitation room); now, it’s six short and four long. In the Soviet era, you could buy 10 rubles’ worth of food a month (50 loaves of bread) in the prison store; now, it’s 11,800 rubles’ worth (600 loaves). In the Soviet era, you could receive two five-kilo packages a year, but only after serving half your sentence; now, it’s six packages or deliveries of up to 20 kilos apiece and six printed matter parcels of up to 5 kilos regardless of time served. Both then and now receiving and sending letters is unrestricted.

Even then there were many different custodial regimes in the penitentiary system, and now there are enough. In addition, each regime has lighter conditions and, the reverse, stricter ones. In order to compare it all in detail you would have to write a study many pages long. One might note only that previously, as a form of punishment, a prisoner might be denied visits, packages, and deliveries; today there are no such measures of punishment.

However, let us look at the conditions in which “habitual violators of the regime” used to be and now are kept. I’m talking about placement in a PKT (ward-type cell). In the Stalinist Gulag, that kind of “prison within a prison” was called a BUR—a maximum-security barracks.

In the later Soviet era, prisoners in a PKT were allowed to purchase at the store two rubles’ worth of food a month (10 loaves of bread); now, it’s 6500 rubles’ worth (about 300 loaves). In the Soviet Union, they could take away store privileges as punishment; now they can’t. Previously, prisoners in a PKT were fed a reduced ration; now, it’s the same as in minimum security. Previously, they were taken out for a half-hour walk daily; now, it’s for an hour and a half. Previously, you could only receive one printed matter parcel over the course of six months; now, it’s one package or delivery and one printed matter parcel. Previously, a prisoner could send one letter (weighing no more than 50 grams) from the PKT every two months; now, it’s unrestricted. However, previously you could have paper and pen in the PKT all the time; now they issue it for an hour and a half a day.

A few separate words about the punishment cell (ShIZO). In the Soviet ShIZO, prisoners were not allowed visits, to send letters, to acquire goods and essential items, to receive packages, deliveries, or printed matter parcels, to use table games, or to smoke. Bed linens were not issued and they were not taken out for walks.

Now prisoners in a ShIZO are not allowed visits, telephone calls, to acquire food, or to receive packages, deliveries, or printed matter parcels. The daily walk is one hour. It is forbidden to receive or send letters. Nor is there anything said about the bed.

One of the vital differences is food. In the Soviet Union, bread was issued in a ShIZO at a reduced ration, 450 grams daily (the minimum-security ration being 650 grams). Hot food was issued every other day and also at a reduced ration. At the present time, the law does not call for starving zeks; food is the same for everyone. That is, it is by law, but in practice it’s different everywhere.

While comparing eras, it is worth mentioning that in both Soviet years and present years, cruel torture has been practiced in prison camps and prisons. This has never disappeared from penitentiary practice. Also, corruption has flourished in the prison-camp system in all eras. For non-high-profile cases you could buy a reduction in the maximum sentence from an investigator or prosecutor at a rate of 1000 rubles for each year of incarceration. After the trial, this cost significantly more, of course. In a remand centre (SIZO), guards could be paid to bring alcohol to a cell or to arrange an intimate visit with one of the young women who worked at the SIZO. In a prison camp, you could pay to receive an illegal delivery or to get put in the hospital and, for good money, to be released on parole or be invalided out. Even though people as a whole have more money now, corruption has not diminished, naturally. The zek saying proclaims for good reason: “The boots know the way, they’re just too lazy to go.” But if the money’s good, they aren’t lazy.

Here’s something funny, though. Soviet law allowed prisoners to participate in elections; today’s doesn’t. It’s funny that there were no genuine elections then and there are none now. It’s even funnier that, despite the law, Soviet zeks still couldn’t vote.

In comparing prison in the past and present, we should remember that any comparison leaves much to be desired. There are many nuances characteristic of an era and even individual prison camp administrations. On the whole, though, whichever era you take, prison is a nasty place, regardless of the level of comfort or security. To say nothing of the fact that for a specific zek even the most comfortable prison conditions can easily turn into torture in a single day. Therefore, the right answer to the question, “When was it better to be a prisoner, earlier or now?” would be: “Never.” True, sometimes there is no other choice.

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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