— Does it make sense to separate political prisoners from ordinary prisoners, especially in a repressive state? How does this division affect the prisoners?
Yevgenia: The list of political prisoners has rather strict criteria, which are needed to make formal requests to the state. However, I do not see any sense in this division. My understanding of who shouldn’t be incarcerated is much broader. Sometimes this division affects the perception of those who, in one way or another, think of supporting prisoners: they believe political prisoners are good people, and others are under suspicion. In fact, people have to decide for themselves who they want to support. There is more support for the people who have burnt military recruitment offices now, and the attitude toward the term “political prisoner” seems to be changing, too. This status is no longer so necessary.
Anya: Whether a person is recognized as a political prisoner or a prisoner of conscience does not change the harshness of detention. It might indirectly impact the conditions if the status helped gain publicity for the case. Media rarely cover deaths in custody. Those people whose names are recorded in the media are much more protected than ordinary prisoners. If a person has no relatives or support, their disappearance will not be investigated. Health problems connected with detention conditions (damp, cold, parasites, exacerbation of chronic diseases, or harsh working conditions) or from violence by the administration or by “activists” under its control will not be addressed and can lead to fatal consequences. This is unlikely to happen if the public follows a prisoner’s fate because the institution’s administration is not interested in interacting with the defense and the media to justify itself. So it is always very upsetting when those to whom we offer support refuse to go public. It often happens under pressure from relatives or a lawyer chosen by relatives if they believe it is better to keep quiet “just in case something happens.” But it doesn’t make much sense because the articles we’re talking about can lead to up to 20 years in prison. What is there to be careful about?
Eugenia: The fact that publicity hurts is probably the most popular myth, shared not only among those arrested but also among lawyers. It gets in the way of our work.
— What’s the point of the penitentiary system anyway? How do you feel about the “abolitionist” movement?
Anya: In the description of our initiative, one of the first sentences says that the whole collective is against prisons, states, and militarism. I don’t know of any cases where prison has had any therapeutic effect on a person, even from the standpoint of the state that wants the individual to reconsider their actions. I don’t think the fear of returning to prison is a positive result of incarceration. If a person, for example, has served time under Article 228 [Illegal acquisition, storage, transportation, manufacture, processing of drugs], it seems to add nothing but anxiety to their life. If they continue to use drugs, the risks and anxiety increase. Why is it necessary to take so many years of a person’s life then?
“The fact that publicity hurts is probably the most popular myth, shared not only among those arrested but also among lawyers”
Eugenia: Prison was originally created for cheap labor. The history of prison shows that this institution does not work. Crimes or actions considered crimes are often repeated when people get out of jail. But when one says that prisons are unnecessary, people ask the logical question: So what? Just let all murderers, serial killers, and other scary people out? However, the statistics are illuminating: most violent crimes are not solved at all. Whether we want “criminals” out of prison or not, most people who commit violent acts are out there. So prison doesn’t protect anyone! The state won’t let us remake this institution because prison is profitable, cheap, and provides free labor. To explore alternative methods of combating crime or working with violent individuals, the state or society needs to invest money and tear down existing institutions. And no one wants that except for human rights activists and abolitionists.
— How does the prison system impact the possibility of recruitment by the Wagner Group?
Anya: There is a lack of information and constant brainwashing in prison. Only state radio and television channels are broadcasted there. Naturally, as we see, all the promises that motivate the inmates to apply as “volunteers” do not come true. We already know cases when people were brought back to prison with injuries. When people without motivation or combat experience find themselves on the front line, they cannot defect or survive.
Eugenia: There is almost no reliable data on whether all this recruitment is really voluntary. There are many cases when prisoners explicitly told their relatives that recruitment was going on but that they didn’t want to go anywhere. And then these people disappeared. As a rule, these were prisoners who had almost served their sentences. And no one knows exactly what happened. The relatives don’t receive these allegedly signed contracts.
Since this recruitment has no legal status, just some dude comes and says something; there are no guarantees. A presidential decree is necessary to pardon a convicted person, not only Prigozhin’s empty promises [Note: Russian oligarch and close associate of Putin, Yevgeny Prigozhin owns the notorious Wagner private military company]. The story with the Wagner Group helps to finally see the falsity of the phrase: “They won’t lock everyone up.” They will. Prison is a repressive apparatus and will remain so. Either new prisons will be built, or the existing ones will be emptied in horrible ways.
Anya: Conversely, this recruitment strategy seems less compelling with time. The prisoners realize that people leave and then disappear. They are realistic and can make observations, especially if there is a connection to the outside world. Thanks to the people we correspond with, we learn that the second wave of recruitment through the colonies brings much less successful results.
“Either new prisons will be built, or the existing ones will be emptied in horrible ways”
Yevgeniya: Prisoners are used as disposable material, not only to send them to the flashpoint area without preparation but also to help propaganda intimidate people who are against the war and mobilization. As with Yevgeny Nuzhin, who the Wagner Group publicly executed. After that, many people started saying that you can’t defect if you’ve been mobilized. Now, it is possible that many of the mobilized, sent to the war against their will, will be afraid to resist and leave.
— How can one help prisoners in Russia now?
Yevgeniya: You can start by writing letters. Online services (ZonaTelecom and FSIN-letter) allow you to do it from anywhere in the world through the Internet. There is also a volunteer-run service called RosUznik; it’s free, but they need donations. Through it, you can send letters to places of detention that are not connected to official services. At the same time, it allows you to anonymize yourself. The FSIN letter also does not require real personal data, but giving your information to community members is still more pleasant.
— Do you keep in touch with any prisoners? What is this process usually like?
Eugenia: I have several correspondences now. All these people were strangers to me before prison. One pen pal became a friend. It is Pavel Krisevich. For over a year now, we have been communicating very well. I keep up correspondence with some of the inmates we help. The FSIN letter lets us know what the person needs at the moment. In addition to regular conversations, the person can tell us what they are missing and if they are not receiving medical care. Usually, censorship allows this kind of information, so it’s essential to correspond with those you’re helping. And communicating with prisoners, political or not, whom you sympathize with is just an emotionally enriching experience. I met some people while they were in prison. And now I’m friends with them after the sentence.
I have a whole blog dedicated to that question. I told there about how I write letters to people I don’t know. I introduce myself, tell them how I found out about them, and tell them a little bit about myself and what I do. As long as you don’t speak about any illegal activities, it’s okay. In general, no one plans to use this information against you. The censor doesn’t give ordinary letters to the investigator. I write these letters in the notes on my cellphone. I try to remember funny stories, how I visited some exciting place, had a walk, how my cat got into a cardboard box. News is a must because everything that happens outside is interesting for a person in prison — even other people’s hobbies. When you can’t choose people to communicate with and only have cellmates, letters are precious. So you can say whatever you want. You have to be careful about discussing the war and the circumstances of this particular criminal case.
“Don’t know of any cases where prison has had any therapeutic effect on a person, even from the standpoint of the state”
Anya: Remember that prisoners are also people just like anybody else; sometimes, you have to use different ways to communicate with them. But often, there is an internet connection in prisons so that correspondence can occur in a familiar messenger. You can tell and learn a lot, even in censored messages. Since you’re geographically in different locations and have different daily lives, it seems mutually interesting, like any conversation. It’s not another planet that has special rules.
— What other ways are there to help?
Anya: You can send parcels to pre-trial detention facilities without restrictions. To children’s and women’s prisons, too. Contact a support group if you want to send a package to the male settlement. It would be best if you didn’t take the initiative because there is a limit. Some basic things are always relevant: coffee, socks…If there are no restrictions, you can send books. The prison library is usually unsatisfactory. It is better, of course, to find out about the literature the recipient wants to read.
Eugenia: Pavel Krisevich grew trees from avocado seeds in the cell and gave them names. I managed to send him a mushroom for kombucha in a parcel, although it’s kind of forbidden. He used different things like lollipops when they had a sugar shortage after the invasion started. In his letters, he told me how he was making it and how he and his cellmates tried the different kinds he produced.
— You work with horrible cases. What helps you? What aspects can be seen as positive?
Yevgeniya: This work helps me live through what is happening around me: the war and everything else. We don’t have any illusions. We don’t hope for acquittals or suspended sentences…I just want to contribute to the culture of supporting prisoners. After the sentence and imprisonment, people’s stories don’t end! They still need support. They need lawyers, communication with the outside world, letters, parcels, and everything else. And that support is vital throughout one’s imprisonment, even if it is very long!
Even the most high-profile cases are forgotten after a while. When nothing happens, people say: “Well, he/she is in jail, so what can we do?!” And support can sometimes save a life and support an inmate’s mental health. The story of Anton Zhuchkov and Vladimir Sergeev, who are accused of preparing for a terrorist attack, is an example. I realized from Anton’s letters that he was very depressed. I found out how he could speak to a psychologist and who of those working in the pre-trial detention center was the best fit. For his birthday, I posted on Instagram: “Tell me if you’re going to write to the prison or organize a letter writing evening for political prisoners.” So many people answered. I told them: “Here’s this person you should congratulate on his birthday. He’s in jail for a suicide attempt and feels bad.” He received many letters and cards from different countries, and his mood changed dramatically.