Russian opposition politician Alexey Navalny has been sent to a prison known as unusually harsh and feared as place where prisoners are subjected to intense psychological pressure, according to former inmates and prisoner rights campaigners.
Last month, Navalny was sentenced to serve over two and a half years in a penal colony for allegedly violating his parole for a 2014 fraud conviction that has been widely denounced internationally as politically motivated. He was arrested after he returned to Russia following his near fatal poisoning with a nerve agent.
Navalny was moved last week from a Moscow detention center to a prison colony, and officially, authorities have still not said where he is. However, Russian state media reported Monday that Navalny is now in a prison in the Vladimirskaya region, about 60 miles east of Moscow.
The United States and the European Union on Tuesday imposed new sanctions against several senior Russian officials, including the head of Russia's prison service and its prosecutor general, over Navalny’s poisoning and jailing. The Biden administration also said it was limiting some forms of cooperation with Russia's space industry.
The prison where Navalny has been sent, Penal Colony No. 2 in the village of Pokrov, is “a breaking camp,” Pyotr Kuryanov, a lawyer with the NGO Fund for the Defense of Prisoners’ Rights, told ABC News.
Former inmates at the prison said that while they do not expect Navalny would face beatings or physical torture at the prison, because he is a high-profile prisoner, they believe he will be subjected to pressure and isolation that would amount to “psychological torture."
“No one will beat or torture him,” said Vladimir Pereverzin, who spent two years in the prison 10 years ago. “But they will psychologically break him.”
Pereverzin was a former manager at the oil company Yukos, which was owned by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oligarch who was jailed for more than a decade on fraud charges that most observers believe were retribution for trying to politically challenge President Vladimir Putin. Pereverzin was sentenced to seven years on embezzlement charges, as part of the case against Yukos and Khodorkovsky.
Russia’s penal colonies, though improved, are still set up along the lines of Gulag camps created in the 1930s. The prison consists of barracks that house several dozen inmates sleeping in rows of bunks together, and it is surrounded by high walls topped with razor-wire.
Prisoners work long labor shifts, often sewing clothes, and conditions are reportedly grim. But Penal Colony No. 2, former inmates and campaigners said, is distinguished by the exhausting level of control and discipline to which inmates are reportedly subjected.
From outside “it seems like all the rest of the camps,” Kuryanov said. “But inside this camp, there is an unbearable atmosphere created artificially by the administration staff, so that it has to be lived in day after day, month after month, year after year.”
In practice, former inmates alleged, that means inmates are subjected to near constant checks and forced to continually follow trivial rules invented by the administration, leaving them in continual fear of punishment. Infractions can include a missing button or failing to say hello.
Ordinary new inmates reportedly go through a grim induction, beaten by guards and inmates working for the administration, according to several accounts by former inmates published online. Almost every moment of a prisoner's time is accounted for, and guards allegedly often make them take part in repetitive pointless exercises intended to break them them down, such as being made to repeat their names and crimes over and over or being forced to stand for hours with their heads lowered, Dmitry Dyomushkin, a nationalist activist who spent time in the camp, told Russian media.
“There, even flies don’t fly without asking,” Dyomushkin told radio station Echo of Moscow.
In the penal colonies, discipline is usually maintained by prisoners themselves, either by inmates collaborating with the guards or by criminal gang leaders. Colonies that are run by prisoners working with the authorities are known as “Red Zones” in Russian criminal slang.
At Penal Colony. No. 2, there is a strong set-up between the administration and collaborating prisoners, those with experience there alleged, that allows the warden to dominate a prisoner entirely.
“It’s the reddest of the red,” Maria Eismont, a lawyer for an activist who was sentenced there in 2019, told Open Media, an opposition news site. “There, everything is done to isolate political prisoners,” she said, alleging that other inmates were forbidden from talking to her client.
Dyomoshkin said he faced similar tactics, spending months without speaking to anyone, despite being kept in the crowded barracks.
Guards would also often reportedly make life unbearable for inmates by turning other prisoners against them. Guards would tell some inmates that other inmates were responsible for collective privileges being taken away, former inmates said.
Pereverzin said that while he was in prison, the pressure became so bad, he used a razor to cut gashes on his stomach to force guards to move him to a different barracks.
"There's nothing good there," Pereverzin said. "You completely feel your helplessness."