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Petak, Russia’s Alcatraz, softens hardened inmates

- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 14, 2004

PETAK ISLAND PRISON, Russia -- During the dying days of the Soviet Union, Vyacheslav was a 29-year-old prosecutor in Russia's Smolensk region who, by his own admission, had almost God-like powers over the locals.

One day, overcome with boredom, he stabbed to death two women he barely knew, because he wanted to know how it felt to kill.

"I took a knife, killed a bookkeeper and a cashier and stole their money. I didn't need the money, but I needed to feel again. I was bored with my life. You've read Dostoyevsky? Maybe you understand," he said, now a 46-year-old balding man with a squint and wire-rimmed glasses.

Vyacheslav was sentenced to death. But on the day he was to be shot by a firing squad, a prison official came to the execution cell and told him his life would be spared -- Russia had decided to instate a moratorium on all executions.

"I expected the executioner and instead Jesus Christ came. Since then I have prayed to God every day. I thank Him for the sun, the sky, life and our bread," Vyacheslav said.

He is one of 170 men being held in Russia's notorious prison No. OE-256/5. Known to prisoners and warders alike as Petak, it is specially adapted to hold the country's most dangerous prisoners.

In a country where brutality and hopelessness are common currency, Petak is as bad as it gets. There is not the communal fighting, the rapes and drunkenness that is common in some Russian prisons, but the regime is so unbending and inhuman that it eventually crushes even the toughest inmates.

Like its more famous American cousin, Alcatraz, Petak is surrounded by water. Security is so tight that no one has escaped in living memory. The prisoners live in a state of relentless and unending despair.

If Russia had not signed the moratorium on implementing the death penalty, most of them would be dead now. Instead, they will each serve a minimum of 25 years. In the present political climate -- President Vladimir Putin has made law and order a central plank of his policy -- few expect to emerge alive.

Each prisoner is kept in a small two-man cell for 22 hours every day. For 1 hours they stand, or pace like predatory animals, in a small cage outside.

Only the most determined stay in good physical condition. The day the Daily Telegraph visited, Valery and Oleg, cell-mates for five years, were toning their muscles by clenching a piece of rag in their fists and pulling against each other.

Valery, 39, from Tyumen, an oil town in Siberia, has a zipper tattooed down his throat and smaller tattoos on his eyelids. He has spent 24 years in prison for robbery, theft and, more recently, multiple murder.

"Three people were trying to put pressure on me," said Valery, who acted as a hired gun for businessmen in the early 1990s. "So I killed them. I was caught within a week. They sent me here. This is the worst. There are no toilets, no proper washing facilities and you spend your whole life in a cell. When I came here I told my wife to get a divorce. She cried a little and we've never seen each other since."

Oleg, 42, was convicted of murder and committing serious injury in a notoriously brutal case in Yakutsk in 1989. His brother, who was given a five-year sentence for his role in the same crime, came to see him once, but he has not had a visitor since 1996.

The letters and the food parcels, which the prisoners use to trade with and buy cigarettes, dried up at the same time.

"This place destroys these people. The first nine months or so they spend adapting. After three or four years their personalities begin to deteriorate," said Svetlana Kiselyova, 29, the prison psychologist.

"There is no way anyone can spend 25 years in a place like this without being psychologically destroyed. The homosexuals are the ones that come off best -- at least they are not starved of physical and emotional contact," she said.

There are only two ways in and out of Petak: by foot, along two rickety wooden bridges, or by prison boat. Armed guards stand at watch towers on each corner of the building. German shepherds are kept in a special pound.

In stark contrast to the grim brutality inside, the White Lake surrounding Petak is one of Russia's most beautiful. Gulls fly, the water is rich with fish and the trees and bushes are reflected in the shimmering water.

"There are prisons in Russia where the prisoners are in control, where even the governor has to consult with the head criminal before he can do anything, but not here. Here we're the bosses," said Vasily Smirnoff, the head guard.

"Of course sometimes I worry about sending my guys into a room with only a notebook and CS gas against some of the toughest guys on earth. But nobody's ever escaped. If they dig, they hit water. If they try to swim, the guards will shoot them," he said.

For the first 10 years of a man's sentence, he is allowed two visits a year, of two hours each. After that he can have two long visits and two short visits. But by the time a decade has passed most men have lost contact with their families, who often live many days' travel away. Parcels are allowed twice a year.

Half of the prisoners have tuberculosis. At least two prisoners are clinically insane. When men die, their bodies are taken to a small graveyard nearby and buried in the presence of one or two of the guards. No prisoners can attend.

Misbehaving prisoners are sent to punishment cells to be locked in a small, dark room with only a metal bucket and a fold-down bed for 15 days. No books are allowed. In the daytime, the bed is stowed and they must stand, or sit on a tiny wooden perch a few inches wide.

Vladimir, 45, killed two men and two women in St. Petersburg in 1994.

"I was drunk," he said.

Soon after he was sent to Petak, he started painting with oil paints friends sent him. Today his cell is a gallery of rural Russian landscapes he paints from memory.

"I don't want to leave here," he said. "I've made this room my home. One day it will be my mausoleum. Who knows, perhaps after my death I will be famous and people will come and visit this cell. They'll say of me, 'He might have been a murderer but at least he was a fine painter.'"