'Welcome To Hell': Life In A Notorious Russian Women's Prison

From kittens tossed into blazing furnaces to prisoners losing fingers slaving for hours at sewing machines in a rat-infested sweatshop, IK-14 prison for women in Russia’s central region of Mordovia is one of the most dreaded female correctional facilities in the country.

Such is the notoriety of the prison, women condemned to serve there often take extreme measures to avoid it, including slitting their wrists. And Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova said the reputation of prison IK-14 was known across Russia.

"As the inmates say, ‘If you haven’t done time in Mordovia, you haven’t done time, " said Tolokonnikova, who herself served prison time at the facility in 2013.

In a letter published in September 2013, Tolokonnikova complained about the slave-labor conditions at the prison, as well as abuse faced by prisoners. She wrote that women were forced to work 16 or 17 hours a day with one day off every eight weeks.

Such was her experience at the prison that Tolokonnikova campaigned for prisoner rights once she was released under an amnesty in December 2013.

According to the latest official data, 557,684 individuals are incarcerated in Russian correctional facilities. Of these, 44,474 are women.

More than six years after Tolokonnikova penned her letter, the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) admitted she was "correct," in the words of FSIN Deputy Director Valery Maksimenko.

On December 24, Maksimenko announced the FSIN had requested that prosecutors open a criminal probe into allegations of slave-labor conditions at the prison in Mordovia. The director of prison IK-14, Yury Kupriyanov, was dismissed, along with other officials, Maksimenko said.

Kupriyanov had forced the prisoners to sew clothing for him, his relatives, friends, and business associates, Maksimenko explained.

Some of the inmates who have served time at IK-14 have told of their experience there to the Volga Desk of RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service.

Inspected Like Horses

Gelena Alekseyeva, a former deputy minister for investment in Saratov Oblast, was sentenced in 2013 to 3 1/2 years in prison for abetting commercial bribery. Between March 2014 and May 2015, Alekseyeva served part of her sentence at IK-14 in Mordovia.

Alekseyeva said such is the dread of being sent there, that women take extreme measures to avoid it.

"When the girls find out that they’re going to Mordovia, they cut their wrists, do everything possible: get sick, swallow nails, just so they don’t have to go there. Its reputation is known, especially after the letter by Nadia Tolokonnikova," Alekseyeva told RFE/RL.

​Alekseyeva was picked to work in the sewing shop, cutting fabric to size.

"The saw cuts the fabric along a chalk line continuously. God forbid, if the saw cuts somewhere else [and not on the chalk line], then all 100 cuts are ruined. I can say that fingers on the saw are chopped off, cut, blood flows. This is definitely unsafe, requiring some training. I was saved by the cons themselves," Alekseyeva explained.

Kittens Tossed Into Furnace

Like others, Alekseyeva said conditions at the facility were downright medieval.

"Mice lived with us. Rats lived with us in the industrial zone. Before you went into the bathroom, you needed to knock -- there were special poles for that. So that the rats would scatter, you understand," Alekseyeva recounted, adding that cats are also kept to hunt the rodents.

As the felines reproduced, however, the prison found a cruel method to keep their numbers down.

"They [the kittens] are collected in a sack and burned in the furnace," Alekseyeva said, explaining the cats are used as a kind of bargaining chip with the prisoners.

"There is nothing more dear to the inmates than these kittens and cats. But they can also be used for punishment. So, if you sewed badly today then we will burn the cats! They don’t punish one or two people -- they punish a whole brigade," Alekseyeva said.

'Unbearable Conditions'

When Veronika Krass entered prison IK-14 in October 2014, a few words scrawled on the wall at the entrance grabbed her attention.

"At the entrance to IK-14 there is a sign: ‘Welcome To Hell.’ When someone enters the colony, there’s a lineup in the yard. Everyone yells, ‘Fresh meat has arrived.’ The inmates react of course to this -- they are afraid," Krass told RFE/RL.

In April 2014, Krass was sentenced to five years in prison after being found guilty on narcotics and robbery charges. She served part of her term in the Mordovian prison from October 2014 to March 2017. She was 41 years old when she was imprisoned at prison IK-14.

Krass explained that up till the last moment, she had no idea she was headed to prison IK-14.

"After the sentence is handed down everyone is very afraid about ending up in Mordovia. They sit in their cells and nervously wait. In the end, quite unexpectedly in the middle of the night, people are taken out," Krass said. "I was taken at midnight and they told me I should be ready to leave in 40 minutes. As I was led out, I asked where I was going. No one answered me. During the trip no one answers any of your questions."

Like others, Krass complained that the conditions in the sewing shop were unbearable, with daily quotas constantly raised.

Krass says once she complained to prison administrators that she couldn’t keep up with her sewing quota, a mistake she quickly realized.

"They told me if I didn’t sew what I had to -- and it was minus 20 [Celsius] outside -- then I would stand in the ‘spot’ outside. That means, in the evening after work, you cannot return to the barracks."

Arguing with administrators only got Krass thrown in the isolation cell for a few days.

Laws And Rules Can Only Hurt You

Yelena Federova was sentenced to 12 years in prison after being convicted on a murder charge when she was 20 years old. She served part of that sentence from June 2007 to April 2016 at prison IK-14.

Federova was quickly moved to work in the medical unit. Originally relieved that she had avoided the horrors of the sweatshop, Federova said she witnessed "really horrible things."

"I repeatedly saw beaten women -- young and old. They cried, begging for help. I went to Yury Kupriyanov to put an end to this madness -- end the beatings and uphold the law," Federova recounted.

Ultimately, she turned to independent media and NGOs with the shocking details of what was going on in the prison. A criminal probe was opened but quickly shut after Fedorova refused to give the names of any witnesses.

"They were afraid to open their mouths again, fearing they’d be killed this time," claimed Fedorova.

The fate of one 21-year-old HIV-positive prisoner, Lena, still haunts Fedorova.

"On July 13, 2013 she died in my arms. She was a really young girl, who, despite her diagnosis, could have lived a long and happy life. She had just 40 days to her release. We battled for two hours to save Lena’s life, [while] her heart was still beating," Fedorova said.

"Two days before she died, Lena went to the medical unit staggering, as if she were drunk. She had bruises all over. They beat her because she went to ARV therapy [antiretroviral therapy] and was unable to sew what was demanded of her by the shop leader."

Like the others, Fedorova now hopes that Kupriyanov and others responsible for the treatment of prisoners at prison IK-10, finally face justice.

"I think that Yury Kupriyanov should be punished for all that he did. He destroyed the lives of many while working at the prison," Fedorova said. "I’m not only for him being punished, but others in the prison administration as well. Kupriyanov was not alone."