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When prison becomes a home for life

As suspended capital punishment continues to spark debate in Russia, RT went to find out what the life-sentenced think of it and what it feels to be a life convict.

Nobody knows why a colony for the life-sentenced near the city of Solikamsk in western Siberia is called “White Swan”. The bird’s image there, emblazoned on every corner, is reminiscent of a kindergarten, rather than a maximum security correctional facility.

The inmates themselves are also surprising. Evgeny Khvoshchevsky killed four when robbing a bank, but were it not for his outfit you would think you were talking to an aspiring scholar:

“What is your mind busy with now?” asked RT. “A theory of literature. It is where different genres are analyzed and the way a work of fiction is written. I analyze poetics, stylistics of the language. My ultimate goal is to be able to express myself distinctly both verbally and on paper. Then I'll be able to think distinctly too,” responded Khvoshchevsky.

It took him several years to realize that it is in the White Swan that he will spend the rest of his days.

“A death penalty is easy – you are shot and that's it. The end. And here you are slowly realizing what you are deprived of. Every day, every minute, every second,” Evgeny says.

However, Dr. Alla Glinchikova from the Institute of Globalization and Social Movements says that while the death penalty could be considered as a form of alleviation for the inmates, for a society as a whole accepting capital punishment and the right of the state to kill its citizens would mean that it is in a “deep crisis.”

Watch full interview with Dr. Alla Glinchikova

But for Evgeny who received a life-sentence any question about the death penalty is rhetorical. The same cannot be said for prisoners who were sentenced to death, but were not executed. Since 1996, Russia has had a moratorium on capital punishment. Nonetheless, the prison's physiologist says it is risky to discuss this topic with them.

“If a convict has made up his mind, he will find the way to commit suicide,” explains Oleg Yakushev. “First they are relatively calm, trying to get used to the fact that the prison is their home. The adaptation takes up to a year-and-a-half, then they are looking for ways to survive in their current conditions – the most popular one is turning to God.”

Andrey Volkov, 38, is one such convert. Before, he was a member of an organized criminal gang and responsible for eleven murders.

“I always believed in God, but I resisted him. And then shortly before I was arrested I saw a movie where Jesus Christ was crucified at Calvary. That is when I realized that it is because of such people as me that God's Son came to this world and died for us. I decided I would not do harm to anyone ever again, and I haven't,” Andrey said.

In spite of Andrey’s words, it is hard to do harm to anyone in the heavily-guarded White Swan prison. A plaque with a detailed description of crimes is put on every wall. A black triangle means that a convict is suicidal; a red one indicates there is the threat that the prisoner might attempt to escape. No one has managed either.

Inside cells look neat and odorless – something uncommon for prisons. The first impression is that of a morgue. A convict is not allowed to lie on their beds before bedtime, nor is talking between cells permitted. The first outside visit is possible after ten years of good behavior, and that is when some of the most outrageous deals are sealed. Prisoners give away apartments and homes to women from the outside in exchange for a night of favors.

However, many outside help convicts unconditionally by sending parcels, but some of the life-sentenced do not receive any parcels at all, as they are mostly terrorists and those who killed children.

Regardless of whatever aid they seek or receive, or how many books they read, these prisoners for life will have only the company of a white swan until the end of their days.