‘I was completely exhausted emotionally after everything I’d been through’: Maria Butina recalls the nightmare of jail time in US
Butina is a gun rights advocate, who found herself dragged into the subsequently discredited ‘Trump-Russia’ saga and sentenced to 18 months in prison by a federal court. US prosecutors and the media worked hard to present her as a cunning spy using her feminine charms to slither into the corrupt underbelly of the National Rifle Association and expose American conservatives to malign Kremlin influence.Also on rt.com ‘My hair color was proof of guilt’: Maria Butina talks her arrest, the NRA, and Senate testimony (FULL INTERVIEW)
Now back in Russia, Butina works as a rights activist and is the co-host of a program on RT in Russian. She shared an excerpt from her upcoming memoir, which tells how she arrived in the city jail of Alexandria, Northern Virginia, after her arrest on July 15.
“Behind the ‘slaughterhouse’ curtains I saw two guards, a walk-through metal detector and a huge grey plastic chair that the smirking guards referred to as ‘the master’s chair’. They turned me to face the wall – sticky with human sweat and blood – and told me to put my palms on it. They frisked me and pointed to the creepy grey chair.
“Sit down. Lean back and don’t move,” said the guard. He flicked the switch jutting out from one side of the chair, which made a high piercing sound. I jolted in surprise. As I correctly guessed, this sinister device is used to check whether there is any metal inside a detained person’s body. I would sit on many chairs like that when transported under convoy and in court buildings.
“Everything’s OK. She’s ours,” the guard cheerfully nodded at the FBI agents lingering in the doorway and trying to cover their noses from the stench.
They took me to the next room where, on a long wooden bench, I saw a person, or something – it was impossible to tell the gender from looking at them. Opposite this person was a computer desk for the guard who signed in newcomers. I sat down on the very edge of the bench, trying not to faint from the vile stink permeating the room. I didn’t have to wait long: they took my fingerprints again, and a smiling officer looked quizzically at me in my thin, beige capri pants, black top and a throw-over cardigan barely covering my shoulders. The cherry on top of this completely-out-of-place look was my unruly mane of red hair that almost reached my waist. The next step was talking to a police psychiatrist in his dirty, poorly-lit office with heaps and heaps of papers and the bluish light coming from an old computer screen.
“Do you want to kill yourself?”
“Do you want to hurt yourself?”
“Do you want to kill anyone around you?”
“Do you want to hurt them?”
Having crossed the U.S. border multiple times, I have learned not to make jokes when talking to law enforcement or security agencies. Your joke will absolutely be held against you.
“Are you a danger to society?” the officer pressed.
“Have you ever tried to commit suicide?”
There was no end to it. At some point, to tell you the truth, I really thought that maybe if I said I was suicidal they would send me to hospital instead of that awful stinking pit. Later, it turned out I was right not to go down that road because self-destructive prisoners were kept in the same conditions as the rest with only one exception – that ‘cherry on the cake’, as Americans say. They were put in a straitjacket and laid out as a mummy on a metal bunk ‘until further notice.’
When the police psychologist finally exhausted all their questions, I was offered a sandwich and some juice. I wasn’t hungry but my insides were telling me to eat. I made the right choice. I had to make that meagre sandwich last all the way until midnight. Until then, they didn’t give me any food or water. All the pieces fell into place as it became clear why my lawyer almost begged them to let me have at least one little bottle of water.
A guard pushed me into a corridor with a small metal staircase and we started descending. From there, I could hear the dreadful sounds of people pounding on metal, shouting in anguish – all sorts of inhuman moaning and howling.
“Shut up, all of you!” barked the officer into the semi-darkness of that metal hell.
We walked down the corridor surrounded by cells beyond count, men and women were clinging to the metal netting of the doors. They were begging for water, toilet paper – or at least for someone to tell them what time it was. Male prisoners were raising hell after they noticed me, which put an amused grin on the face of my guard.
He threw me into a cell next to one with a man. The wall between us had no windows so I couldn’t see my ‘neighbor’, but he certainly liked to tune in to any sound I made. He got so stimulated hearing me moving around next door and choking on my tears that he pleasured himself loudly all night long – and I had to listen.
To produce as little sound as possible, I crawled to the farthest corner of my metal bunk, and shut my mouth and my nose tight with my hands in order not to cry. There was a black woman in the cell across from mine; I could see her through the mesh holes, and the window. She had a mop of tangled hair covered in filth and vomit; most of the time she lay on her berth, moaning and swearing at the guards. She asked for much-needed feminine hygiene supplies, but they didn’t give her any, so she smeared the walls with her blood.
There were no mattresses, blankets or pillows in prison. Each cell was no bigger than half a train compartment. Metal bunk berths had holes drilled in them to drain one’s vomit onto prisoners underneath them, or just onto the floor. There was also a metal toilet and even a sink, but there was no water or toilet paper. There were, however, huge, thumb-sized red cockroaches. It was incredibly hot in the cells, and the heat seemed to make the prison stench a billion times worse. The guards didn’t enjoy it either, as they had to descend to this hell every thirty minutes to do their rounds. So they brought in a huge fan and directed a powerful air current right at our cells. It blew right through me. I shivered as I curled up in the corner of my metal berth, pressing my knees to my chin.
Many of the prisoners begged to turn off that ‘wind.’ We were all thrown into that basement in the midst of summer; those wearing shorts and t-shirts were the worst off. I was a bit better off, relatively. I quickly realized that the warmest part of my ‘outfit’ was my thick red hair. I covered myself with it, spreading it over my body towards my feet the best I could, and it helped me warm up a bit, and concentrate on thinking.
I was completely exhausted emotionally after everything I’d been through. I felt an overwhelming desire to switch off and take a nap in the twilight of the basement. “Not now,” I said to myself, “as my mom used to say, an evening nap guarantees you a sleepless night, and that would be a real disaster. The night will go by faster with sleep.” Then I remembered about the sandwich I had got on my way to the cell – a couple of pieces of white bread, which was moist from the high humidity, with two see-through, odorless slices of cheese and a tiny piece of salami, packed in several layers of cling wrap. “I should eat a bit now, otherwise my brain will stop thinking, and that will be a disaster in these conditions. I have to concentrate as much as I can to comprehend what’s going on, and figure out what to do,” I reasoned with myself.
It wasn’t clear when I was going to eat next, so I just ate half of it and saved the remainder for the moment I felt hungry again. I slugged down the saccharine drink, which tasted more like sweetish water with a generous dose of acid red dye than juice. The shot of glucose did its job. The brain kicked in, I began taking stock of the surroundings.
I thought to myself: ‘What time is it? I need to know to make sure I know when it is day and when it is night.’ There were no windows on the walls, certainly. The light was on during the day and at night. The task of figuring out what time provided a temporary distraction.
The last thing I remembered was that I was brought in at around 3:30pm. The guards did their rounds every 30 minutes. That meant I could count the rounds and calculate the right time. If they registered me by 5pm, and there were a couple of rounds after that, it meant it was around 6pm. But what next? I had no pen or paper or anything sharp to scratch the wall! Toilet paper! Eureka! I tear it every time the guards come down for their rounds. I immediately recalled that the other detainees would ask for toilet paper by extending their hands through the food window slightly longer than the wrist, with palms cupped. During the next round I did the same by squatting down close to a small window. It worked! They wound some of the coveted toilet paper around my hands. I thought, well, I’m being really inventive, and started counting the rounds by tearing the paper slightly.
I felt the next round had come sooner than half an hour. “Something must have happened,” I said to myself. The guard brought a teenage Mexican over to me, opened the door and shoved her inside. “Here’s a neighbor for you. Have fun, girls,” he mumbled and shut the door with a squeak.
My first fellow inmate was no older than 16 - a small, scraggy, dark-skinned girl with pitch-black short hair and big, tearful eyes. She huddled herself into a corner on the lower bench, drew her sharp elbows up to her chin, and broke into tears.”Also on rt.com US not bad but justice system broken: Butina talks about ‘terrifying’ solitary confinement, vows to fight for inmates’ rights
Butina stayed at the Alexandria jail for almost a year as her trial dragged on. After her conviction, Butina was moved to the Federal Correctional Institution in Tallahassee, Florida, where she spent five more months before being released. She says she was victimized by the US justice system and forced to change her plea to ‘guilty’ even though she didn’t do anything wrong.
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