Nikolai Avtukhovich: A Letter from Hell
Political prisoner Nikolai Avtukhovich wrote a shocking letter from jail.
Letters stopped coming from Nikolai Avtukhovich. The last bit of news to come from the Grodno jail was that Nikolai attempted to cut open his abdomen with a razorblade in protest against unfair disciplinary punishment. Apparently, he got patched up… Apparently, he is feeling alright…
It is during these days of concern and uncertainty that a recent article by Nikolai Avtukhovich was passed along to Narodnaya Volya. His story of life in a Belarusian jail is truly horrifying:
I am in jail for my zero tolerance of injustice. For speaking openly about corruption. However, I did not commit a crime.
In all the time I have spent in Grodno Jail No. 1, I paid no attention to petty abuse from individual jail staff members who violated my rights. Even before I reached the jail, I knew I could be in for "special" terms of confinement, but I was sure I would be able to take anything without breaking.
I did not complain when, upon arrival at the jail, I was put straight into a solitary confinement cell and was kept there for 255 days and nights. I would have been kept in that cold, damp cell with a bare concrete floor, without either a table or benches to sit on (which is against the law), until the end of my sentence, if it hadn't been for an accidental newspaper report. Because of high humidity and dank walls in that cell, things would be covered in mold even inside a bag! The mattress was rotting. And yet, some jail employees were telling me, "You are lucky you got the suite all to yourself!" Except that this "suite" made, a non-smoker, cough up large chunks of phlegm. One had to wear a hat in this "suite" even during summer, and there was ice on the inner grille of the window in winter.
I did not react in any negative way to displeasure of jail employees who accused me of writing "the wrong kind" of letters to correspondents outside the jail, who seized five of my letters making a formal statement of seizure. They were threatening me with a new criminal lawsuit for damaging the good image of our country. One especially keen major even asked a superior permission to use "other methods" of "sorting me out" (making it abundantly clear what those were going to be).
I did not react in any negative way when prison authorities rejected a parcel my mother brought for me on a visit, a parcel they had explicitly allowed. Mom had saved money for months from her meager pension to buy 30 kilograms of pricey food, brought it all on her visit, and was told that "was not allowed!" How was that not abuse? It's a good thing I prepared her a little for this eventuality and calmed her down. She could have had a heart attack. How can I call them men, the prison officers who did not keep their word? They are not real men, real men would never do that, especially officers!
I did not complain about medics, who almost invariably ignored my requests for medical care. I requested care 40 times in a year, and yet, they deigned a response only six times. And all doctor calls ended with the same question: "What can we give you, if we don't have anything?" At Penal Colony No. 5, doctors were very blunt about it: "It is easier for us to sign your death certificate than give you treatment." I have many serious medical conditions, and yet, the medics never - not once - took any tests. I am not the only one to receive this kind of attitude - I've heard similar complaints from many inmates.
I waited more than two months to see the head prison doctor, although I kept writing requests to see him all the time. When I did see him eventually and asked him why it took so long, he told me that he never received any requests… Yes, it is true that requests written by inmates often fall through the cracks, just disappear. On one occasion, the jail authorities refused to let me see my lawyer because they claimed they didn't have my request. I decided against writing a new one, because mere days before the lawyer's arrival, I personally handed my request to the Head Warden. This should not be happening, but it is.
I did not react negatively to many other insults and provocations, until I found out from the public prosecutor of the Grodno Region, who visited my cell in January 2013, that I was a "malicious and inveterate violator" of jail regime. As it turned out, jail authorities wrote a complaint about me for not reacting to a prison guard's admonitions, while in fact no such admonitions or warnings were ever made. And, as it turns out, I was issued a citation in October 2012, which I only found about in January 2013.
The decision to issue a citation against me did not come from the prison administration; they were merely following an order from above. This was an order by people who have control over the whole situation. Not mere mortals, people close to the top of the power pyramid. They are apparently afraid that I could be released before the full term of my sentence and present proof of my innocence.
After I found out about the October citation, I had to warn the prison administration that was not just their low trick that was on the line, it was the reputation of the whole country. The administration didn't get it. They tried to calm me down, reassuring me that nothing bad had happened, that the citation would be cleared from my record anyway after 12 months. They really wanted me to believe this was not done on purpose. I naturally did not believe that. The administration had no logical explanation for the gratuitous act by the guard. And now, precisely one month before my citation would be cleared, I get another one under similar pretences. What kind of prison is this where ordinary guards can trump up infractions at will, and the administration pretends to have nothing to do with it? Why is an ordinary prison guard not afraid to lie and wreck people's lives? These guards cannot be believed, no matter how hard the administration may try to find excuses for them. This cannot be a coincidence that on two occasions -- both in 2012 and 2013 -- I could receive citations immediately before all the previous ones were to be expunged. This is why I had to protest against this and slice my abdomen with a razor. All these actions are the responsibility of prison authorities. There is no other way to attract attention to this problem. The administration no longer reacts to hunger strikes. I protest today because tomorrow this same guard would claim that Avtukhovich hanged himself or died of heart failure in his cell.
I have been incarcerated since 2005, and I can see that the inmates' rights situation is only getting worse. During this time, I have come to realize very well that neither a prosecutor's office watchdog, nor any other control and monitoring agency are going to solve inmates' problems. In fact, everybody who wound up here have learned very well that they are only going to make it worse for themselves if they send any complaints insisting on respect for their constitutional rights. There have been many known instances when complaints addressed to the prosecutor's office were suppressed by the penitentiary. On some occasions the complaints have been torn up in front of the complaining convict!
There are multiple examples of prison authorities taking it out on whistleblowers among inmates. It is no accident that inmates end up in maximum-security solitary confinement after complaining, and cannot get out of this prison within a prison for a long time, repeatedly getting additional time for various alleged infractions. I was taken out of the maximum security block many times to see the head warden only to get additional time in solitary.
Permissiveness, full knowledge of impunity, and the circle of silence relieve prison officers and wardens of the sense of proportion in their arbitrary tyranny. They no longer even try to conceal or veil their devious methods of extortion the use on convicts and their family members. Furthermore, many officers claim insufficient funding of penal institutions to set up their personal business at the expense of inmates and their families.
If we do not talk about these issues openly today, nothing is going to be resolved. As early as tomorrow inmates may start getting only two meals a day and will be told that this is done at their own request, or at the request of their wives, children and mothers.
I know that, to refute my words, prison administrations would have no trouble at all finding any number of those who would start telling anyone who would listen how they are living it up at penal colonies and jails, how everybody likes it there, and how nobody complains about anything. But I think everybody realizes how easy it is to put the right words in the mouth of an obedient, completely dependent and subservient slave. However, I know exactly what I am talking about, and I'm ready to take responsibility for my words. All the more so because so many people have passed through prison camps and prisons of Belarus in the past 20 years that I would not have to look for witnesses to back up my words. If everyone of them who has Internet access would post their own story or that of their friends who have served time in prison, the world will shudder when it finds out just how rotten this entire system is in Belarus.
For now, this is what I want to talk about. Belarusian Government (Council of Ministers) Order No. 1564 dated November 21, 2006 set food rations and clothing allowance for convicts serving their sentences in penitentiaries. An April 28, 2010 Council of Ministers Ruling amended that order. These regulations were the basis for the budget of our country, in which provisions were made for maintenance and supply of penal colonies and prisons. In this connection, I want to ask the President of "the most just and fair European nation" if he knows how much less convicts get than they are guaranteed by law?
Does he know about the actual state of affairs in the nation's penal colonies and prisons?
Who is stealing the allocated money: public servants or the government?
Why, Mr. President, does anybody care about prison inmates' problems in our country?
Why have we not, in the past 20 years, changed the laws we should be ashamed of calling civilized?
Why does an entire jail block (about 500 men by my estimates) have to cut their nails with the same pair of scissors?
Who of the public servants have raised this question in the past 20 years? Or does everybody consider our prison inmates as animals?
Why are inmates not issued disposable safety razors?
Where are those two chicken eggs per week we should be getting under the current standards? Why are we receiving 100 grams of milk a day instead of 125 grams? Why are any morsels of meat impossible to find in "meat and porridge"?
I tried to find answers to all these questions from the prison administration, and a lot got cleared up. As it turns out, grade-one rations for those serving their prison sentences were replaced with grade-three rations allocated to those held in custody while under investigation. A "clever" inspector from the Interior Ministry had the temerity to doubt the Government order on prison rations. The inspector forgot that those held in custody before the trial can receive from their families 30 kilograms of food every month, while those serving their sentences can receive such food parcels only once a year. Taking away from prison inmates a chicken egg, cutting down the allocation of milk, potatoes, bread and cereal, the Government has decided to skimp on people's health. The picture is taking shape, and it is not pretty -- a classic case of cheating inmates out of their rations. I find it hard to believe that a common prison inspector could defy Government orders. This bold action -- substituting actual interpretation of the law by an expedient interpretation to save some money from the Government coffers -- was only possible with a blessing from the authorities. That was why the Corrections Department sold out the inmates so easily.
I contracted nail fungus while in prison. It took a long time and a lot of effort to prove to the administration that 500 men should not be using the same pair of scissors which nobody bothers to disinfect, which simply hangs on a peg in a shower locker room (showers are allowed once a week). I got them to see the light. They allowed an alternative. My wife brought nail clippers three times, and three times she had to take them back. While some permit this, others say this is not allowed… Reasonable administrators in penal colonies quietly allow inmates to have personal hygiene items, but if you need to be punished, nail clippers will be a handy reason to report you and accuse you of infractions. While the civilized world has allowed personal hygiene items for more than 30 years, our inmates are denied this right by law! Is this a sign of a great love for the people? How can this be not shameful for our country?
Inmates of Prison No. 1 in Grodno are not allowed a personal sewing needle. Having one is a serious infraction, making one liable for a citation. Thus, the prison administration is forcing inmates to share a sewing needle (one per 10--15 cells), against all common sense, even though some inmates are infected with HIV and hepatitis. The question is why.
Why, Mr. President, in all the years I have spent in prisons and penal colonies since 2005 it was only in the spring of 2013 that inmates started receiving toilet soap and disposable safety razors?
There are many other questions "Why?" I could ask.
Why, Mr. President, in all my years spent at penitentiaries, have I never seen toilet paper being made available to inmates?
A new officer on the administration of the Minsk SIZO 1 pretrial detention center could not believe me when I told him that nobody got any toilet paper. He went away for half an hour and told me when he came back: "I have found out this: you are getting technical literature instead of toilet paper." Indeed, old books were offered around cells and described as technical literature, but I simply could not believe this was meant to be a substitute for toilet paper. I asked the major to show me the document which denied us this basic personal hygiene item. It was some kind of a request from the Corrections Department for the Council of Ministers.
When I told the penal colony administrators that there was too little meat in the porridge, they asked me: “Did you weigh it?” I was eating out of a field kitchen for two years and three months in Afghanistan, and I know very well what a ration of meat looks like on a plate. But how does one oppose this bold-faced deception? In fact, I did weigh the meat. While still at SIZO-1 on Volodarskoko Street in Minsk, I suggested to my cellmates – there were 10 altogether – to pull all meat out of porridge and put it into one plate. The guys extracted all the strands of meat out of porridge. We fashioned primitive balance scales out of thread and a pencil. We put a 100-gram packet of biscuits on one scalepan and all the meat on the other. The result: biscuits outweighed the meat from our ten portions, whereas we ten people should have had 900 grams of meat in our porridge. Why is prison food no longer an issue in the entire civilized world? Possibly because they fight corruption with actual actions, not by holding endless meetings to discuss it. They have long since introduced standard “factory” dose packages to prevent any appearance that incarcerated people may be cheated out of their food, poisoned, or tortured by hunger. Ultimately, a court sentences a person to limits on his or her freedom, not to torture. In the meantime, in the “honest and incorruptible” Belarus everything is done by eye measure and everyone is supposed to take somebody’s word for it. “What do you mean, not enough, don’t you believe me? I personally checked when the meat was added to the pot,” – a high-ranking prison officer told me. I believe my own eyes and my own stomach. Why does the country have to believe that nobody is stealing, as everybody is lying in the corrections system, because they know nobody can ever check. A food server (an inmate) answered my question “Where did the meat go?” with “What can I do about it? This is what I get at the kitchen block.” Indeed, where can he get the meat if there is little or none of it in the porridge? The inspector supervising the food dispensing process has an even simpler answer: “Are you the smartest one here?” People are not expected to ask uncomfortable questions in prison, so inspectors waste no time in getting the “nosey ones” to shut up.
Some “mice under the broom” squeal about prison inmate rights violations in Europe, while they have no idea what is going on in prisons and colonies in their own country. I am not talking about political prisoners, because many of the inmates in our country are prisoners of conscience more or less. So who came up with this ingenious deception scheme? We tell the whole world that our inmates are getting 100 grams of meat a day per person, while in fact they are getting only around 43 grams each. I am not claiming that the whole 43 grams finds its way into inmates’ plates. In the Soviet times, a soldier was assigned 100 grams of meat a day, and he would get 100 grams of canned meat a day in the field. Why does our country use the live weight of a pig or cow in accounting for inmates’ rations now? After I figured this out, I saw that after 100 grams of “meat” goes through initial processing (which includes skinning, boning, removing tendon tissue), it sheds 30% of its weight. After cooking, another 27 grams evaporates from the remaining 70 grams, leaving 43 grams of meat on paper, while only sparse strands of meat and chicken bones make it to the inmates’ plates.
Why are inmates not made aware of meat and other food substitution standards? People simply do not know how many grams of chicken meat or soft sausage they should be getting instead of the government-mandated 100 grams of pork or beef. And since they don’t know, they are not going to ask questions or complain. I have been able to find out the substitution standard for chicken meat instead of beef or pork. The substitution works on a 1:1 basis. Who has come up with that? Chicken is significantly cheaper than beef or pork, and far less nutritious. Sausage substitution standard is not stated. We were often given finely diced soft sausage of the cheapest kind in our porridge instead of meat at Ivatsevichi Colony No. 5. It expanded when cooked to about twice the original size, so it is an open question whether the sausage had more soy than meat in it. At the same time, you could always “buy” fried fish and sausage at the cafeteria for cigarettes. Just like everything else, really. In fact, fish is another “problem item” on the prison menu. It is simply impossible to figure out how much fish you are getting – how do you divide it among ten people? They are served a single pot, not individual portions!
What century do we live in? Who gave them the right to take people down to the level of pigs and put their food into the same trough? Who gave them the right to reduce people to animal conditions, to make sure they would attack food, trying to grab a morsel quickly, to get any food at all?
They made a so-called fish “pate” at SIZO 1 in Minsk. Small fish, with heads and ungutted, would be cooked whole. Then it would be mashed like one would mash potatoes, and put it into large pots serving 20 people each. I was simply shocked when I saw this dish for the first time. This disgusting mush cannot be called food fit for people. I shared the cell there with people in special circumstances – people who received no support from their families, but even they could not bear to stick a spoon into this stinky goo.
I fought the “fish soup” at the Ivatsevichi colony for a long time. They served this soup for dinner, but it was simply inedible. Small fry was thrown into cauldrons, without bothering to clean or gut it. And we were offered this up as food. Even a very hungry man cannot make himself eat this “culinary masterpiece.” So they fed this “fish soup” to the pig at the colony farm. Lard and bacon made of those pigs were sold right there, at the colony store. Frankly, I never suspected that bacon can have that disgusting fishy smell. This was the kind of a “zero-waste” operation they have there, when people an pigs share the same food.
In any case, I succeeded in making them put bigger fish (blue whiting or herring) into the fish soup. However, another problem emerged instantly: only fish heads and tails remained in the soup available to the inmates. Yet, you could still buy any quantity of fried fish at the cafeteria for cigarettes.
I spent a long time trying to bring it to the attention of the administration. They noticed it eventually. Head Warden of the colony called me to say that fish soup was now going to be made of bigger fish without heads. But the “good times” didn’t last: how could those who lost their “fish business” put up with that?
Back in 2007, inmates of the Minsk Penitentiary Colony No. 1 discovered worms in their boiled fish. They started their own quiet investigation, without making any noise, and found empty boxes that contained frozen fish and were stamped “Feed for farmed fur pelting animals only.” I believe every penal colony in Belarus could have had similar incidents, which means this is not an incident – this is part of an overall system.
Why are inmates stolen from and who pockets the money? For how much longer the various supervisory and inspection authorities are going to cover up blatantly all these crimes? And who is going to be punished for this? And if the government cannot provide adequate food for inmates, why are they not allowed to receive parcels from their families or those who want to help, at least once every two months? And why is our government trying to skimp on even relatively healthy food for its citizens? Can one cook anything but horribly unhealthy food on very low-grade palm oil?
Why are no fruit and vegetables available at the prison store? In my 20 months at the Grodno Prison, I only saw onions at the store three times. Have onions become an exotic vegetable in Belarus? I have tried many times to convince the jail administration to allow apples to be sold at the jail grocery store, but this was impossible. Apparently, apples are also an exotic fruit in Belarus. Even when all the apple trees are groaning under the weight of a bumper harvest, and people are prepared pretty much to give them away for free (as was the case last fall). These are not small things, this is what destroys people’s health, even though there is not a single court sentence to maim the convict and ruin his health.
Clothing allowance is another problem that is getting hushed up. I was really ashamed for my country when I saw what kind of uniform inmates were getting at the penal colony. You can only hope to wear it until the first time you wash it, upon which it turns into shapeless, horrible tatters. I did not get any clothing allowance at all at the Grodno Prison. Nobody even asked me if I needed any. They issued me two bed sheets instead of three as mandated, and one pillowcase instead of two. One cannot get the bed linens out of the laundry on the same washing day, one has to wait a week until the next one. I had to sleep without bed sheets for a whole week, just like everyone else. The only other alternative is to exchange new dirty bed sheets for clean but really old ones. This is what I ended up doing. In any of the subsequent replacements, I never, not even once (!) got a decent pair of sheets and a pillowcase again. The ones I did get looked like they may have been around since World War Two. And you are not allowed to use your own bed linens unless they are white. You are not allowed blanket envelopes. Why? Whose sick brain came up with these rules?
Belarus praises itself to the entire world. If only people overseas could have seen the kind of bed linens inmates are getting at Belarusian penitentiaries! If they could only have seen the kind of dishes we have to eat from! One is not allowed to have one’s own dishes in prison, either (although they made an exception for me, letting me keep one plate).
Once during a search, they took away all my plastic containers left over after food. The next morning, a guard dispensing breakfast simply refused to put it into a prison bowl, simply banged the iron tray and went on his way. The search was my retribution for writing “the wrong kind” of letters. If a guard didn’t feed an inmate or withheld from him something the inmate is mandated to have in a civilized country, he would be fired the next day. In Belarus, you don’t have anywhere to complain, and nobody is going even to try to set it right.
So you are not allowed a blanket envelope or a bowl, but some get to extort something much bigger that that. Inmates in colonies are fully responsible for repairing their living quarters. Where does the government money allocated for the purpose go?
By the way, Penal Colony No. 5 has living blocks that haven’t had a working heating system for many years. They cannot afford to install ventilation in Prison No. 1, they don’t even have the money to buy fluorescent lighting fixtures. Colonies and prisons usually disconnect power outlets from the mains so inmates cannot even make themselves some hot tea to warm up on a cold day. Explain this presidential decree on economy. Follow the decree! Who does not? Change the window frames in the cells, they are rotten and have holes, replace inefficient radiators. Save, but do not harm people or disconnect all the power.
This is all happening in the 21st century, in the “civilized Belarus.” The prison infirmary doesn’t even have a basic cold medicine. The Grodno Prison did not have a dentist for more than one year. They do not treat toothaches here, they pull them out right away. A cellmate of mine had a severe toothache from January 2012. He has signed up to see a dentist more than 10 times since then, and never saw one, he left for a penal colony in May 2013. Isn’t this tantamount to torture?
I can (and probably will, one day) write a book about the beatings, provocations, abuse and various machinations. But right now I want to ask a different question: how much longer are the authorities going to hide behind a screen of “legality, fairness and democracy” its enclaves of servitude thriving behind the fences of penal colonies? How much longer is the society going to keep quiet about this problem or pretend it doesn’t concern it? How much longer are we going to close our eyes to the arbitrary tyranny of it all?
International human rights watchdogs have recognized Nikolai Avtukhovich as a political prisoner.
Nikolai Avtukhovich is a veteran of the Afghanistan campaign, a successful entrepreneur and a democratic activist from Volokovysk. Born on January 7, 1963 in Volokovysk. After leaving high school, completed a course of studies at SPTU-37 (a technical school) in the neighboring Greater Berestovitsa, graduating as an auto mechanic. From 1981, he served in the Soviet Army in Russia's Saratov Region as a driver for the Strategic Missile Arm. After graduating from a warrant officers' school, he volunteered for active duty in Afghanistan. He received a Red Banner order and medals For Bravery and For Distinguished Battlefield Service for defending a bridge outside Kandahar and for other missions. He resigned from the Army in 1991 in his home town of Volkovysk as a Warrant Officer First Class and went into business.
After Nikolai Avtukhovich attempted to be elected to the house of representatives of the National Assembly, the first criminal lawsuit was filed against him for tax evasion.
He was one of six political prisoners released as a result of tough US and EU sanctions against Belarus, but on February 8, 2009, he was detained again and sentenced to five years for possession of ammunition (five handgun cartridges). Avtukhovich's health was undermined at that time by a series of hunger strikes and lack of necessary medical care.
Nikolai Avtukhovich was sentenced to five years of incarceration under Article 295 Section 3 of the Criminal Code for Illegal activities with respect to firearms, ammunition, and explosives. Avtukhovich had another two months added to his sentence on the grounds that he committed his new crime before he served the remaining two months of his earlier sentence. Thus, Nikolai Avtukhovich is now serving his sentence of five years and two months of incarceration in a high security prison confiscation of private property.