Penal Colony at Perm by Jane Evelyn Atwood, 1992

In the 1990s, Jane Evelyn Atwood visited over 40 prisons in twelve countries across Europe and the United States over a period of one decade to document female incarceration. She managed to get access into some of the world’s worst jails, including death row. She recalled:

I am often asked how I could have spent so much time on such a sad subject. Initially, curiosity was my main motive. Surprise, shock and amazement took over. Then the rage carried me to the end.

From the beginning, I was struck by the immense emotional lack of the prisoners. They were handicapped in many ways. They had been crushed not only by ignorance, poverty and a shattered family life, which are common to almost all prisoners, but also by years – if not a lifetime – of physical and sexual abuse by men. Today, the policy in women’s prisons is to humiliate rather than rehabilitate. In some societies, a man who has served time in prison is considered a hero. For a woman, it is always a disgrace.

89% of incarcerated women are incarcerated for non-violent crimes. Is it really necessary to put them in prison? Take a good look at these women. They had the courage to assume their guilt, to want to change, to speak to us, with their words and their images. These are the women we have turned our backs on.“

She had come to the project documenting the prisons in the failing Soviet Union. During the early 1990s, as Russia began to open up to international journalists working on daily life stories, Atwood had a street-wise young interpreter named Stas who helped to pull official strings to get her inside the women’s prison in Perm, Siberia.

The colony there held over 1,000 women – the majority of whom were forced into hard labour. The lede photo above showed women who are in solitary confinement experiencing their yard privileges – half an hour in outside cages. Most women in the prison are there for assault, theft or simply lack of papers. In Perm, Atwood was able to win the trust of her subjects – both prisoners and warders. Her work, accompanied by her own powerful essay, reproduced below, appeared in The Independent Magazine on 25 January 1992.

Perm ls an industrial Russian city of 1.5 million people at the foot of the Ural mountains. Twenty minutes outside the city, surrounded by a thick forest of tall pines, lies the Perm Penal Colony for Women. There are no signs to indicate what’s inside. The muddy, pot-holed driveway and the low, red brick buildings, badly in need of repair, look more like a dilapidated farm than a women’s prison. Anything from 1,000 to 1,200 women live here. Many of them have been incarcerated several times before.

The republics of the former Soviet Union hold 27,000 woman prisoners in 49 institutions. Under the presidency of Mikhail Gorbachev, reform was under way: thousands of political and non-violent prisoners had been released: thousands more were benefiting from increased access to the outside world. Now, prisons and prisoners are in the lands of the republics. No one is certain how – or if – reform will progress.

I spent a week in Perm last year, before the break-up of the Soviet Union. There was evidence of reform, but the prison was in other ways primitive, in if lodged somewhere between glasnost and old-fashioned Soviet brutalism. Most of the prisoners werein for ordinary criminal offenses, such as theft, but others were in for crimes which are bring gradually abolished, such as infringement of the internal passport laws. The prison population was at its lowest, but I was told it was not uncommon for 200 new prisoners to arrive at once. At first shy or suspicious the women were surprisingly quick to accept my presence. A few did not allow me to photograph them as all, but others gave me access to all parts of their lives.

Unlike most, prison in the West, there are no cells at Perm. The women live in dormitories that house from 80 to 180, andsleep in bunk beds. During my visit, the prisoners slept two to a bed, but three women share a mattress when necessary.

The guards spend roost of their time in small offices at the end of each dormitory. Many had had other jobs but were unable to find work. One woman had been a biologist and another a lawyer. There is no privacy for the prisoners, and male guards freely enter the dormitories.  Inmates often try to hide by hanging a sheet from the top bunk.

Food consists of a soupy sop with un-identifiable pieces floating in it. It is poured from meal buckets into metal bowls. Smoking is not permitted, but it is tolerated. Thirtyminutes are allotted for meals, but the women eat in ten and use the rest of the time to smoke – in the toilets or the dormitory doorways.

The toilets are holes in the ground with three sides and no doors but, unlike inthe West, they are located in a separate room from the sleeping area. Vists last two hours and prisonen are also entitled to two three-day visits a year. These take place in small rooms off a long corridor, at the end of which is a kitchen where families can prepare meals During this time, the prisoners live with their children, husbands, mothers and friends. After visits, the women are often obliged to submit to an internal body search by a private gynecologist.

Perm is a labour camp. The women spend eight hour a day in huge work-shops, mostly at sewing machines. They make uniforms for the firemen of Russia. They cut gloves and large panels for the jackets out of heavy pieces of rubber. Many of the women have tuberculosis but they are will required to work. When they go anywhere within the prison, ninmates move in military formation, either lining up themselves or at the orders of the guards. They are required to wear uniforms – thick tight, knee-high heavy leather boots, short, fitted skirts, and shirts with their names embroidered on them or heavy, quilted jackets. They wear white headscaves indoors and thick shawls when they are outside. The headscarves represent prison to the women. They regard them as humiliating and some didn’t want to be photo graphed in them.

A couple of times a week, the women are allowed to take a steam bath. Here they wash themselves and their clothes. The water is hot and there as plenty of it.

The solitary confinement cells are in an isolated building. Women can be held in them for as long as six months. The walls of the cell are crumbling and painted black. These prisoners are served boiled water instead of tea. They are allowed outside for exercise once a day, for half an hour, in cages where they are surveyed by a guard.One woman asked to be put in solitary confinement because she said that communal life was driving her crazy.

There is a nursery and maternity ward. A child was born an hour before my arrival one morning. Prisoners are allowed to keeptheir baby until they are 18 months old. There are about 30 babies in the nursery and the women can leave work or the dormitories to nurse them three times a day. The nursery is clean and the attendants wear white hospital gowns.

The guards are envious of the nursery; they say that their own babies, living outside the prison, are less fortunate. They say their babies are not as well fed and cared for.

Liked it? Take a second to support Iconic Photos on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

977 thoughts on “Penal Colony at Perm by Jane Evelyn Atwood, 1992

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *