Helene Celmina. Women in Soviet Prisons

There probably aren't many modern states whose citizens have never seen their own currency. Yet in camp #17-A several women had never seen Soviet-printed money. After the war they fled into the forests with their husbands, and from the forests they went straight to prison. Other women knew the currency in use right after the war, but were arrested before 1948 when the currency reform brought new bills. In 1961 the bills re changed again and only two of us recognized these latest bills. The rest had neither seen nor handled these bills, and had no idea of current prices. They only knew camp prices which reflected camp values and accounting practices.

For every prisoner the camp accounting department kept a card which displayed the name, length of sentence, and amount of money owned by the prisoner. Income and expenses corded on this card. According to Soviet law, prisoners receive only fifty percent of their earnings. The other half is transferred to the state, as its part of the punishment, even, though court sentence mention it. The Soviet Union enriches itself with slave labor, and it profits from keeping people in corrective labor camps.

The well-trained seamstress, provided she fills the high work norms, gets forty rubles booked into her account card, the highest possible income. Most factory workers earned about twenty rubles or less. Those who worked in the fields made ten to fifteen rubles monthly. Then came the deductions, the largest of which were made for food and clothing. The deduction for food was made at the end of each month after calculating the cost of the groats fed to the prisoners. Any difference in the food deduction was due to the price of groats. The bread was always the same, dark, wet, heavy, with a slightly bitter-sour and salty aftertaste, and its price never changed. Nobody knows how much the administration charged for the cabbages which the prisoners grew themselves and ate every day. Deductions were also made for room, light, heat, and bedding.

Having to buy prison clothing was annoying because it fit absolutely no one. One wonders who designed, cut, and stitched these garmets. When prison clothing gets wet, the color runs and blackens the skin. Prison dress is obligatory and cannot be refused, it is handed out and charged for.

One also wonders where the underclothing which prisoners must purchase, is made. There is no reason to suppose that all prison are the size of pregnant elephants, but the only underclothing available to the inmates of camp #17-A was that size. We laughed about it and once two of us stepped into a pair of huge cotton pants, and they weren't even tight!

The only article issued that fit was the footwear: lace-up canvas boots with rubber soles. For winter everyone was issued a quilted cotton jacket and a large plaid shawl. The whole issue of prison clothing cost sixty rubles and had to last for two years.

Because I earned so little which did not cover the various deductions, I was not forced to purchase another set of clothing after two years and used the first issue until the end of my sentence. After my release I owed the state fifty-seven rubles and twenty kopeks. I worried that I would be forced to pay this after starting work outside, but I never had to.