Helene Celmina. Women in Soviet Prisons

The fate of thousands of Latvians is connected with the largest prison in Latvia, the Central Prison in Riga, which was filled with political prisoners in Stalin's time. Then labor wards, one for men and one for women, each contained between fifty and sixty people. These inmates worked in the prison kitchen, bathing facilities, the hospital, and cleaned the yards and stairwells. Prison II, the former temporary prison was located by the railway station. All four units in the Central Prison were overcrowded with political prisoners, as they were officially called in Stalin's time. They were not trusted with any work within the prison, but sat and waited for their sentence, after which they were sent on the prisoner transport to the "camps of the vast homeland" from the Ural Mountains through Siberia and the far North.

By the time of my arrest in 1962, the whole Central Prison was filled with criminals; there were no vacant beds. Let me describe the prison physically: The windows of the four-story, heavily walled brick building are covered from the outside with what prisoners called "muzzles." These are boards, nailed at an angle over the windows to form skyward slits, the width of three fingers. There is no view down which both prevents the prisoners from seeing through the window, and achieves complete isolation from the outside world. Inside the cell the heavily barred windows are too high to be reached with a hand.

From the outside the prison is secured by three gates: The first gate is open during the day, the second and third which are mechanized are operated by the duty officer. The main entrance of each unit is also secured with a locked, double iron grating. On each floor, both to the left and to the right, are locked grated entrances to hallways leading to prison wards. Behind the door of each ward is another locked iron grating.

The women's wards are locked by female guards, men's by male guards. These guards were both Latvians and Russians, but mostly Russians. It was rumored that one of the Latvian female guards was the prison's executrix of capital punishment. That guard always wore black leather gloves, which were unobtainable in the stores, when she came to lock the doors. It was said that her whole family were prison employees; her husband was a guard of long standing, and her daughter, a young, attractive girl in her twenties, was also a guard.

The floors in the wards and halls are covered with a heavy layer of asphalt, the walls are covered with dark grey, oil-based paint. There are no toilets or water in any of the wards. If any-one becomes thirsty, too bad; if anyone has to use the toilet, there is a barrel in the corner of the ward, which the sixty inmates use day and night. When the barrel is full, two inmates are allowed to carry it out. Quarrels and fights break out because many want to carry the heavy barrel, which often is filled to the brim and spills. Officially there are two trips to the toilet in twenty-four hours, in the morning and at night, between six and six-thirty. It wouldn't be so bad if the human organism could be synchronized with the clock. The so-called toilet is disgusting: four holes in an all-cement floor with no partitions between. Nonetheless the doors of all such toilet rooms are provided with peepholes through which the guards watch. For awhile the toilet paper issued in the Central Prison was a particularly expensive kind: the map of the U.S.S.R. cut into small, four-inch squares. No one ever got two pieces.

The opportunities for washing are practically nil. Lines formed at the four taps, but washing time is limited to one minute per person. It is fortunate that some-the middle-aged Russian derelicts, for example-do not like to wash, and only wet their hands and the area around their eyes. Nothing angers those in line more than an educated Latvian who will not leave the tap until she has washed thoroughly. Fortunately, the water is ice-cold, so that even the most fastidious cannot stand it for long. Also, the washing is interrupted by the insistent rapping of keys against the door, and the guard's clamor that the washing must end, although some have not even had a chance to wet their fingers.

Every ten days my whole ward was taken in single-file to the bathing facilities. There, one pair of nail scissors was issued to every thirty people. When we went to the bath we took our blankets with us to shake the dust out. Sheets were changed then. Underwear was washed in the ward, in a small bowl, all taking turns. The underwear was dried on the end of the bed.


Admitting Procedure

The "order of reception" into the prison is uniform throughout the Soviet Union and follows a strict pattern. Immediately after admission the person is placed in a small closet, called the "box." Often prisoners spend hours, sometimes whole nights, in the stuffy box with only a small piece of netting in the ceiling for ventilation. The box is barred from the outside. This system was adopted to prevent a prisoner from meeting an acquaintance in the anteroom where registration is carried out.

This wait in the box takes place prior to the inevitable search. Everyone brought to the guard room is searched from head to foot. The prisoner is stripped and each garment is searched meticulously. No metal is permitted. If the wedding ring on a fleshier finger cannot be removed, it is filed through and broken off. If a man wears suspenders, these are removed and the pants must be held up by hand. Through all the years of imprisonment the pants must be held up by hand, as the belt, too, is taken away and no cord is allowed. This is also an effective method of preventing escape; running is hampered by the need to hold up one's pants. Neckties and long scarves are confiscated. Pins are removed from a woman's hair. Watches, pencils, mirrors, and all other necessities are removed. Cheap items are thrown into the waste pail, while the valuable ones, as well as money, are entered on a special receipt form. When that receipt is given to the prisoner, he is informed that "these things will be returned to you on release." This is not quite true. The political prisoners have the phrase "with confiscation of all property" added to their sentences, whereas the criminals are informed after their sentence is up that their valuables have been lost.

If the newly arrived woman has been accused of theft, she is searched internally by a gynecologist. Women accused of other crimes must squat two or three times once they have removed their clothing. Men have their heads shaved, as well as all other body hair. Women have their heads shaved only if lice are found, but their pubic hair is shaved: That added humilation is mandatory.

When all the "procedures" are finished, the new arrival goes to the stockroom where the following articles are issued: a padded mattress, a dark-colored blanket of questionable cleanliness, two gray bedsheets, a pillow with a gray case, one aluminum howl, a mug, and a spoon. In many Soviet prisons only the Russian national wooden spoon is permitted, aluminum spoons are not issued. The prisoner must carry these items to the ward. If the prisoner has brought along a bag with personal clothes and underwear, it has to be left in the stockroom for safekeeping. Only the most urgently needed pieces of seasonal clothing are allowed in the ward.

With this newly acquired inventory, the arrested person is admitted to the preliminary investigation ward, which houses many other people who have not yet been tried. The ward sleeps sixty, with bunk beds on either side and a long table and benches in the middle. In the corner is the inevitable reeking barrel. At the end of the table is the tea barrel. Tea is poured twice a day. The rest of the time it is empty. All too often, tortured by thirst, someone tips the barrel sideways hoping for a few drops of cold tea.

The only social diversion in this ward is dominoes. All day long the same players bang the pieces around the table. Others read books. Books are issued every ten days, one to a person, but readers on a ward trade the books they've finished. During the daytime, at the request of the prisoners, the guard allows one or two sewing needles and thread to repair clothes or stockings. There is only a choice between black and white thread. In the evening the needles must be returned.

Handicrafts are strictly forbidden. Nevertheless, occasionally a prisoner will sew or knit something on the sly. Knitting needles are created by peeling the birch twigs from a broom with the spoon. The wool is obtained by unravelling an old woolen garment. In that way old clothes can be turned into new ones. Even though knitters try to work in utmost secrecy, with their backs turned towards the others, they are easy to spot because of the rhythmical movements of their elbows. At least twice a month a major search is conducted. First the prisoners are all lined up, pockets and seams are checked, and then all are led to the exercise yard. On return the knitters find their knitting needles broken and their balls of wool confiscated.

The only officially-sanctioned activity in the preliminary investigation wards is the gluing of gray paper bags which are used by stores for potato packing. For every two hundred bags glued, the prisoner receives a small package of mahorka which is made from stems of the tobacco leaf, cut up fine, resembling sawdust. In Riga mahorka is not available on the free market, but can be found in tobacco kiosks in Moscow and other Russian cities. Newsprint is the only paper strong enough in which to roll a mahorka cigarette. The prisoner must butter up the guards and plead for a sheet of old newspaper in order to enjoy a smoke.