Suicide attempts and cases in which prisoners themselves seriously damage their own health are not uncommon in Belarusian colonies and remand prisons. Often this is not due to depression or suicidal tendencies, but is an attempt to enforce internal regulations or even save lives.
Belsat TV talked to the prisoner who wrote many complaints, saw many deaths behind bars and repeatedly damaged his own health, including cutting his veins to improve unbearable conditions.
Dzyanis Barsukou is a 39-year-old man from Rechytsa who has been convicted twice and spent 13 years in prison. The first time in his youth, the second time, from 2011 to 2017, for causing grievous bodily harm. He served his punishment in a number of colonies, wrote hundreds of complaints about the conditions of detention and sometimes achieved his goals – but at the expense of worsening something else. Here’s his list: during the last two years in prison he swallowed eight spoons, 35 ball pens, two nails 100 mm long, two broken light bulbs, several blades. Yet none of this was taken out through surgery.
Now Barsukou’s health is in poor condition (he is sure that he has just a few years left to live), but he is not assigned a disability group. He can’t find a job: there are only offers of heavy physical work, which he is no longer capable of because of his health. In his videos, he states that he has no money for medicine, utilities, and sometimes food, so he is ready to sell his own house and even a kidney. To those who want to help him, he is ready to show all the documents about the state of health and dismissals through this state, as well as correspondence with the executive committee.
Everything he says concerns not just political prisoners. Earlier, all convicts were treated more or less the same, Barsukou said. Then Alyaksandr Lukashenka stated that those convicted of drugs should be treated particularly harshly. That’s what happened; the authorities began to create separate detachments for such convicts, removed them from formal positions. When Barsukou was in prison, there were not as many political prisoners as there are now. Now, says Barsukou, he has heard that political prisoners are treated worse than others. But, he claims, “there is no difference are you political or not – in any case you get oppressed”: “When you stand up for your rights and say, ‘I have a right,’ they see it as if you are insulting them.”
The convict has to follow every rule, but the prison administrations are ‘not so willing’ to do the same, says Dzyanis Barsukou. Somewhere they can comply with almost all the rules, somewhere with only a third of what they have to. On average, Barsukou believes, administrations follow the ’50/50′ rule, but convicts are severely required to comply with everything..
Convicts can be deceived about the inner order rules. For example, Barsukou recalls, prisoners are forced to clear snow where they don’t have to do that. There is an area that prisoners have to clean as part of unpaid work in the residential area, two hours a day, and there is one that day laborers have to clean – but ordinary prisoners are forced to clean the area instead of day laborers. Or it happens that during hours of unpaid work they are taken to work in the industrial zone, where they are obliged to be paid. Barsukou says that in all colonies they “make all sorts of moves to deceive” prisoners with salaries.
Food and equipment standards are not met. Barsukou gives an example: in the correctional colony Nr 12 there is a hospital where people are treated for tuberculosis. It would seem that the hospital should have better conditions, because the budget spends more money on it, but there was no proper radio station, table, shelves for storing things… In solitary confinements, says Barsukou, they ‘like’ to turn off the heating in winter. A man who was sitting in the cell next to him hung himself because of the cold. According to Barsukou, “if they give you 50% of due food, ok then”; instead of meat they can throw bones in it. Many prisoners cannot eat prison food because of the horrible smell and taste.
The administration does not give out things that should be given to prisoners. If relatives do not send packages, even a toothbrush and toothpaste are difficult to get – you have to ask other prisoners for them. Barsukou himself has repeatedly written complaints that prisoners should be given three pairs of socks a year, but get none. He was told that the money allocated for socks ‘plug’ more important holes in the budget. But they offered him a “compensation”: work in the canteen so that he could eat normally (he did not have time to take advantage of the offer: he was sent to a pre-trial detention centre, then to a cell-type room, and finally to another colony).
Written complaints work, but not always. If a prisoner is not yet known to the administration as one who is ready to take extreme measures, then his complaint is simply ignored. They also ignore the complaint when it is difficult for the prisoner to prove the problem (like, not enough meat or no proper medical care). Only if the problem is very serious and obvious, or if they know that the prisoner is ready to take extreme measures, then they try to solve something and arrange an internal inspection. Barsukou remembers how he went to the remand prison and immediately told the head of the colony: if there are complaints that his illnesses are not treated, he opens his veins. After that, a doctor was sent to him, and as a result of the analysis he was transferred from the remand prison to the prison hospital. But there are administrators who do not want to fix anything in principle.
“It makes sense to complain there, some problems get solved. Not 100%, but it works. Yet it will be much worse for you, they will create very bad conditions,” Barsukou warns.
Complaints will be punished. Barsukou says that he has repeatedly stated violations – and for that he was put in a remand prison. Because of that he was not amnestied and was not released on parole, but was imprisoned. The administration is trying to put pressure on other convicts to start conflicts with those who complain. For complaints, they can be deprived of appointments so that appeals are not released through relatives. Barsukou claims that when he demanded the due special nutrition because of his stomach ulcer, the head called him and said: “We will give you this diet, but you will eat it in the detention centre.” Yet he managed to defend his diet.
If you want something to be given out, it can be of poor quality. Barsukou was put in a remand prison for being unshaven: he did not have his own razor, and the administration did not give him razors, although it was obliged; he was offered to ‘ask one of the prisoners.’ Barsukou says it happens that ten people shave with one razor. When the prisoners rebelled for this reason, they were given razors that were difficult to even cut paper with.
Many things are silenced and not recorded, says Barsukou. He mentions that he was once attacked by masked unknown people in the correctional colony № 9, and his head was severely beaten. Convicts who worked for the administration were then sent to him: they persuaded him to write that he had fallen, and if he refused, he had to be sent to a remand prison. In order not to start a criminal case, “they invented that I stumbled, fell, something else.” According to Barsukou, “even if your intestines are out, the prison doctor comes and looks: if you live, the ambulance will not be called, they will sew it up quickly.” He also had to sit with a man who was poked with scissors into the kidney area by another convict – the documents said that he “got a furuncle cut out”.
“Psychologists came to me and asked: what happened to you, you were normal, you did not ask questions before, and then started demanding that everything has to be according to the law. They were guessing and could not understand why it happened.”
Those who complain can be hidden from the commissions. Barsukou says that when the commissions come, the administration tries to cajole or intimidate those who complain, or just lock them up at work in the shops. When he once went to meet the commission, he was simply caught and hidden in a utility room, where the commission did not go. And when the commission left, they bragged, “You can complain all you like, no one will punish us.”
Correctional officers are not often punished. Barsukou states: if the violation can be concealed and is difficult to prove, it will be concealed. If the case becomes public, the culprit can simply be transferred to another colony. Only if the case is very serious can the culprit be tried (Barsukou saw that even criminal cases against employees were initiated due to the prisoners’ complaints). Meanwhile, staff who help prisoners can be punished financially.
But there is solidarity of prisoners, Barsukou says. If there is ‘strong lawlessness’ against one of the convicts (severe beatings or turning off the heating in winter), all convicts can start massively and loudly knocking on the doors, shouting, demanding to call the head assistant.
Attempts to harm oneself are very frequent. Barsukou says, in 13 years in prison he has seen dozens of prisoner deaths through suicide attempts and hundreds of cases where prisoners have maimed themselves. In a colony for three thousand people there may be 5-10 such cases a month, Barsukou believes. He says people often harm themselves in remand prisons, where they can be kept for three months. At the same time attempts to injure oneself are punished.
People harm themselves to save their lives. In most colonies doctors are not on duty at night – and if there is no doctor, they are obliged to call an ambulance. But ‘ambulance’ is called in very rare cases. Barsukou says that when he already needed to be operated, he was only given a painkiller, which was contraindicated in his illness. “And it was not easy to get either.” One night in the pre-trial detention centre of the Mazyr penal colony № 20 he had a cholecystitis attack – he was in pain, but at the request to call the doctor the controller just swore at him. Barsukou could not bear the pain, so he opened the veins in both hands. The doctor then arrived ‘in five minutes’, but wrote ‘gastritis’ in the diagnosis. Then, Barsukou says, he was taken out of the remand prison, left to lie on the floor until the morning, and beaten in the morning. “If I hadn’t opened up then, I could have my gall bladder burst.”
Opening veins is also not easy. Prisons make sure that prisoners do not have sharp objects. Barsukou says he saw people trying to open veins with a metal lighter cap. In this way skin and veins are not cut, but simply torn by “those who have more strength of spirit.”