Female prisons in Russia

Russia ranks 6th in Europe in terms of the percentage of women behind bars. By the beginning of 2023, according to the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN), around 433 thousand people were held in Russian pre-trial detention centers, prisons, and colonies, with approximately 9% of the inmates being women. Despite a decrease in the number of prisoners in recent years, this has had little impact on detainees’ living conditions. For instance, women work up to 16 hours a day, including nights. They suffer health deterioration due to overwork, poor nutrition, and extremely harsh conditions. It’s basically prison slavery for 500 rubles ($5.5) per month, and sometimes even unpaid, all due to loopholes in Russian legislation.

Lyudmila Semashko, who runs a TikTok account with 85 thousand followers, sheds light on the female labor prisons. She shares her firsthand experience in prison, highlighting the realities of women’s lives behind bars.

On the cutting edge of sewing production

In 2013, Mila Semashko, 23, from the Moscow region was sentenced to probation for drug possession after being set up by a friend who used psychoactive substances with her. However, her sentence was soon changed to a real one as she was caught again with illegal drugs and sentenced to 3.5 years in prison.

Mila was sent to serve her prison time in Mozhaysk, and later transferred to a correctional facility in Chuvashia, the city of Tsivilsk. Formally, the facility was supposed to assist inmates with addiction, but according to Mila, the only help available were voluntary meetings with a local psychologist.

instagram milla_semashko

‘I went to the psychologist just for the record, so that he could confirm that I was fine and could remove my tag indicating that I was prone to suicide. Earlier, in the detention center, I had attempted poisoning myself,’ recalls Mila. Due to her suicide attempt in isolation in prison, she lived under special conditions. For example, she slept with the lights on so that prison staff could monitor her through the cameras.

While imprisoned in Mozhaysk, Mila worked in the sewing production in leading brigade. Women were woken up at 7 a.m., and according to the official schedule, they were supposed to work at the factory from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. In reality, many shifts lasted until 8 p.m., sometimes even until 2 a.m. Occasionally, they had to work for three days straight with breaks for food, short rests, and a two-hour sleep. The administration pressured inmates into signing a ‘voluntary’ agreement for this work schedule.

Mils says: ‘You sign a document that supposedly makes overtime voluntary, but you don’t really have a choice. You need to complete the order within tight deadlines so that someone higher up gets good money, and for your ‘workaholism,’ you might get an earlier release. People work their ass off just to finish faster,’ Mila explains, adding that this rule didn’t really apply to the team leaders. If the team had good productivity, prison administration has zero interest in granting them early release.

Sewing Workshop in the women’s prison in Kineshma, Russia. Photo by Anton Belitzky / East News

‘Sometimes inspectors who came to check never wondered how a brigade of 40 people could sew three thousand jackets in a week. Just count how many parts per minute one seamstress produces, you would be amazed. I was sewing about 200 sleeves per minute,’ says Mila.

According to her, refusing to work overtime in the leading brigade was unrealistic. The requirements for other teams were slightly less, but their wages were lower. While Mila earned 1,500-1,700 rubles ($16,8-19) a month, prisoners from other brigades earned only 200-300 ($2,2-3,3) rubles. The ‘rank’ of the brigade was determined by the volume of work performed.

‘It was like the Soviet Union there. Like in Soviet factories. There was a big board where they posted the names of the best workers. My brigade was usually in the first place with the caption read ‘Our prison is proud of the 51st brigade. You refuse to work, you are thrown in a punishment cell’.

Mila Semashko personal archive

Sick profit

There were no sick days for the workers, and the only medicine available was analgin. ‘Even if you had a fever, you still had to sew. In my case, that’s how it was: with a high temperature, I would sew for 12, 16, 20 hours a day,’ Mila recalls.

After a week of intense work, working 16 hours a day, according to Mila, she could easily lose 8-10 kilograms. Due to poor nutrition and the lack of vitamins., everyone’s teeth were spoiled.

Women’s Colony No. 3 in the Ivanovo Region. Photo by Vladimir Smirnov / TASS / Forum

‘The difference between the girls arrive and the what they look like when they leave is terrifying. Those who are lucky get fruits and vegetables in care packages from jail visitors, because the food in prison is terrible: bread is always undercooked, the porridge is a mess, and the food smells of mold,’ Mila says. Tasty, home-like food was only available on inspection days, so the inmates loved those days.

Mila was lucky. She received packages from her relatives, and with her ‘sewing’ earnings of 1700 rubles ($19), she would buy cookies, condensed milk, a can of coffee, a pack of cigarettes, and milk when it was brought in at the store near the prison. The inmates, she said mostly bought sweets during breaks to have something to enjoy with their coffee at the factory.

Documents on wages in the women’s colony. Photo by Olga Bendas

‘We were sewing uniforms for government agencies like the Emergencies Ministry, Traffic Police, the regular police, as well as for private companies. ‘Once, we were making some vests,’ Mila recalls. ‘When I got out of prison, I saw these vests being sold at local ‘Pyaterochka’ (popular grocery store chain). They were going for 800 rubles ($9) there, while we were making them for 30 rubles ($0.34) apiece.’

Life revolves around the sewing production

If any of the inmates starts complaining about working conditions, they are punished up to being sent to the punishment cell or even facing a stricter detention regime.

Recordings from surveillance cameras could serve as evidence of forced overtime and other violations, but staff members usually just turn them off. According to women we talked to, all violence against them is directly related to the factory work.

Gulag rules

Sometimes private companies place clothing manufacturing orders, but it’s unclear exactly which ones. It raises concerns, human rights activists say, that these companies consider it acceptable to use forced labor of inmates to make excessive profits.

The girl is being released from prison in Kineshma. A still from the film ‘The Liberated.’

The labor laws within prisons require thorough investigation and significant reforms. This issue was overlooked during the adoption of the criminal-executive code in the 1990s, allowing practices from the Gulag era to persist into modern times.

Prison blog

Now, Mila Semashko lives with her husband and daughter in the Moscow region. She runs her small nail care business and launched a blog sharing where she shares her prison experience. She has 85 thousand followers on TikTok and 17.7 thousand on Instagram. She recounts her struggle with drug addiction, experiences within the prison system, a romantic relationship with another woman at the facility, and provides guidance for the families of inmates.

Her most viewed videos, following a ‘before and after’ format, get 5-6 million views each. ‘I’m that girl who was in prison, suffered from drug addiction. My cellmates predicted I’d would die in the streets. But they were wrong. I’ve been leading a normal life for the past 10 years’, Mila says.

The comments overwhelmingly express support for Mila, praising her resilience in rebuilding her life despite her dark past. People ask about details of deprivation: whether there is a hierarchy in women’s prisons, if there are priests, what hygiene products women are given, the breakfast menu, and who the ‘poke girls’ are. Many share their own prison experiences.

Running the blog has evolved from a hobby to Mila’s primary income source through advertisements. ‘At first, I wanted to discuss drug addiction and the struggle, but then people began asking about prison,’ she explains. ‘I realized that unfortunately, this topic is remains relevant.’