SHIZO ad infinitum. Inside Alexei Navalny’s life in Russian prison’s solitary confinement
Елизавета Нестерова
SHIZO ad infinitum. Inside Alexei Navalny’s life in Russian prison’s solitary confinement
10 November 2022, 23:24

Illustration: Nika Kuznetsova / Mediazona

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is incarcerated in maximum-security prison in Melekhovo, Vladimir region, a four-hour drive away from Moscow. Over the past three months, he has spent most of his time in solitary confinement: he has only been out of the solitary cell for a total of 20 days. 

Various pretences, including an unbuttoned collar, quoting the European Court of Human Rights and omitting a patronymic when referring to a prison guard, have been used to justify successive punishment terms. It is apparent that the prison officials are not only trying to keep the politician isolated from the outside world, but also from his lawyers, who visit him regularly—but are now met with increasingly devious obstacles to communicating and exchanging documents. Navalny appeals all of this in court, to no avail. This is a timeline of his struggle. 

It all began in mid-August when Alexei Navalny, in his unmistakable upbeat fashion, defied prison authorities and announced a launch of his prison trade union. Its name, Promzona, came from the acronym for “job shop”; correctional labour is a routine practice in Russian prisons. The sewing job Navalny was assigned to had him sitting on a stool below knee height for seven hours. That wasn’t what workplace safety rules dictated, he asserted: “A seamster’s workplace must be equipped with a swivel chair with an adjustable back.” Not only did he fight to improve his own condition, but he decided to also equip other prisoners with tools to protect their rights. 

Following Navalny’s announcement, relayed by his lawyers and published on his social media, the prison administration issued him a warning that he “was not to violate the restrictions on public rallies and marches” while incarcerated. “My initial reward was the wild looks from the administration officials. They all thought I was joking when I started talking about a union. Now they call it ‘illegal’. Then they started summoning me daily to the disciplinary commission to reprimand me,” Navalny said.

His first solitary confinement, three days in SHIZO, came on August 12, when he was punished for an unbuttoned collar. He has been sent to the punishment cell seven times since then, spending 60 days there and just 20 days on the block with other prisoners.

SHIZO is one of the most severe types of punishment in Russian prisons. Prisoners are prohibited from bringing food or personal belongings with them, the bunk is fastened to the wall while prisoners are awake, and only one hour of reading or writing is allowed during the day. Visits, gifts, phone calls, and even buying food from the prison store are out of the question.

“Let me describe the way it’s set up. It is an 8×10 ft concrete dog pen,” the politician explains. “Most of the time it is unbearable because it is too cold and too damp. There is water on the floor. Now I spend my time in a beach version: it’s very hot inside plus hardly any air. The windowpane is tiny, and the walls are too thick to allow for any ventilation—even the cobwebs never move. There is no air circulation. At night you just lie on the bunk and feel like a fish on the shore. The iron bunk is fastened to the wall, like on a train. At 5 a.m. guards remove your mattress and pillow (called “soft equipment”) and raise the bunk. At 9 p.m. they lower the bunk again and bring the mattress back. There is an iron table, an iron bench, a sink, and a hole in the floor. And there are two cameras just under the ceiling.”

The law prohibits sending a prisoner to a punishment cell for more than 15 days. But prison officials easily circumvent this restriction: they would release a prisoner after his term was over, then discover another violation the very same day, and send him back to the isolation centre the next day. They can do this for as long as they want.

Over the course of these months, Navalny was locked up in a SHIZO cell four times before being allowed a full day’s rest: 43 consecutive days from August 23rd to October 4th. “And here I am again, sitting on a stool on my 65 square feet. Of my belongings, I have with me only a mug (1 piece) and a book (1 piece). But I got used to it. I don’t understand people who need anything else to live a full life 😉”, he wrote.

There is no doubt in Alexei Navalny’s mind that all of this is a direct result of his attempts to launch a union behind bars, as well as an attempt to limit his contact with the outside world as much as possible.

Furthermore, the administration is now also trying to obstruct his communications with his lawyers. The hurdles were introduced gradually: first, the guards started inspecting all document exchanges, then the visiting room window was covered with a thin film so that the documents can’t be shown through it, and ultimately, the lawyers were forbidden from bringing any documents into the prison.

Navalny has been trying to argue all these limitations and punishments in a local court. Below is a short guide to all of his trips to solitary confinement.

SHIZO 1. Unbuttoned collar

Term: 3 days, 12–15 August

Reason: A prison guard reported that Navalny “regularly unfastened his top button”, “allowed violations of the order of serving his sentence” and “repeatedly complained about prison conditions”. In the end, a special commission in the prison decided that correctional work was ineffective and sent the politician to SHIZO.

Navalny’s position: He was given a uniform several sizes too small and he could not work when it was all buttoned up. “First, they give you an overall that you cannot button up. And then they fine you for unbuttoning it. Well, isn’t it just a mockery!” Navalny was indignant at the Kovrov City Court. He was not allowed to buy a new uniform. He accused the officials of ‘slipping him’ another uniform—the right size—to take photos for the court.

What happened in court: During the first hearing, prison officials attested that Navalny did not file a formal complain about the size of his uniform, and subsequently clarified that he was not allowed to buy a new uniform because they did not understand “the type of activity” he wanted to use it for: work, exercise, or something else. “We saw that he was undoing buttons. Not because [the jacket] was too tight, but because it’s just his way of behaving,” insisted a representative of the Federal Penitentiary Service.

Navalny tried to convince the judge that in the hot weather no one would be buttoned-up in a uniform that did not fit properly: “If your robes were seven sizes too small, you would probably have to leave them unfastened at the back.”

Result of the appeal: Dismissed.

SHIZO 2. Hand check

Term: 5 days, 23–28 August

Reason: As Navalny was walking down a corridor, he failed to keep his hands behind his back for several seconds. The regulations require all prisoners in solitary confinement to keep their hands behind their backs at all times when walking, while Navalny “proved himself to be a troublemaker” and therefore needed to be punished.

Navalny’s position: Previously, problems of this kind were resolved with a verbal reprimand, but now it appears that excuses will be made to permanently keep him in solitary confinement to obstruct work on the trade union and anti-war statements. “I will not change my stance. This is not a [real] prison, and you are not the ones keeping me in solitary confinement, but rather the authorities of the Russian Federation... I am being punished to instill fear in a large number of people. But I won’t shut up!”

What happened in court: Navalny said that due to lack of ventilation in solitary confinement, he regularly experiences acute feeling of suffocation. He insists that the administration is blackmailing him, because in SHIZO he is unable to do the exercises alleviating his back pain.

Prison guard Neimovich came to one of the court hearings and told the judge that over the month of October he had reported “5 to 10” violations, seven by Navalny.

“Does this mean that I am the most egregious violator on your shifts?” Navalny asked.

“Well, looks like it.”

Result of the appeal: Dismissed.

SHIZO 3. Citing ECHR

Term: seven days, 29 August – 5 September

Reason: When talking to a prison officer, a prisoner must give his full name, the exact crime he was convicted of and term of imprisonment. Navalny was reported to only tell the guard his name, quoting a European Court of Human Rights decision that he should be released immediately.

Navalny’s position:  “Solitary confinement—I am not going to sugarcoat it—is a hellhole, nothing pleasant about it. But there are more important things in life than comfort. No matter how long I have to spend here, I will neither betray what I believe in nor what I do with my associates,” the politician insisted.

What happened in court: Navalny wondered why no violations were reported when he was citing ECHR’s decision in his case in June or July—it became a problem only after the launch of Promzona. The officials replied that they would not know.

Result: Dismissed.

SHIZO 4. Citing ECHR, again

Term: 15 days, 6-21 September

Reason: While speaking to the commission about his previous violation, Navalny, instead of listing what he was convicted of and the term of imprisonment, quoted ECHR’s decision that he must be released immediately. Now he was declared a repeat offender and introduced new restrictions: reduced time outside, reduced number of visitors and gifts, reduced amount of monthly expenses.

Navalny’s position: “Naturally, I am not a convict at all. I don’t have any criminal article to cite, no term. This is a fact! Everyone in this room, including you, Your Honor, knows that I am being held here, in IK-6, illegally,” Navalny said in court. He added that he was using the ECHR reference all the time in prison, but punishment only came after the launch of the trade union.

What happened in court: Navalny pleaded with the judge to pay attention to the timing: he was sent to SHIZO days before a visit from his wife and parents, scheduled four months in advance. When a prisoner is in SHIZO, no visits are allowed.

Result: Dismissed.

Illustration: Nika Kuznetsova / Mediazona

SHIZO 5. Citing ECHR, one more time

Term: 12 days, 22 September – 4 October

Reason: One more instance of using the ECHR reference when talking to a prison guard. By that time, 37 violations have already been registered.

Navalny’s position: He insisted new SHIZO term came just after his anti-war statement during a court hearding on 21 September, the day of the mobilisation announcement. According to Navalny, the deputy director of the prison was very direct with him, telling him that he “failed to calm down” having had “done quite enough talking at the previous hearing.”

What happened in court: Navalny complained about obstructions to confidential communication with his lawyers and limits on time to study case documents. 

“Maybe sometime when you were a kid, you watched a cartoon about Karlsson-on-the-Roof. There was this dramatic moment when a 7-year-old character named Little Brother is given a puppy for his birthday, and Karlsson feels abandoned, left alone, useless. He says: ‘What about me? I’m better than a dog, aren’t I?’ You know, this is how I feel during every single court hearing! You are passing each other some documents, you have something interesting going on, reading this, reading that—you even watch videos sometimes. And me, do I even have any rights in this procedure? At every single one of your hearings, Your Honour, I said that I don’t want delays. Can I please also have time to study these documents?” Navalny asked. 

Unexpectedly, the judge approved his request and ordered the prison staff to give Navalny more time to prepare for the court hearings: 90 minutes a day. Navalny asked for eight hours. 

Result: Ongoing. Next hearing is scheduled for 10 November.

SHIZO 6. Washing the fence

Term: 14 days, 10–24 October

Reason: Refusing to wash the fence. The administration showed the judge a video recording of Lieutenant Neimovich attempting to make Navalny do it but failing.

Navalny’s position: ‘Well, I do understand that it can be quite cool, painting a fence like you’re Tom Sawyer. But washing a fence, in my opinion, is total bullshit,” Navalny said. He added that Lieutenant Neimovich was not in a position to assign work to prisoners; the administration’s quick fix was to change Neimovich’s position retroactively.

What happened in court: “I have a feeling that all of you are here to mock me. You, Lieutenant Neimovich, are being very consistent, doing bullshit all the time.” Representatives of the prison argued that “bullshit” was an obscene word.

Result: Dismissed.

SHIZO 7: Yard clean-up

Term: 11 days, 30 October – 10 November

Reason: The administration accused Navalny of “failing to clean up the prison yard properly”.

Navalny’s position: “Fourteen days in SHIZO. Then 6 days of rest in maximum-security barrack. That’s it, enough. Don’t get too convenient.”

Result: Hearing not yet scheduled.

Editor: Egor Skovoroda

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