Illustration: Anastasia Krainiuk / Mediazona
SHIZO, the punishment isolation cell, is the most severe form of legal punishment for inmates in Russian prisons. A concrete sack devoid of sunlight and fresh air, it cloaks prisoners in a regime of stringent prohibitions. Multiple stints in solitary confinement are internationally recognized as torture. In Russia, more and more political prisoners find themselves subjected to this treatment.
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, currently serving a 9-year sentence in the Vladimir region, has endured the harsh conditions of SHIZO for 180 days as of this story’s publication, with his exact six-month mark approaching on June 6th. In addition, the prison’s administration goes to great lengths to make these already harsh conditions virtually intolerable.
To shed light on this form of torment, Mediazona has compiled a comprehensive guide covering all of Navalny’s SHIZO terms, which will be periodically updated. We’ve also created a simulator that offers readers a vivid insight into Navalny’s SHIZO cell environment.
Alexei Navalny first experienced the severe conditions of SHIZO, the punishment isolation cell, on August 15, 2022, after having been behind bars for over one and a half years. Following his time in the Moscow detention center, Navalny was transferred to the Vladimir region just outside of Moscow: initially to Penal Colony No. 2 in Pokrov, then in June 2022, his sentencing regime was changed to “strict,” prompting his move to Penal Colony No. 6 in Melekhovo, where he remains incarcerated.
In the period leading up to his first SHIZO term, Navalny announced the launch of a union for inmates and prison guards — a move which instantly invited problems. It quickly became evident that he would face recurring spells in SHIZO, a fate he attributes to his status as being too “politically active for an inmate.” Navalny now endures most of his time under excruciating conditions.
Repeated spells in SHIZO have taken a toll on Navalny’s health: he suffers from exacerbated back pain and deteriorating vision. When he fell ill, the authorities denied him access to doctors and refused to allow delivery of his medication.
The conditions in SHIZO amount to a slow, legally sanctioned torture intended to break a prisoner’s will. Inside, inmates are tormented by extremes of temperature (either too cold or too hot), hunger (subsisting solely on prison rations), and sleep deprivation (lights remain on round the clock and bedding is removed). The prison administration can further intensify these harsh conditions by adding disruptive cellmates.
This reality is not exclusive to Navalny. Other political prisoners are also regularly subjected to this harsh treatment.
To help readers better comprehend the conditions political prisoners endure, Mediazona has created a 3D model of the SHIZO cell where Navalny spends most of his time.
The law limits a SHIZO term to 15 days, but prison officials skirt this restriction, citing new violations immediately upon an inmate’s release. The most trivial of infractions can serve as a pretext. Instances triggering Navalny’s SHIZO terms include: not placing his hands behind his back, incorrectly introducing himself, uttering a profanity, failing to clear leaves in the yard, citing the European Court of Human Rights’ demand for his release, addressing the guard without using a patronymic, and declining to wash the fence.
Initially transferred from general barracks to more stringent conditions in a locked barrack, Navalny was then moved to a “cell-type confinement” (PKT) in November 2022. Effectively a prison within a prison, the PKT is designated for persistent rule-breakers and serves as a marginally less harsh version of SHIZO for extended periods of up to six months.
Ruslan Vakhapov, a human rights defender and former inmate, describes the PKT as a small, video-monitored room equipped with a toilet and sink, housing between 2 to 6 wall-attached beds, with mattresses surrendered during the day. Unlike SHIZO, inmates in a PKT can receive items from the prison store, packages, letters, and newspapers.
During the rare days Navalny spends outside of SHIZO, he resides in the PKT. Nonetheless, he is repeatedly returned to isolation. Between November 2022 and the end of May 2023, he spent a total of about 80 days in PKT.
Visualisation and data: Medizona data department
Simulation: Anastasia Krainiuk, Mediazona data department
Story: Maxim Litavrin with the contribution by Elizaveta Nesterova
Editor: Egor Skovoroda
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