The Associated Press spoke with lawyers and former prisoners of Russia’s all-female penal colonies, where Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, two of the three convicted Pussy Riot members, will be placed for the next two years. Pussy Riot member Yekaterina Samutsevich was freed after her appeal last week. The interviewees describe a “monstrously archaic” system of punishment and rehabilitation that has remained largely unchanged for hundreds of years.

“Everyone knows the rule: Trust no one, never fear and never forgive,” said Svetlana Bakhmina, a lawyer who spent three years in a penal colony. “You are in no-man’s land. Nobody will help you. You have to think about everything you say and do to remain a person.”

Russian inmates are kept in a system that Russia’s own justice minister has described as “monstrously archaic” and whose purpose has changed little for hundreds of years. Czarist Russia sent prisoners to remote Siberian colonies where labor was in short supply; the system was inherited and expanded by the Soviet Union, which worked millions of prisoners to death in the gulag. Russia incarcerates more people than any country in the world bar the United States and China, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies.

They describe some details of colony life:

Spouses are allowed three-day conjugal visits four times a year. Prisoners who show especially good behavior can even be given two weeks’ leave outside the camp.

The two punk band members can be punished with up to 15 days in solitary confinement for minor infractions such as failing to make their beds or to put their hands behind their backs at roll call or to greet guards quickly enough.

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