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Jailed Pussy Riot Member Goes on Hunger Strike Until Russian Prison Starts ‘Treating Us Like Humans’

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Beginning today (September 23) jailed Pussy Riot member, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, will go on hunger strike in hopes that it will send a message to the Russian jail where she has been for the last year that they must treat their prisoners humanely.

In an open letter printed in The Guardian, she writes, “This is an extreme method, but I am convinced that it is my only way out of my current situation.”

She goes on to explain that the Mordovia camp where she has been placed has “the highest levels of security, the longest workdays, and the most flagrant rights violation.” She compares being in this specific jail to being sent to the “scaffold,” or to her own execution.

“The penal colony administration refuses to hear me. But I, in turn, refuse to back down from my demands,” Tolokonnikova wrote. “I will not remain silent, resigned to watch as my fellow prisoners collapse under the strain of slavery-like conditions. I demand that the colony administration respect human rights; I demand that the Mordovia camp function in accordance with the law. I demand that we be treated like human beings, not slaves.”

Tolokonnikova was sentenced to two years in prison after being convicted of  “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” for a performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. She says that when she was taken to prison she was instructed to plead guilty by the head administrator of the jail who told her, “People usually change their minds when bad things happen to them. If you want to be paroled as soon as possible, you have to confess your guilt. If you don’t, you won’t get parole.” He threatened that to get out she would have to work long hours to fill a quota–the camp must hand sew 120 to 150 uniforms per day–telling her,  “You should know that we have broken stronger wills than yours!”

RELATED: Pussy Riot On ’60 Minutes': One Year Later & Still Fighting

Her brigade in the sewing shop works 16 to 17 hours a day, getting, at most, four hours of sleep a night.

“We have a day off once every month and a half,” Tolokonnikova said. “We work almost every Sunday. Prisoners submit petitions to work on weekends ‘out of [their] own desire’…No one dares to disobey these orders and not submit such petitions regarding entering the work zone on Sunday, which means working until 1 am.”

Tolokonnikova talks about some of the inhumane acts such as a 50-year-old woman with high blood pressure who was bullied and humiliated for asking to leave early from work. Another prisoner got such bad frostbite they had to amputate her fingers and one of her feet. Unofficial punishments include losing hygiene privileges–prisoner is forbidden to wash themselves or use the bathroom– and the right to eat their own food. Though as, Tolokonnikova writes, eating there is never a pleasure. They are often fed stale bread and heavily watered-down milk. “This summer, they brought in sacks of slimy, black potatoes in bulk,” she writes. “Then they fed them to us.”

Workers that cannot keep up with the quota are beaten. Tolokonnikova says one woman was beaten to death, but the prison covered it up by saying the official cause of death was a stroke. Another woman who could not keep up was undressed and forced to sew naked. The pressure has also led to violent acts among the prisoners themselves. A young woman was stabbed in the head with a pair of scissors because she didn’t turn in a pair of pants on time, while another tried to cut her own stomach with a hacksaw. They stopped her.

“No one dares complain to the administration because all they will do is smile and send the prisoner back into the unit, where the ‘snitch’ will be beaten on the orders of that same administration,” Tolokonnikova explained. “For the colony administration, controlled hazing is a convenient method for forcing prisoners into total submission to their systemic abuse of human rights.”

Tolokonnikova has made complaints about the conditions, but she says the complaints are never given to anyone outside the prison and usually lead things to get worse. Since her complaint in May, the prison has seized the prisoner’s warm clothes, given her brigade more complicated sewing assignments and have even ordered other prisoners to provoke fights with her.

“It is possible to tolerate anything as long as it only affects you,” Tolokonnikova writes. “But the method of collective punishment is bigger than that. It means that your unit, or even the entire colony, is required to endure your punishment along with you. This includes, worst of all, people you’ve come to care about.”

Tolokonnikova says a friend of hers was denied parole for drinking tea with her, while another was beaten for discussing a Justice Department document with her.  Seeing what they have done to those around her, she now believes that she should have gone on hunger strike earlier explaining that others are afraid to speak to her in fears they will be punished for it.

“I am going on hunger strike and refusing to participate in colony slave labor,” Tolokonnikova writes at the end of her open letter. “I will do this until the administration starts obeying the law and stops treating incarcerated women like cattle ejected from the realm of justice for the purpose of stoking the production of the sewing industry; until they start treating us like humans.”

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