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Life behind bars: see inside Russia's toughest prison

Published time: October 01, 2007 06:49
Edited time: October 01, 2007 06:49

One of Russia's biggest and most notorious prisons is located in the ancient city of Vladimir, part of Russia's Golden Ring. For more than 200 years, the mere mention of Vladimir Central Prison was enough to strike fear in the hearts of many Russians. Th

From Tsarist-era jail to Soviet Gulag and beyond, it has housed some of the country’s most famous and notorious prisoners. During Soviet times, war criminals, political dissidents and opponents of the regime were held there. 

Vladimir Central
Vladimir Central

Vasily Stalin was locked up for embezzlement after his father’s death.

Jewish activist Natan Sharansky was imprisoned here in the 1980s. 

Several Nazi commanders spent time here after the Second World War.

Poet and religious thinker Danil Andreev wrote his most famous book, ‘The Rose of the World’, inside the jail, creating a bright and colourful world in one of the bleakest environments imaginable.

The prison is now home to some of Russia’s most dangerous criminals.  Many have been sentenced to life behind bars.

Overcrowding is a serious problem. Prisoners are packed in six to a cell and can spend up to 22 hours locked up each day. 

Rates of HIV and tuberculosis are high.

But efforts to reform the system are under way. Millions of dollars have been spent in an effort to raise standards to European levels. Inmates now have access psychological counsellors and to legal information via the Internet.

Many choose to break up the daily monotony with work. Some trusted inmates have jobs in the prison bakery, making bread for the entire facility. Most are employed in workshops producing items ranging industrial gloves to footballs.

Prison inmates
Prison inmates

Sergey has served three years of an 18-year sentence for murder. He says that conditions have improved but life is still very hard.

“It is a little easier than in other penal colonies.  But in some ways it is much tougher. You can’t adapt here. No matter what they say, you never get used to prison. I long for freedom every day,” he says.

And freedom in Vladimir Central is often a long time coming. For most of the prisoners here the view from their cell windows will be the closest they get to the outside world for more than a decade.