In the midst of researching an upcoming post on the cigarette economy in prisons, I came across this image of juvenile prisoners in Russia. I was struck by the extreme youth of these convicts, and thus motivated to look a bit more deeply into how Russia handles criminals who’ve yet to become adults. As I expected, the situation ain’t a happy one—juvenile offenders are often stashed in the “junior wings” of maximum-security prisons, where they come under the influence of hardened criminals.
This grim policy inspired painter Yana Payusova to do a series on Russia’s young convicts, whom she renders as Orthodox icons. The boys in her paintings are lifted from black-and-white photographs that she took while visiting several juvenile detention facilities. She talks about the experience of capturing those images here:
I was truly shocked when I saw the teenage convicts in person. When we arrived they were in their cells, mostly sleeping and passing time. They were brought out in front of us into the main hallway for lineup. I was expecting to see tough guys and intimidating criminal types, but instead I saw a group of scrawny, pale, shaven-headed young boys, many of whom were covered in warts and sores. I knew that all of them had to be ages 14 to 21, but the majority seemed like they could not be older than twelve (as I later learned, an indication of malnourishment in childhood). Many had tattooed limbs and torsos. A few of the tattoos were masterfully executed, but most were crude amateur drawings. Many of the tattoos were grossly infected. Ironically, the tattoo designs displayed harsh arrogance and aggression, which was markedly missing from most of the boys’ faces. Also, many of them spoke ‘blatnaya fenya’ (special cryptolanguage used among criminals) partially out of habit and partly to show off and flaunt their connections to the criminal culture.
Hope to have the cigarette-economy post wrapped up next week. And I’ll probably also have to do something on blatnaya fenya, too.