Penal Colony No. 6, it’s seven hours from the nearest city, and based in the heart of a forest the size of Germany where the temperature is a balmy -40 degrees. It houses some 260 prisoners who are responsible for 800 murders collectively. The worst of the worst are the 85 former death row inmates, saved by Russia’s decision to repeal the death penalty and now remanded to this very prison till the end of their days. For most, that rescinding of state ordered death would be reason to be grateful, but for the so-called lifers at Penal Colony No. 6, death would be a blessing.
The access we’re granted here by director Nick Read is nothing short of incredible, and what’s interesting is that there seems to be no fear of these inmates doing something untoward with the access that they themselves have with the filmmakers, sometimes with no bars between them. Are these men just too beaten down to even thinking about trying something? Does the isolation and Spartan conditions they live in prompt more self-reflection? What does it say about these conditions that such criminals are so docile and timid, and is that kind of treatment a good thing or a bad thing?
Obviously, this is Russia, and there’s a lot of suspicion about anything Russia does these days, treatment of their convicted murders being the least of the concerns. What’s interesting is that the stories the profiled prisoners tell are oddly familiar. While they are killers and gang members, it was their life choices and life conditions that set them on a course to Penal Colony No. 6. They were starving, or listless, joining a gang gave them a sense of belonging, a family, and some money in their pocket. I’m reminded of the Lucy Walker documentary Countdown to Zero, where it’s revealed that Russians caught selling nuclear material on the black market were doing it more often than not for the equivalent cost of a couple of new kitchen appliances. In other words, it makes you think about the condition of crime and what drives people to commit it.
Part and parcel with that is the condition of the prisoners. The lifers spend 23 hours a day in their five square meter (or 15 square feet) cell, and they can neither sit nor lay on their bed during daylight hours, so many of them take to pacing restlessly all day under the unblinking eye of the night vision-capable security cameras. The other 175 prisoners get a little more freedom, able to socialize while eating meals and enjoying time on work detail. Compared to the lifers, it’s utopia, but when they’re collected for visits from relatives they’re forced to bend 90 degrees at the waist, and throw their hands up behind their backs to be cuffed. They’re then taken to something that looks like a metal fridge with a window, locked in it, and allowed to then talk to their visitors via telephone.
Many people may hear that and think, yes, that’s how a prisoner, at the very least a bunch of murderers with a per capita kill rate of 3.07, should be treated. The Condemned tests pre-conceived notions of what prisoners should endure and how they should be treated though. The bleakness of the landscape, and the harshness of the conditions beyond the actual treatment of prisoners would be enough to turn anyone off crime forever. Penal Colony No. 6 doesn’t feel like a prison though. With its strict regulations, sub-human treatment and prison guards in camouflage, it feels more like a Russian Gitmo. What Read does with his documentary is dare you to not feel sorry for these prisoner.
Of course, there are rare insights as well. One prisoner reveals that time moves fairly quickly in prison because where as a free man has many little events to distract him, in prison it’s the same thing everyday. Another prisoner not only finds himself ill-treated by the guards, but also by his fellow prisoners because he’s “downcast,” which is Russian prison slang for a gay man. The oldest prisoner there is 62, and he’s been in Penal Colony No. 6 for over 40 years. Another prisoner’s been inside since he was 18, and dreams of one day being a free man so that he can be buried amongst his relatives. He doesn’t want an ice cream, or to take a walk on a sunny beach, he just doesn’t want to die a resident of a place where you might get a visit from your wife and son more than once every five years.
What will strike you the most is how ordinary this all is for both the prisoners and the guards. It’s just one of those things, and even though some of the men doing more than one term go mad – about 1 in 3 will end up going clinically insane – it’s just par for the course. The Condemned is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. It makes us question what we think a prisoner is, and it asks us to reconsider what we think a condemned man deserves, even if that’s exactly what they’re getting. In other words, it’s a story about humanity, and how hard it is to find some in the least likely of places.
The Condemned tests conventions about prisoner treatment in a powerful and emotional documentary about a Russian penal colony.