Black Dolphin

By Slava Tsukerman

In 1997, Russia replaced the death penalty with life imprisonment. There are more than 3500 people sentenced to life imprisonment today.

The majority of Russians favours a return of the death penalty. And, surprisingly, many “lifers” share this opinion. The reason for this is simple. The conditions created in the Russian colonies for “lifers” are considered, even by police, “death by firing squad in installments”.

The largest colony of this type in Russia is the Black Dolphin with 700 inmates and a penal staff of 900.

The colony got its informal name from  a fountain located in its yard with a sculpture depicting a black dolphin.

According to some unofficial reports the Black Dolphin is the colony with the strictest regimen in the world.  Nobody has ever escaped from this prison.

There is a very impressive National Geographic film about this prison.

Below is the information found from Russian sources.

“As we meet each new batch of prisoners”, Alexey Tribushnoj, Head of Political Education, told a Russian reporter “they pass blindfolded through the gauntlet of dogs. Dogs bark straight to their ears from the paddy wagon. Convicts do not know that the dogs are on leashes, so they expect the attack at any moment. After this procedure inmates are already in such a state that we very rarely need to use rubber batons and gas.”

Four convicts are imprisoned in each cell.  There are two bunk beds and benches on which convicts sit the whole day. Using beds is forbidden during the day. On the door there is a speaker broadcasting local radio – the only link of prisoners to the outside world.  For other furniture, there is only a thin ledge on which four plastic mugs and wooden spoons are located.

With every sign of guards’ activity, such as opening of the small widow in the chamber’s door through which food is given to inmates, inmates must take “the original position”: hit the closest wall with their heads, with the bodies bent so the head is at the level of their knees, their arms behind their back risen up, with palms turned outwards, their eyes closed and mouths open. They must freeze in this position waiting for a guard’s command.

If the convicts are commanded to go out of the cell,  they must move to the bars, touch the bars with their backs and stay bent to the floor, ready to be handcuffed by a guard. Only after this, the escort, clasping inmate’s neck, pushes him out into the corridor.

While walking the inmate must keep his eyes closed, opening them only with the permission of the officers. As a result “lifers” are not able to familiarize themselves with the prison layout and thus are unlikely to escape.

Convicts are obliged to sleep with the bright light on and their heads toward the door, not covering their faces. If anyone in sleep would pull a blanket over his head, the officer’s order will follow immediately, and then all four occupants of the chamber must wake up and take “the original position”.

According to prison psychologists, during the first year of life, a prisoner gets used to the new conditions. This is the stage of learning.

Then there is a period of stabilization, which takes another three years.  At that time a prisoner is like a robot. He executes commands without hesitation.

After that period there are two possibilities.  If a prison adapts, he will continue to be a robot. If not, comes the third stage: the rapid fading, both mental and physical. Lymph nodes get inflamed, the cortical layer of the adrenal glands grows, ulcers appear in the gastrointestinal tract. People are slowly dying. By themselves.

In theory, after 25 years of prison the pardon of a convict can be considered. But in reality it has never happened.

There are several legendary inmates in the Black Dolphin.

One of them Vladimir the Cannibal even became the subject of a National Geographic short film.

Another famous prisoner of the Black Dolphin will never be presented to an American film crew.  It is Alexey Pichugin, the former head of security of the most famous Russian dissident – billioner Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Though officially Pichugin was sentenced to life imprisonment as a murderer, many are sure that in reality he is a political prisoner.

According to Wikipedia, his “verdict followed a closed-door trial in which the original jury was replaced and the star prosecution witness was a multiple murderer serving a life sentence – a fact the jury was not allowed to know”.

Updated: October 28, 2013 — 12:46 pm


  1. I’m sure there’s a good explanation for this but one thing I’ve always wondered is why do the inmates in Black Dolphin cooperate? I can’t help but thinking that being in there for life I would just lay in the bed during the day and force the guards to come in and physically make me get off the bed all the while hurling verbal abuse at them. Even if I were beaten. With my American mentality I feel like I would attempt to kill cellmates, douse the guards with feces and urine, also try and kill them, and destroy as much property as often as possible. It would be a suicide mission of course but why the hell not? They’re going to die there anyway so why do they say “Yes sir” and all the other obligatory stuff?

    I thought those tattoos on the knees of Vors meant that they will never kneel to authority so why do the ones in Black Dolphin assume the “the original position” like they’re supposed to? Or play crazy. Like when I was in the military there were a few different instances in basic training where some new recruits pretended to be crazy or something in order to get out. Why don’t some prisoners in the Dolphin start smearing their own feces all over themselves while doing the moon walk and speaking in tongues at the top of their lungs.

    I understand Russia is not the U.S. but there has to be some prisoners who have tried to buck the system there. What happens if a prisoner were to say “н ет” when told to do something by a guard or maybe go further by spitting on one as they walk by? Or what if the were to trash their cell and throw a fit?

  2. When it comes right down to it, human beings’ will to survive trumps just about anything. The Holocaust showed us what people will do to escape death for even a short time.

  3. Anonymous,

    The reason even the most violent, vicious criminal will cooperate is because there are many things much worse than dying. Many guards at this prison were former Soviet prison guards and they were specially trained to inflict unimaginable pain without killing the subject. Americans have a “can do” attitude and even a refusal to surrender but almost no American has been subject to this type of torture (there are a few). If you would learn of it, read, “tortured for Christ” by Richard Wurmbrand. It is one thing to tell oneself that you will attack a guard and die, but it is another entirely to tell oneself, “I will attack a guard and then be subject to hours of torture and not die”.

    I once attended a speech by a man who was imprisoned by the Nazi’s in WWII and watched as they murdered his father, his uncle and his brothers. I asked him a question similar to yours – “if you knew you were going to die, why did you all just attack the guards whom you outnumbered?” He didn’t seem surprised by this, but his reply was, “because the guards would not kill you. They would kill another random person while you watched. Then they might send you to the torturers”. Because of Hollywood, many Americans assume they can withstand anything. This is simply not true. Russians have a history of understanding that there are many things worse than death which gives them what Americans call a “fatalistic” attitude. Their attitude is more akin to the second writer who attributed it to survival.

    Regardless of why they do it, let’s be glad we’re not there!

  4. I feel so bad looking at where we are in society today

    I did a lot of stupid things in my past some of which earned me 3 years in federal lock up . I feel very lucky to have passed through the system when they were still focused on rehabilitation instead of punishment

    I am now a 53 year old grandfather of 2 who has worked hard and paid taxes to redeem my actions of past. I am a firm believer it is only a mistake in life if you do not learn from it; if you do, then it is a lesson and a lesson is never a mistake

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