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What's a Russian jail like? Ask her, she's been there

The prospect of being sent to a Siberian prison is enough to strike fear in the hearts of the most hardened criminals, but for Laura Piacentini, it is just another day at work.

Dr Piacentini, a criminologist at Stirling University who specialises in the sociology of imprisonment, is the first Western academic to carry out research in Russia on the post-Soviet prison system. And while the Gulag, the notorious system of forced labour camps, no longer exists, Dr Piacentini has often found herself in relentlessly grim conditions while undertaking her research.

In a Russian prison, there would be one cooked meal a day, typically meat stew and pickled cabbage, with a piece of bread no bigger than a pack of cards. A Russian told her that prisoners in France were rumoured to get croissants and strawberries for breakfast.

The usual layout of Russian prisons is very different from the traditional UK model of cells and galleries. Institutions, which are based on Soviet principles of work and rest, have two zones - a living block and a work block, with prisoners going to work, then coming "home".

Dr Piacentini lived on occasion in staff quarters within the perimeter fence: although she could move around more freely than the prisoners, she was still subject to rigorous checks and restrictions. When she photographed a dilapidated building in one Siberian penal colony without having sought permission, she was promptly frogmarched to the administration block by a guard with a machine gun.

But arguably the worst conditions she endured in the course of four field trips were not in Siberia, but in Smolensk in western Russia. She had to walk through a forest to get from the staff quarters to the main prison.

Her room, which had no lighting and no curtains, was dingy and stark, dominated by an ancient television that did not work. The lavatory did not work either, and there was no water at all for several days. "It was the closest I've ever come to feeling I was in jail. I had meals in the prison but, if I needed extra food, I had to walk three miles to a corner-shop equivalent. And it had nothing except bread, cheese, sweets and vodka."

Ablutions were also difficult during her pilot trip in 1998 as a PhD student. For six weeks, she lived in a prison service military barracks, the only female among 200 men. "My room was in an endless corridor with no natural light, and the lights worked only sporadically. The shower was opposite, but the door didn't lock sometimes, so I'd shower with one foot against the door."

As a PhD student with little spare cash, she had only "a typical studenty charity-shop coat" in temperatures of - 20C. This caused bewilderment. One Russian said: "I thought you were a rich Westerner. Why are you wearing these clothes?" In a male-dominated culture, she was expected to conform to feminine stereotypes, on one occasion being sent back to her room to put on make-up because "the governor liked that".

But she says the difficulties simply made good experiences all the sweeter.

She found great kindness and support, and she was guest of honour at innumerable social gatherings. When she first arrived in Siberia, at 6am, the prison staff were waiting for her with bread, sausage and Georgian wine, which they explained had been Stalin's favourite. Staff were highly literate and often recited poems by Robert Burns, with Dr Piacentini reciprocating by reciting Pushkin.

It was her love of Russian literature that sparked her research interest.

After graduating in sociology from Glasgow Caledonian University, she took a masters in criminology at Keele University, conducting a historical critique of the Gulag because many 19th and 20th-century writers had been incarcerated or exiled.

Having decided to study the Russian prison system, she undertook to learn the language. The first step towards her PhD was an intensive Russian course at Strathclyde University, said to have been developed for the UK's intelligence centre at GCHQ. "It was a three-year degree in nine months, 700 hours of instruction, brilliantly designed by a brilliant team," she says. "You'd be in the library until 9pm every day, 100 per cent total, deep immersion. By Christmas, we were reading a Russian newspaper, and by spring extracts from Chekhov."

Her fluency meant she could dispense with interpreters on her field trips, and her genuine interest in Russian culture, including an ability to sing folk songs, helped overcome suspicion of her motives. Many interviewees were initially defensive, assuming that she was there to criticise and tell them to make improvements they could not afford. They were startled to hear that UK prisons had been found guilty of human rights abuses because of slopping out. "And they couldn't believe we didn't have conjugal visits in Britain. They had very lovely, very clean, private rooms for husbands and wives."

Dr Piacentini, who this autumn takes up a senior lectureship in Strathclyde Law School, has won acclaim for her first book, Surviving Russian Prisons: Punishment, Economy and Politics in Transition . It won the British Society of Criminology's book of the year award and was nominated last year by the international criminology division of the American Society of Criminology.

As most academics prepare to relax over Easter, Dr Piacentini is returning to Russia, this time with geographers Dominique Moran of Birmingham University and Judy Pallot of Oxford. They will visit women's prisons to study how far women have been moved from where they lived, how this affects them in prison and how they reintegrate with society.

"I would rather be at home eating Easter eggs," Dr Piacentini confesses.

"But this research demands that you're flexible with your time: when you get access to prisons, you should be grateful."

olga.wojtas@thes.co.uk

I GRADUATED FROM... Glasgow Caledonian University, Keele University, Strathclyde University and the University of Wales

MY FIRST JOB WAS... checkout assistant at a Safeway supermarket

MY MAIN CHALLENGE IS ...swimming elegantly

WHAT I HATE MOST... dallying, deceit, death

IN TEN YEARS I... would love to have my own dacha or a wee allotment to escape to

MY FAVOURITE JOKE

Q: What do you get if Batman and Robin get smashed by a steam roller?

A: Flatman and Ribbon.

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