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September 1, 2006

Prison Beauty Pagents

Instead of a modeling contract, the winner of this Siberian prison's beauty contest gets early release. Too bad life on the outside is just as tough.

Siberian Prison Beauty Contest

Siberian Prison Beauty Contest

Photo Credit: Witold Krassowski

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In the middle of a small room, with dirty-white walls decorated with pictures of Jesus and an array of plastic plants, a young woman stands on a stool. She wears a cotton candy-pink ball gown. At her feet, three other women sew tiny flowers along the hem of her giant hoop skirt. Her lips are painted a circus- clown red; light brown curls frame her face. "A woman should always be beautiful," says Natalya Khapova, 26, as she poses on her pedestal. "Not just outside the fence. Even if she's in here, she should show her beauty. A woman is everything gentle and wonderful -- or she should be." The fence Khapova refers to surrounds the correctional facility UF 91/9, an all-women's prison camp some 20 miles away from the Siberian capital of Novosibirsk. Her ball gown is one of three outfits she will don for the prison's main event of the year: the annual "Miss Spring" beauty contest. As with most women at UF 91/9, the reason for Khapova's stay isn't entirely clear. At first, she says she was "just a witness" to an undisclosed crime. When pressed, she mutters that she was "an accomplice -- or something like that" in an assault and robbery charge. Khapova, who has six-and-a-half years left of her eight-year sentence, is one of more than 1000 female inmates serving time here for everything from drug possession to murder. Today, however, Khapova focuses on something decidedly more appealing than her long-term fate.

This annual pageant, which prisoners begin planning weeks in advance, bears little resemblance to, say, Miss America -- picture instead over-the-top costumes and makeup reminiscent of Cirque du Soleil, a static-filled stereo DJ-ing Russian pop music, and a cast of nervous contestants teetering dangerously in their borrowed stilettos. It's a welcome diversion from the monotony of life inside the jail, and a legitimate excuse for the prison staff to extend the women's curfew -- all the way to 2 a.m., rather than the usual 10 p.m. sharp. The contest also serves another purpose, as the winner's prize is neither money nor a modeling contract, but something far more precious: a ticket to freedom. "Early release" happens only by the recommendation of the prison staff to a special parole board. Foremost among the criteria for consideration is "active participation in the social life of the camp." Hence, the popularity of the Miss Spring contest.

Though more than a decade has passed since the fall of communism in Russia, a vast divide still exists between those reaping the rewards of a capitalist market and those who previously relied on government subsidies and now live in poverty. The economic turmoil has hit women hardest: During the 1990s, 7.6 million jobs held by women (largely "state" positions) were eliminated--one in every five female held jobs. (For men, job cuts affected one in every 100.) In fact, out of the 5.5 million registered unemployed people in Russia, about 70 percent are women, according to the International Labour Organization. Coinciding with this rise in unemployment, the percentage of women committing crimes has also increased. From 1992 to 2004, the number convicted almost doubled, from 193,000 to 376,000 -- although only about a quarter of these women actually do hard time. Their crimes are exacerbated by a drinking and drug epidemic sweeping the country. Alcoholism, of course, is a longstanding tradition in Russia, where the average person consumes more than 17 liters of pure alcohol every year. But the narcotics trade is relatively new. Fueled by more open borders and the new elite's growing disposable income, Russia's drug business has grown into a $15 billion-a-year enterprise. The official number of drug addicts in Russia has risen 15- fold in the last decade to half a million, although experts think the true number is significantly higher. "Experts believe the total could be between 3.5 million and 4 million people," says Valentin Bo by rev, deputy chief of the parliamentary security committee. "The rising tide of drugs has triggered an increase in the number of drug related crimes." Half of the women at UF 91/9 are doing time for narcotics.

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