Prison Beauty Pagents
By Maria Yatskova
Siberian Prison Beauty Contest
Photo Credit: Witold Krassowski
Amid these bleak realities, hundreds of women find themselves calling UF 91/9 home every year. Few sources of convict entertainment exist in Siberia, where temperatures in the winter can drop to -40 degrees. "We wanted to find ways to occupy convicts' free time," says Natalya Baulina, the prison's school marmish administrative head. "This contest gives prisoners an opportunity to feel like women, to dress up, put on makeup, and imagine they're connected to Russia's new freedom. "When I first introduced the idea to the women, they were in utter shock," Baulina adds. "The only pageant they knew was Miss Universe--women parading in barely visible swimsuits before male judges. They asked, 'How do you imagine we are going to do that?' I replied, 'We'll invent our own rules.'" The rules include each of the prison's nine sections picking one inmate to represent it, then creating costumes for three categories: "Greek Goddesses," "Flower Gowns," and "Imaginary Uniforms," for which inmates design their ideal prison uniforms of the future. Although the women admit that they'd never heard of many of the Greek myths or exotic flowers they will portray onstage, they are learning fast from books provided by the staff.
When the contest first began five years ago, supplies were nonexistent--the winner made her dress out of plastic bags from the prison kitchen. Even today, the women make use of whatever they can get their hands on, including pieces of the plastic plants that hang throughout the facility. Several guards and unit chiefs serve as judges, crowning the winner "Miss Spring" and two runners-up "Miss Charm" and "Miss Grace." A tiara will adorn Miss Spring; all three receive yellow sashes to drape across their costumes and goody bags filled with makeup donated by prison staff. In its brief history, the contest has gained a bit of notoriety; news crews now broadcast the event on local TV, inspiring other Russian prisons to host similar contests and fueling a debate between the media (it's good for ratings) and prisoners'-rights activists (the contest exploits the women). For the inmates, it's just another way to pass the time. Yulia Lutzkhak, 30, is serving four years for selling three grams of heroin. It was about 10 years ago that Lutzkhak's life unraveled: A miscarriage, a cheating husband, and unemployment led her into drug use. "I was on opium for three years, then heroin for a year," she admits. "I didn't have enough money, and someone asked me, Why don't you sell some? That's how I wound up here." Lutzkhak's sentence is up next April, and she's already planning for her new life on the outside. "I want to take computer courses," she says, "and then maybe work at an orphanage." She never wants to come back to UF 91/9, but she worries about the likelihood of finding work and the temptation to sink back into her old ways.
There is no program in place to help Lutzkhak transition back into society, although the government recently created its first-ever large-scale anti-drug campaign. Now, ads for special hot hotlines are springing up along the streets of Novosibirsk. The best thing to do, hotline experts advise, is check into a private clinic for treatment with "special medicines" (usually methadone, the heroin substitute). However, the cost of the clinics--starting at around $2000--prevents women like Lutzkhak from ever setting foot inside.