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Bluff and Nonsense in Prison

A political prisoner reflects on psychology and power relationships among his fellow inmates.
By Yadigar Sadiqov

Suggesting a trip to the market is a favourite joke among prisoners, although “joke” isn’t something they often say; they generally call it a “compliment” or an “act of kindness”.

They wind up newly-arrived convicts by telling them that their cellmates need some things, and once a week someone has to draw up a list and go off to the market to do the shopping. Everyone agrees to it, the selected inmate signs a special form, and if he doesn’t return, everyone else in the cell will be punished. Next time, someone else gets to go, and so on every Sunday. They make out that the long-term prisoners are tired of going to the market – the weather is too cold, or they just don’t want to go outside the prison walls.

Of course you can’t fool every new convict, but some are persuaded, mostly the first-timers or the simpler souls.

We got one of those innocent souls in our six-man cell in Kurdekhani. Unfortunately, at the time he arrived, I had been temporarily moved to Lenkoran, so I got the story when I returned. The new guy was over 40, but he was a simple soul nevertheless. The four who were in the cell at the time convinced him that one of them went to market every week, and that it was his turn next. They drew up a list of what he needed to buy and three of them signed a release permit. The fourth man pretended to be suspicious, saying he didn’t trust the newcomer as he might run away and abandon them, so he wasn’t going to sign. The unfortunate newcomer broke out in a sweat. He stood up and protested, swearing he wouldn’t run away and let his cellmates down. Finally, the last man signed the permit.

The next morning the new guy got up before everyone else, shaved, got dressed and started waiting for nine o’clock when he’d go off to the market. Then the door opened, a warder came in for roll-call, and the new man asked when he was going to market. Laughter all round. Only then did he realise they had been pulling his leg the whole week.

You come across a lot of arrogant people, too, in prison. These “posers”, as they are known. will often talk about how they have expensive cars and villas on the outside. As someone who doesn’t even own a bicycle and experiences no hardship from the lack of it, this kind of arrogance is unacceptable, even irritating.

When people like that try to engage my interest, I find myself wondering whether they’ve spotted a mercantile streak in me, too. In jail, a good guy is expected to share with his needy cellmates. Many self-satisfied inmates try to live up to this rule. I was talking to a prisoner about this and he praised one Khatam for being a good guy who often helped out those who were short of provisions, above all cigarettes. As usual, this conversation ended with him asking whether I had a cigarette.

Cigarettes really are the basic commodity that prisoners need. The warders will often pass them from one cell to the next if the inmates ask them to. Cells that get them in from the outside will often share them out, two or three packs to each cell. Apart from those classed as “bourgeois”, most prisoners smoke cheap cigarettes at 50 to 80 qepiks a pack. Sending someone cigarettes is generally seen as a grand gesture.

Here’s another situation. The door-hole through which food is handed in opens and the warder says that another cell is sending over “grub” as they say and they want cigarettes in return. We aren’t talking 50- or 80-qepik packs, either.

One of my cellmates somehow got hold of a pack of Kent cigarettes and kept it for a month so he could have it in his pocket when he went for a court hearing and show how cool he was.

There are other kinds of posers, too. There’s a lot of bluffing just like in card games – empty talk with nothing to back it up. I saw an example of this on a train coming back from Lenkoran. There was a cellmate of mine from Kurdekhani in the prison carriage, a man from Agjabedi whose case was being heard at the Lenkoran Serious Crimes Court. The neighbouring train carriage was for female prisoners, and my cellmate who was some distance away from it nevertheless went up to the women’s carriage once the train got moving. Doing the “good guy” thing, he asked the women whether they needed anything; they thanked him and said no. He pressed on insistently and one they had thanked him again and refused his offer, he gave them his name and said he was in the next carriage, so if they needed anything they only had to ask.

I was amazed at how pushy he was. I know from experience that prisoners from nearby districts come back from visiting time with bags full of provisions while those from further away don’t. My cellmate from Agjabedi had only had one visit and he only got barely enough things for himself.

Earlier on the day this happened, I had been in court, so I was very tired and didn’t want to burden my mind further with what had happened. At about two the next morning when I was back in my cell, I was awoken by the squeak of the door opening. Someone came in and I heard the voice of my train companion as he loomed over me. “Sorry to wake you up, boss. I’m really hungry – have you got anything to eat?” I looked at him in amazement and asked him why he had put on such a show of bluff with those women if he didn’t have anything to eat himself. Realising I wasn’t going to give up till he answered, he gave in. “If you want the truth, another convict went up to them before me and asked them the same thing. They turned him down and said they had everything they needed. When I heard that, I knew for sure they wouldn’t ask for anything.” 

So he already knew his opponent’s hand.

You might take the next story as me showing off and trying to look like the good guy. But I remember it as the most interesting of all. After some hesitation, I decided to share it with my readers anyway.

The hero of the story is a prisoner from Lenkoran aged about 55. He was locked up nine days after being released. He swore blind that he had an enemy who got him jailed the second time. I don’t know how true that is, but the fact that he spent just nine days on the outside was cause for sympathy. Tried and sentenced in November, he was sent to Kurdekhani the next day to await further transfer. The clothes he had on were very skimpy for wintertime, so he clearly didn’t have anything else to wear. Fortunately we were the same size so I asked my people at home to buy me a tracksuit and send it in. It came the next day, I gave it to him and he thanked me so effusively that it made me uncomfortable.

When we were put on a transfer train the same evening, he was wearing the tracksuit. We moved off, and two hours later I opened the food package I had been sent from home, I remembered the man and decided to invite him to break bread with me. I called one of the convoy soldiers and said, “There’s an older man in that compartment – tell him to come in here. He’s wearing a tracksuit.”

A few minutes later, the man turned up. In the meantime, I had laid out the food on a chair (the transfer trains don’t have tables.) The soldier opened the door and the man came in looking visibly upset. I ignored this and invited him to eat. He ignored the offer and said, “Why did you want the tracksuit back, boss?”

“Why would I need it? I asked you to come and eat.”

“But the soldier told me you said to bring the tracksuit.”

The soldier had not understood. He thought I was going to take the tracksuit away from the prisoner, when all I was doing was identifying who he was. I could see how badly shaken the man was by this, but when I cleared it up he smiled and we both laughed. As I write this, I now think the soldier might have passed on my request properly but the man misread it. Well, it’s all in the past now.

I’ve shared some incidents that have happened to me over the past 15 months. As soon as there is anything new to relate, I will let you know. As they say on talk shows, stay with us.

Yadigar Sadiqov, a leading figure in the opposition Musavat party, is serving a six-year sentence in Azerbaijan.

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