Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

A Month in Prison in Kyrgyzstan

Photographer Eric Gourlan offers unique glimpse into life behind bars.
By Nargiza Ryskulova
  • (Photo: Eric Gourlan)
    (Photo: Eric Gourlan)
  • (Photo: Eric Gourlan)
    (Photo: Eric Gourlan)
  • (Photo: Eric Gourlan)
    (Photo: Eric Gourlan)
  • (Photo: Eric Gourlan)
    (Photo: Eric Gourlan)
  • (Photo: Eric Gourlan)
    (Photo: Eric Gourlan)
  • (Photo: Eric Gourlan)
    (Photo: Eric Gourlan)
  • (Photo: Eric Gourlan)
    (Photo: Eric Gourlan)
  • (Photo: Eric Gourlan)
    (Photo: Eric Gourlan)
  • (Photo: Eric Gourlan)
    (Photo: Eric Gourlan)

French photographer Eric Gourlan has documented life in Kyrgyzstan’s penal system by voluntarily spending a month inside. 

Based in the capital Bishkek, Gourlan obtained permission from the Kyrgyz penal service to live in two men’s prisons, a jail for women, and a juvenile detention centre – a week in each.

The photos he captured during his time inside were shown at an exhibition that opened in Bishkek in October.

In an interview for IWPR, Gourlan explained what inspired him to undertake this project.

Gourlan: I did not want to make just dramatic images to shock my audience. I wanted to talk about people who are in prisons, so that people who see the images feel the urge to do something to improve their situation, because I believe that there is nobody among us without fault – some get caught and serve prison terms.

I wanted to tell their stories, and to do so I needed to spend time with them, have them share their experiences with me. At first, it was difficult to arrange spending so much time in prison colonies. This, however, became possible thanks to support from the organisations I worked in partnership with.

IWPR: How did the prisoners react to your presence among them?

Gourlan: Having a camera or a recording device on you and being among prisoners is different from just meeting them. Some people see you as some sort of a channel to deliver their messages and are willing to share their stories and tell about their conditions. Others are the opposite. So you need to take time, listen and understand them better.

I think, the fact that I am a foreigner also helped, because people are more curious about where I come from and how the situation is in my country. Maybe they were more willing to talk.

IWPR: What surprised you most during your stay?

Gourlan: The biggest surprise was meeting some brilliant people who have made mistakes in the past and have gone through such a transformation that when I found out about the crimes they’d committed, I could not believe them.

Some of them knew so much about life and sounded philosophical. There was one man who asked me where I was from. When I told him I was from France, he asked if I was a Catholic, and then he said he was a Catholic too.

There are very few Catholics in [mainly Muslim] Kyrgyzstan. There are only 12 Catholics in that [penal] colony with 1,030 inmates, and they all live together.

This guy told me that he was in prison for drug trafficking and he still had 15 more years to go. In the past, he was also a drug user, but now he is into sports. He runs every day and is in great shape. He knows the Bible very well and for the past ten years he has also been reading the Koran. I asked why and he replied, "I will still spend a lot of time of my life here, I want to understand my neighbours better.”

IWPR: In Kyrgyzstan, officials have voiced concern at the spread of religious extremism and at radicals recruiting new followers in the prisons. Did you see anything to justify these concerns?

Gourlan: I think they are right to be concerned. It can be especially dangerous for youngsters who are recruited while they are serving time in prison – often for a short time – and then go back into society with extremist ideas.

In the two male prisons I had the chance to visit, they have [Muslim] prayer rooms. But there were some people who were not willing to talk to me; the only thing they wanted was to convince me that my Catholic faith was wrong.

IWPR: The prison hierarchy gets talked about a lot, but is impossible to observe from the outside. Were you able to see how it works?

Gourlan: I believe I only got a glimpse of it. When I was moving inside prisons, I was accompanied by guards and I noticed that prisoners warned their fellows that we were coming, so all the prisoners knew that they were going to be visited. This is a kind of internal rule and they have their own language in which they communicate.

I also heard that guards negotiate with the informal leaders among inmates to resolve conflict situations. It makes sense, as inmates in the male prison colony outnumber guards ten to one.

There are different categories of inmates in prisons. Some have elite cells with TV sets and DVD players – even guards don’t have those at home, and some live outside the cells sleeping in hallways. I even saw several men who were living like homeless persons, settling outside any cell, just in the yard. Neither they nor the guards would say why they lived like that.

But there are also people for whom being in prison is better than being outside. I met a 73-year-old woman who murdered her husband when she was 65. When I asked why she murdered him, she said that for 40 years, she coped with her husband’s violence and drinking, and finally one night she killed him. She also told me that nobody took care of her in her entire life, but now in prison she was fully provided with food and shelter and she had found a family. She feels better as life has become easier for her than before.

IWPR: The Kyrgyz interior ministry worked with international organisations to arrange this project, which explains why the prison authorities were willing to allow your stay. But were there any areas that they did not want you to see or photograph?

Gourlan: I would really like to commend the openness of [prison] officials in Kyrgyzstan – I could go almost everywhere I wanted.

The only thing was that in the first two days, I was accompanied by guards until everyone got used to me. But then I was given more freedom and practically could move around on my own. On some occasions, I ate with prisoners.

The only places I could not go were the isolation cells in the women colony. They said that the person responsible was not available. In the male colony, I went to the isolation cells at my own risk. The inmates are prisoners who committed murder and are often sentenced for life. They would not be risking anything if they killed me. I knew that, and they knew it. In situations like this, it is important to be genuine, not to be afraid, to be sure of what you do and not to fake anything.

IWPR: What would you describe as the most difficult part of conditions inside?

Gourlan: The most difficult situation is with medical help, as there are few doctors willing to work in prisons. And if there is an outbreak of infectious diseases, they spread really quickly, as there are many people living in a small enclosed space. Many prisoners told me that they had caught tuberculosis or pneumonia in prison.

IWPR: Did prisoners talk about problems with the Kyrgyz justice system?

Gourlan: Many people spoke of flaws in the justice system, saying that they hadn’t committed the crime they had been sentenced for, or that they had been given an unfair punishment.

One woman told me that she had been in a very difficult financial situation and somebody asked her to transport 30 grams of heroin from point A to point B for 100 [US] dollars. She was caught and given 12 years in prison. She had never used drugs before, never sold them, and never got her 100 dollars, but she has been locked up for 12 years.

Obviously I do not know if those stories I was told were true or not. But that was not why I embarked on this project.

Eric Gourlan’s project was backed by Freedom House, the OSCE Centre in Bishkek, a local NGO called Egl, and the prison service in Kyrgyzstan.

Interview conducted by Nargiz Ryskulova, an IWPR contributor in Kyrgyzstan.

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