Saturday, July 4, 2015

Prisons, Per and Cigarettes

One of the main news stories a few days ago was the prison riot in Melbourne. Inmates at the Metropolitan Remand Centre rioted in response to the introduction of a ban on cigarettes and smoking in Victorian jails. The ban is to be introduced in New South Wales prisons in another month.

One of the reports on the Melbourne riot offered the statistic that 84% of inmates smoke. Importantly, cigarettes are also a form of currency within the prison system.

The relevance of this to today’s story is that I had an appointment with a client, Per (pronounced “Peer”) on the same morning as my having watched morning news broadcasts of the rioting. Per’s story also involves imprisonment and cigarettes.

I wish to make clear at the outset that I usually don’t disclose client’s information or use real names, but that Per has given his okay to my telling this story. There is also a reason why I am using his real first name, which will become apparent later.

I have acted for Per as his lawyer for many years. In that time he has also become a friend.

Per is Danish, a larrikin who commonly greets people with the Danish “hej”, pronounced “hi”, and says goodbye with “hej hej”. He has a charming Danish accent.

Back in 1991 Per made a trip overseas. Whilst in Moscow, he picked up some Soviet medals at the local markets and, thinking that he would sell them in Sydney for a significant profit, he put them at the bottom of his pack when he left. Unfortunately he was searched and the medals were found. Big mistake. It turned out that the medals were classed as “State Treasures”, attempting to smuggle State Treasures out of Russia carried significant penalties.

Per was placed in detention, not in one of the mainstream prisons but in one of three former Moscow political prisons, Lubyanka.

Lubyanka Prison

The political prisons were much more cramped, archaic and inhospitable than the mainstream jails. Lubyanka had been both a political prison and the headquarters of the former KGB. It is estimated by some that up to 40,000 political prisoners “disappeared” whist imprisoned at Lubyanka.

Per shared a 2 metres x 4 metres (6.6 feet x 13 feet) cell with 3 other inmates.

I received letters from him occasionally over the 9 months that he was imprisoned, without trial. He seemed to accept his conditions stoically and did not complain. In one letter he apologised for the quality of his handwriting, saying that it was winter in Moscow, the cell was not heated and he was writing with strips of cloth wrapped around his hands.  He also said that the cold was numbing and that his hands felt frozen.

Eventually he was released without ever going to trial. He arrived back in Sydney and it took some time for his physical and mental wellbeing to be restored.

When Per came to see me last week he brought with him a Marlboro cigarette pack. He explained that he had come across it whilst going through some old belongings and though it might be of interest for me to see it. 

The cigarette contained a deck of playing cards made out of the back of cigarette packets, the numbers and symbols having been added by hand

The pack of cards had been made by Per whilst he was imprisoned in Lubyanka. He told me that prisoners were only allowed chess games, no cards, and that they were allowed to smoke. 

I mentioned that there was a reason I was using Per’s real name. If you look at the joker, above, you will see that incorporated in the word “Joker” is the name “Per”.

It’s an interesting comparison with the Melbourne riot circumstances, those prisoners being allowed to have cards but no cigarettes.

Per made the card deck so as to be able to pass the time with the other prisoners.  It was a valuable item, so that whenever he had to go anywhere he took his cigarette pack with the cards with him.

One final comment: Per discovered, on returning to Sydney, that the same medals that he had sought to smuggle out of Russia were freely available for purchase in Sydney military memorabilia and medal shops.

Hej hej, Per.

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