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A month in prison in Kyrgyzstan

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.

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