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Page last updated at 08:33 GMT, Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Siberian prison's beauty pageant

By Maria Yatskova
This World, BBC Two

Women inmates in a Siberian prison take part in an annual beauty contest which offers inmates a chance to demonstrate good behaviour and win early parole.

Natalya Khapova, 26
Natalya Khapova, 26, wears a ball gown for the Miss Spring contest
In the middle of a small room, with dirty-white walls decorated with pictures of Jesus and an array of plastic plants, a young woman stands on a stool.

She wears a candy-pink, cotton ball gown. At her feet, three other women sew tiny flowers along the hem of her giant hoop skirt.

Her lips are painted bright red and light brown curls frame her face.

"A woman should always be beautiful," says Natalya Khapova, 26, as she poses on her pedestal.

"Not just outside the fence. Even if she's in here, she should show her beauty. A woman is everything gentle and wonderful - or she should be."

When the contest first began in 1990, supplies were non-existent - the winner made her dress out of plastic bags from the prison kitchen
The fence Khapova refers to surrounds the correctional facility UF 91/9, an all-women's prison camp some 20 miles away from the Siberian capital, Novosibirsk.

Her ball gown is one of three outfits she will don for the prison's main event of the year - the annual "Miss Spring" beauty contest.

Good behaviour

Natalya Baulina
We wanted to find ways to occupy convicts' free time
Natalya Baulina, prison's administrative head
The annual pageant is a welcome diversion from the strictly regimented routine and the monotony of life inside the jail.

But where "active participation in the social life of the camp" can help women win early parole, the "Miss Spring" contest has become an important way for the female inmates to demonstrate good behaviour.

"We wanted to find ways to occupy convicts' free time," says Natalya Baulina, the prison's administrative head.

"When I first introduced the idea to the women, they were in utter shock. The only pageant they knew was Miss Universe - women parading in barely visible swimsuits before male judges."

The prison decided to invent its own rules with three categories - "Greek Goddesses", "Flower Gowns", and "Imaginary Uniforms", which lets inmates design their ideal prison uniforms of the future.

Many women have never heard of the Greek myths or exotic flowers they portray onstage, but they learn from books provided by the staff.

Prisoners in pageant show
Participating in the pageant can help prisoners win early parole
When the contest first began in 1990, supplies were non-existent. The winner made her dress out of plastic bags from the prison kitchen.

Nowadays women have hairspray, lipstick, nail polish, and all manner of female accoutrements not normally allowed in the prison.

Several guards and unit chiefs judge the contestants on their appearance and creativity, crowning the winner with a tiara "Miss Spring" and two runners-up "Miss Charm" and "Miss Grace".

News crews even broadcast the event on local TV.

Women turning to crime

Khapova, who has six-and-a-half years left of her eight-year sentence for assault, is one of more than 1,000 female inmates at UF 91/9, who are serving time for everything from drug possession to murder.

When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, the economy collapsed almost overnight and many unemployed women turned to crime.

Prisoners in UF 91/9
Prisoners are subjected to a strict regime in Siberia's UF 91/9

There are now 35 women's prisons in Russia and the female incarceration rate is almost five times as high as Britain's.

Half of the women at UF 91/9 are doing time for narcotics.

Yulia Lutsak, 30, is serving four years for illegal drug trafficking. She says 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."

Yulia works as a supervisor and has a starring role in the pageant. She is already planning her new life on the outside.

"I want to take computer courses," she says, "and then maybe work at an orphanage."

She says 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.

"Maybe I lack self esteem," she says. "I think after the pageant I'll feel more confident."

The trouble with freedom

Natasha Patalakhova
Natasha Patalakhova has found life tough with a criminal record
Former inmate Natasha Patalakhova, 29, who served eight years for armed assault, directed the pageant when she was in prison and her involvement helped her secure an early release.

But Natasha has found life difficult on the outside.

As an ex-convict and a refugee from Kazakhstan, she has been unable to get the papers she needs to work or even to travel.

"My prison days continue to haunt me," she says.

But as she returns to the prison on contest day she is greeted like a superstar to hoots and cheers.

Even after Nona Madjidova in a giant lily gown has been crowned Miss Spring, the real buzz is about Natasha's visit.

"I told them they could have a fresh beginning," says Natasha. "I told them to forgive each other, help each other, and strive to get home. What else could I say?"

This World: Miss Gulag will be broadcast on Tuesday 11 March 2008 at 1900 GMT on BBC Two.

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