The Saint Petersburg special nursing home for disabled and retirement-age ex-convicts is a unique institution for Russia. At first glance its inhabitants seem to be older men with disabilities, however, all have also served two or three prison sentences.

Usually Zeki* (Russian prison slang for convicts) end up in nursing homes for the general public, which causes chaos and conflict, as they continue to live according to their paradigm into old age and are treated with suspicion by other inhabitants. In contrast, in the special nursing home prison values are the norm.

Most of the inhabitants of this institution were first convicted during Russia’s Soviet years. The new unregulated life of the 90’s, with its chaos and temptations, saw them return to prison again and again. To this day in Russia more than 40% former convicts reoffend in a short time, rehabilitation does not seem effective and, for many, prison life is what they are accustomed to and are comfortable with.

Offenders come out of prison already old, and sometimes with a disability. Their relatives frequently refuse to look after them, and their own housing has been lost, sold or already passed on to their children. As a result, they are left with the choice of being out on the street or going to whichever nursing home social services direct.

This one of a kind nursing home for ex-prisoners is located in the village of Ust-Izhora, a twenty-minute drive from Saint Petersburg. Its three-story building, built as a hotel, almost doesn’t stand out against the backdrop of country houses.

At first glance, life in the special institution doesn’t differ from prison: silence in gloomy yellow corridors, four people sharing a room, scheduled food and security searches for guests at the entrance.

With one exception — ex-convicts say that life here is worse than prison.

The relative comfort and cleanliness of the rooms does not change the situation, the secluded and boring world of the nursing home is hopeless. Only alcohol brings any joy, but the director (who was himself a former participant of the Afghan campaign) and his team will certainly try to take it away.

The only forms of entertainment here are TV and “work” for those who are able. “Work” means begging for money near the church or the nearest shop. Although some of the ex-convicts could have a real job, only a few do, as most consider it conspiring with the system.

Previously, social workers took the ex-convicts to museums and theatres. When this initiative was abandoned, life at the special nursing home turned into a monotonous jumble of TV series about bandits and police, sleep, booze and smoke. Occasionally someone’s death punctuates this fog, stirring up worries and troubled whisperings, but lacking any real surprise. However, such diversions are short-lived and the gloomy silence of lifeless existence soon returns.

* Shut up (prison slang) ** according to Susanna Kirilchuk, head of the rehabilitation centre “Aurora”