(Moscow) – A member of the feminist punk group Pussy Riot has released a public letter alleging “intolerable” prison conditions and a death threat when she complained.

On September 23, 2013, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova went on hunger strike to protest threats by staff and abusive work and living conditions that are threatening her physical and psychological wellbeing at a penal colony where she is serving her prison term.

“These allegations are extremely serious and disturbing,” said Tanya Lokshina, Russia program director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities need to promptly and thoroughly investigate Tolokonnikova’s accusations and make sure she doesn’t face retribution for going public.”

Tolokonnikova, 23, is one of the three members of the feminist punk group Pussy Riot convicted last year for “hate-motivated hooliganism” for a political stunt performed on February 21, 2012, in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral.

On September 23, Tolokonnikova stated in an open letter that she had started a hunger strike to protest what she described as “slave labor” and appalling living conditions at Penal Colony 14 in the Mordovia region of Russia, where she is serving her sentence. She wrote that the colony’s deputy head warden threatened her when she tried to discuss her concerns with him. She has also made formal complaints to the Russian government. The leadership of Penal Colony 14 denies Tolokonnikova’s allegations of threats and ill treatment of prisoners.

On September 25, in response to her allegations, several members of the Russian president’s Human Rights Council visited Penal Colony 14. One of them, Ilya Shablinsky, a prominent lawyer and university professor, said what he saw and heard at the colony appeared to substantiate Tolokonnikova’s allegations and made his “hair stand on end.” A media interview with a former inmate of Penal Colony 14, Natalia Manuilenkova, published in April, describes living and work conditions in the colony in similar terms as Tolokonnikova’s letter.

Tolokonnikova’s letter alleges that the prisoners are forced to work 16 to 17 hours a day sewing police uniforms because of arbitrarily high work quotas. The letter says that the colony’s leadership pressures the inmates to sign “volunteer requests” to extend the workday beyond the eight hours provided for under Russian law and to work on weekends.

As a result, according to Tolokonnikova, the women are able to get only about four hours of sleep. The sleep deprivation affects their health and, coupled with faulty sewing equipment, results in high levels of work-related injuries. Tolokonnikova also alleges that the colony’s staff pressure prisoners to beat, strip, and inflict other abuse on fellow inmates who lag behind in their work.

Tolokonnikova wrote that on August 30 she tried to raise these issues with the deputy head warden of Penal Colony 14 and asked him to reduce the workday to 12 hours so that the women could get eight hours of sleep. The official responded that he would reduce the workday to the eight hours allowed by law, but without lowering the quotas.

When Tolokonnikova tried to point out that not meeting the quotas would inevitably result in penalties for inmates, she claims the official allegedly responded that if anyone found out she was the person who had made the complaint she would never complain again, adding that there was “nothing to complain about in the afterlife.” Later, the deputy head warden denied making the threat.

“The allegation that a senior prison official made a thinly veiled death threat in response to a complaint by an inmate is extremely serious,” Lokshina said. “Russian authorities should investigate it without delay.”

Tolokonnikova wrote that during the weeks following that meeting she and her co-workers were systematically punished for alleged poor work performance, including by being deprived of bathroom and smoking breaks, and tea privileges. Prisoners known for their close relationship with the wardens used the inmates’ growing frustration with these privations to bully Tolokonnikova and even to incite them to violence against her, she wrote.

Tolokonnikova’s letter described other conditions in the penal colony that do not meet international standards for the treatment of prisoners, including: unlawful punishments for filing complaints against the wardens; inadequate food rations, consisting largely of stale bread and rotten potatoes; clogged, filthy toilets; lack of hot water and water cutoffs in retaliation for asking for hot water.

Tolokonnikova also sent official complaints to Russia’s Chief Investigation Agency and the Penitentiary Agency, seeking an investigation into the threats against her as well as into the unlawful practices at the colony. She asked to be transferred to another penal colony, citing a heightened risk of physical violence against her.

“The authorities should go further than satisfying her request for transfer. They should release Tolokonnikova, investigate work and detention conditions at Penal Colony 14, and take steps to put an end to the abuse there,” Lokshina said.

Russia’s penitentiary authorities told the press on September 24 that Tolokonnikova is being held in “comfortable conditions” in a solitary confinement to ensure her safety. Tolokonnikova, however, told her husband and her lawyer that this “comfortable” place of confinement is in fact one of the cells in the punishment ward, very cold, with only a “narrow cold bench” to sit on. The lawyer, Irina Khrunova, also told Human Right Watch that the colony’s deputy chief warden petitioned a prosecutor to open a criminal investigation against her and Tolokonnikova’s husband for allegedly “disrupting” the work of the colony. Khrunova emphasized that she viewed the petition as an act of retaliation.

Maria Alekhina, the other imprisoned Pussy Riot member, went on an 11-day hunger strike in May to protest unbearable work and living conditions in the penal colony in the Perm region, where she was serving her term. She called off the hunger strike once the leadership of the colony pledged to make major improvements. Soon afterward, she was transferred to a different penal institution.

In August 2012, following a clearly politically motivated trial, a Moscow court sentenced Tolokonnikova, Alekhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, to two-year prison terms. In October 2012, the Moscow City Court released Samutsevich on parole because she was not among the band members who entered the area in front of the altar at the Christ the Savior Cathedral.

Alekhina and Tolokonnikova’s appeals were denied and they have repeatedly been denied parole.

“Alekhina and Tolokonnikova should never have been charged with a hate crime and thrown behind bars, but they’ve been in prison for a year and a half,” Lokshina said. “Every day they spend behind bars is one day too many, and Russian authorities should free them immediately and unconditionally.”