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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Site Gives a Glimpse Into Russia's Prisons

With 924,000 people in jail, Russia has the second-largest prison population in the world. Over the years, a prison subculture has developed with its own language, symbols and rituals — and a web site has arrived to tell us what it's like inside.

Suitably gloomy, www.ypka.org is decorated in black and gray and bears a hooded figure that mutates into a police officer and back. Ypka is the Cyrillic spelling of urka, slang for prisoner. "Hi Guys! Our brigade is happy to welcome you to our web site," says the homepage, "If you have the right orientation."

Journalist Grigory Pasko, who spent more than 1 1/2 years in prison on espionage charges before being released in 1999, discusses life on the inside in "Pryanik," posted in the Stories section of the site. Pryanik means a simple peasant bakery, but in prison slang it is a first-time inmate.

"In a cell designed for 6 to 12, they normally keep from 25 to 40. It is cramped and stinky, and there is a chronic deficit of water," writes Pasko. "Enter the cell, say hello, call your name and the number of the article [in the Criminal Code] you are charged with," Pasko writes, describing the prison initiation ceremony. "The cell should have a chief [of prisoners]. He will ask you a lot of questions to find out who you really are."

The Advice page gives a few helpful words before heading to jail, ranging from the obvious — "never get caught" — to the more useful — "count only on yourself" and "don't lie unless necessary, especially if you know that what you say can be checked out."

"Trust nobody including police; inmates — they may be set up by police," the Advice page continues. "[Police] will try to persuade you, beat you up, persuade you and beat you up again. And this cycle continues over and over. They [police] have plenty of time and nothing to do but entertain themselves."

The tattoo gallery could be the most insightful reflection into criminal culture. Every tattoo has a meaning: a rank in the criminal system, life experience or a criminal profile.

The site gives some 100 tattoos along with explanations. A young woman sitting on a coin is described as meaning "Don't love money — it will kill. Don't love women — they will deceive. Love God." An eagle sitting on a rock is not for everyone — only someone who has spent many years in prison and is respected by the criminal hierarchy is allowed to carry it.

Prisoners even have their own language to keep outsiders in the dark. But the site clues us in with a dictionary of some 500 words, where you can find such entries as "academy," which means a prison, "doctor," which means lawyer and "hemorrhoid," which means bad luck. The dictionary will soon be available in English.