Potola Lagvilava, 62 years old, Kutaisi

”20 years ago, there was a company named ”Golden Fleece”. In all of Georgia, everybody who had any money invested in it. Some of them even sold their flats; the company paid 10% interest at the end of every month. It was the 90s, and they even gave out sugar, macaroni, and other products as compensation. It was a big fraud, contemplated like that from the very beginning. There were ”thieves in law”, Mafiosi that shook money from them; the government and the prosecutor’s office were doing the same, so after some time the company went under. Whoever took charge to help defrauded people were either caught or killed and one day people came to my husband, encouraging him to take up this job – he wasn’t afraid, he would win this case and people would stand by his side. So, in 2010 my husband was elected as the chairman of the bankrupt ”Golden Fleece”.

My husband researched this case – 20 million dollars were to be returned. 5000 people legally signed that if he won this case, he would get 10% as a lawyer. 2 million wasn’t a small sum, I decided to help him out and started to work on the case together. The case went on and everything went according to law. Some gangsters met my husband and offered him 10,000 dollars and stock options to give up the case. My husband replied that he made a promise to the claimants, who trusted him as a decent, honest man. Even though we needed the money, we had our conscience and decency.

On June 16th 2010, on evening time, someone knocked at our door – we were renting the place and we were only recently moved in. I was cleaning up, I thought to myself – I’m new here, who would want anything – probably someone has something to ask. I heard a lot of footsteps. I opened the door and they grabbed me, told me to go to the living room – they were in uniforms, some ran to the corridor, some to the bedroom. I asked what was happening – they didn’t even let me talk, sat me down and asked me – don’t you know what we’re talking about?! Don’t you remember when you were in Turkey and you brought drugs back and sold them?! My mouth dried, my eyes widened, and I couldn’t breathe… My bag was hanging at the entrance – I saw with my own eyes how they put something in there. Come and see for yourself, they invited me, threw my bag upside down and some little bags dropped out of it. I wanted to take it in my hands to see what it was, but the didn’t allow me. I had to sign papers confirming that I had drugs. I didn’t know what was happening to me – I cried for help, but they didn’t even let my husband or my children move an inch; there were armed guys all over the house. They went to the bedroom and put drugs even in the pajamas that I put under my pillow. I was beginning to realize what was going on, but since my husband was responsible for helping others, I had no choice but to follow them. They took me to Tbilisi, to the 9th floor of some building; I was bitter and petrified. The guy to whom they took me yelled out that they had to bring my husband too. I prayed they didn’t also arrest my husband and children. My kid was a student then.

On the second day, there was a court hearing when they agree on bail. I don’t know how my family managed to get there. They had 20 Lari to them and it wouldn’t even cover the transport fare. I was detained for 4 months. That was during the old administration when you couldn’t even ask for stuff – they were looking for reasons to bring me to a harsher place where they could beat me – they didn’t spare women. There were also provocateurs and there were Mafiosi women in each cell. The women’s prison was in the Matrosovi jail back then. If an inmate received gifts by mail, we had to give it to them and they filled up bags, sent it all home and that’s how they fed their families. They partnered with the guards. I saw all that, but how could I say anything? I also saw women with family values, very good women.

First four months I didn’t sleep at all. When they gave me medicine, I saved them and thought I’d drink these all at once to kill myself. I didn’t belong in prison. Why did they arrest me?! The first time that they allowed me to use the phone, I called my husband. Neither of us could say anything, both of us just cried.

They gave me 17 years. They took drugs from some other people and told me I sold it to them. They knew what they did to me… The judge had already prepared a verdict, he just read it aloud and left. When he was reading it, I was thinking that it wasn’t about me – it was about some other Potola Lagvilava. I didn’t have a reaction, nothing really mattered. I saw everything with my own eyes. But I hoped that my husband would sort it all out. Before that, I was thinking that they would let me go or let me off with a fine. My husband was trying to calm me down, that he would even appeal the verdict in Strasbourg. That was my only hope.

When they moved us women to the new prison in Rustavi, there were guys in masks every two steps. We were frightened and weren’t even allowed to look to the sides. The prison was overcrowded, 8 people put in 6-person cells. The conditions were okay, the place was renovated and clean.

There were also disturbing cases. I got to know a couple of girls. One told me she was going for surgery, but returning, let us know that the doctors removed her uterus and left her crippled. I have a friend who’s still in jail; they took her for a uterus surgery and removed her healthy ovum, saying she already had children and grandchildren and didn’t need it anymore. These were the things that were happening, but to whom could you protest, who would dare?! I endured it and understood that nothing ought to surprise me, if something was happening, I shouldn’t have looked at it. There were also women serving the guards; they were called “spies”. There was a separate building for killers, they were beating each other. They didn’t get along with one woman there and they moved her to the top bunk of my bed. When I brought tea from my file cabinet to drink, she combed her hair and threw it in my cup. I wouldn’t dare tell her anything, I was afraid. Then I went to the warden and asked him, why did they let her in my cell? They knew me well. They summoned her and gave her a warning. When she returned, she offered to “attack” them. How in hell could I attack anyone? I wasn’t a tough guy.

I picked up neurosis, insomnia, etc. In the diner, there were girls sitting at specially laid out tables and worked on jewelry. I asked some of them to teach me and began manufacturing beads, necklaces, and carry-on crosses. I didn’t have enough money for material, so one woman lent me 5 Laris and told me I could pay her back later. Spoons were used to count the beads, the inmates themselves were selling it. Four spoonfuls of beads cost a pack of cigarettes. That’s how I began. Then I sold my works and got sugar, coffee, candy in return. In 2012, a new head of prison was instated. Then teachers began to appear, teaching craftsmanship: knitting, working with confetti, cutting wood, carving ornaments, drawing, iconography, I even learned how to work with enamel. I have 22 certificates, I was interested in everything and going back and forth was a great way to pass time; that’s how I endured all those years and eased my time there.

Then the guests started coming, there were exhibitions, I gifted some of my works to the head of the prison, to the guests. I took part in a play in Rustaveli Theater – I was in the lead role, we had a director and put on a show. There were 7 of us, 7 women – after preparing for 3 months, our play turned out great and they gave us paychecks – 930 Lari. I sent 400 Lari to my kids and bought material with the rest. I asked the head of the prison not to let anybody in – I didn’t have the patience anymore, and since it was 2012 and they let out a lot of people, the prison emptied and we could afford it. He gave assistance in everything he could – I had a TV, a toaster in which I heated Khachapuris, I made corn porridge in a teapot, baked cornbread, then sold it and had the means to buy corn flour and cheese – sometimes my family sent them to me. In working late nights I made all this stuff, and I was intrigued if I’d be able to and found out how talented I was. We also had poetry readings, it had a very positive effect on us – encouragements, thank-you-s, there were events, we were receiving gifts. I didn’t have much time there either – I wasn’t there without a purpose.

The administration’s attitude also changed – even now, during the holidays, I call the head of the prison and congratulate him – as the head of the prison, not as a part of my family or a friend. You can see who’s who there. Once, he summoned me at 12 am – I asked him why he was bothering me and he said, Potola, I saw you weren’t feeling good, walking around with your head down, I took pity on you and that’s why I called you. He spent all night talking with me, calming me down. He broke sleep for me but didn’t even make me feel he was tired and wanted to sleep. Who’s going to sit with you like that?! The prison head’s attitude to the inmate means a lot there. He cared and watched the surveillance cameras to make sure nobody was feeling down. Most wouldn’t even think about some inmate’s feelings, whether she cries or if something hurts; in some prisons inmates even commit suicide. Earlier, when I asked for medicine, the doctor said they didn’t have any. I told him I was really hurting and asked him to get it for me – he said he couldn’t do anything, asking rhetorically, did he bring me there, was it his fault?! There were people like that, but then the feeling of love I found empowered me to endure everything – the fact that there were also good people there, that had some bad stuff happen to them. Some were there because of their kids’ crimes – a 17 years old teenager stole a cellphone and the mother took the blame. There was a young woman, a mother of three – she stole a chicken from a neighbor when her children were hungry. There were people sitting there for such small crimes… If I was a drug dealer… The drug dealers led the best life there – eating good and left laughing on their way out. I spent 7 years in tears.

I spent 7 years and 3 months in prison. In 2012, there was an amnesty, which affected me and my sentence was shortened by 5 years. I wrote a letter asking for pardon in 2016. They cut off a year and 10 months from my sentence. Then, by another amnesty I was freed early – I had a good character reference. I was freed on 10th October 2017. After one and a half months my husband died. My life turned upside down. When I was set free, all I wanted was to spend time with my children, with my progeny. It was very stressful for me. If my husband hadn’t died, we’d appeal for a political prisoner’s status. We were all ready for it and waiting for a resolution. My husband was going to go to Tbilisi the second day. Then everything changed dramatically and I lost all interest. I couldn’t go to Tbilisi to find out what happened, my health deteriorated. There were so many disasters in my life, I’m tired of it. Even though I’m a strong woman, I think I went through all possible trouble. When I was in prison, my mother died, my nephew too – a young man. The head of the prison told me that if I could go to my mother’s funeral if I wished so. But I didn’t want to. People would come to see me instead of mourning my mother. I conducted my own funeral for her in prison, a traditional prayer after 40 days and everything. Whenever I called her, she was always crying. She was worried about me. She said she’d come there in person and tell them she didn’t raise a criminal.

My probation ends on 20th January 2020. I got interested in cooking courses. I can’t stay long in one place and I’m taking the courses twice a week. Maybe trying something new will help me. The only thing that makes me happy is my grandchildren. If they weren’t around, I wouldn’t even know what I would do.

Author: Nino Gamisonia

Photo: Salome Tsopurashvili

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