Pussy Riot Hunger Strike: How Nedezhda Tolokonnikova Could Transform Russia's Penal System

The jailed singer of Pussy Riot Nadezhda Tolokonnikova was moved to solitary confinement on Tuesday staging a hunger strike to protest harsh conditions and human rights abuses within the Mordovia penal colony. Tolokonnikova was sentenced back in 2012 along with two other band members, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich. The three were convicted of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred as a result their public "Virgin Mary protest" condemning Russian President Putin. The group is well known for being outspoken against repressive government policies, which led to their arrest.

The Pussy Riot case epitomizes the struggle Russian society faces today regarding the muffling of dissenters by the government and the harsher punishments that they may face. The band's 30-second performance landed them a two-year prison sentence.

In a letter to her husband, Tolokonnikova highlights human rights abuses she has been subjected to in prison. She reported having to work 17-hour days on four hours of sleep at most. She describes her cruel punishments, and having to eat rotten food. She also describes a hierarchical system involving prison officials and older inmates. In her open letter, she details one young woman being stabbed in the head with scissors for not finishing her sewing on time.

Tolokonnikova was moved to solitary confinement on Monday, and an investigation is underway although she may face further punishment if her allegations are found to false. The singer could be convicted of slander, which could potentially elongate her sentence. She has reportedly faced death threats from penal colony officials after attempting to reform the situation.

Tolokonnikova's release is set for March 2014; however, she felt she could not let the inhumane treatments continue. The band member seems to be aware that the Pussy Riot case has become a focal point in the debate over human rights in Russia. Her prominence may enable greater pressure in reform.

The Pussy Riot case has gathered global interest since 2012. The U.S. Department of State as well as groups like Amnesty International have expressed concerns over Russia's human rights policies. New laws enacted over the summer in Russia have created stricter regulations and punishment for political dissidence, and have put new restrictions on the internet. Those who have spoken out against the government have faced harassment and intimidation.

Tolokonnikova's hunger strike has brought attention to not only the fate of the politically outspoken in Russia, but also to those who operate within the law. Her actions would benefit those who remain behind, and could make higher-ups in the penal colony accountable for their actions.

As Tolokonnikova states in the closing remarks of her letter, "I will do this until the administration starts obeying the law and stops treating incarcerated women like cattle ejected from the realm of justice."