February 11

If an appearance on “The Colbert Report” is a measure of success, then Pussy Riot has arrived.

Fresh out of prison, Nadya Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, two members of the Russian punk protest group, were in New York last week for a whirlwind tour. After winning over Colbert and his audience, the duo spoke at Wednesday’s all-star Amnesty International concert at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, where they were introduced by no less than Madonna.

It was quite a shift from the last “stage” the women appeared on together: a Moscow church in 2012, where Pussy Riot put on a protest performance and were subsequently arrested and imprisoned for “hooliganism.” They were releasedas the Winter Olympics approached and have since been quite public in their criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The real story, however, isn’t their vocal, vehement opposition to Putin. It’s what they’re doing with their freedom. The women have been on an international journey of sorts — not to “breathe fresh air and enjoy ourselves” but to visit prisons in other countries and bring what they learn back to Russia.

Along the way, they’ve been talking about the conditions they endured in jail — including hunger, physical abuse, forced gynecological exams, subzero temperatures — as well as the suffering of their fellow prisoners. As a New York Times editorial noted, “Their observations are reinforced by the State Department’s 2012 human rights report, which said that limited access to health care, food shortages, abuse by guards and inmates, inadequate sanitation and overcrowding were common in Russian prisons, and that in some the conditions can be life threatening.”

There’s no doubt that Russia has a long, notorious history of brutal prisons. But America isn’t exactly a model for incarceration policy. Human rights groups have documented the harsh sentencing, discrimination and abusive conditions pervading a prison system that has become a burgeoning for-profit business. Women, in particular, are at risk; a recent Justice Department report accused an Alabama women’s prison of horrific, rampant sexual abuse of inmates.

Still, in the face of an unjust system, advocates on the front lines of U.S. prison reform are doing exceptional work, and their efforts are instructive. Indeed, at a news conference in New York, Alyokhina said, “We’re very interested in the fact of how NGOs in the U.S. work and collaborate with penitentiary institutions. One of our main goals is to exchange experience.”

The Correctional Association of New York’s Women in Prison Project (WIPP) would be a great place to start. (Full disclosure: I am on the board of the organization.) WIPP monitors conditions in New York’s women’s prisons, and has helped enact important laws, including one that bans the abhorrent practice of shackling pregnant prisoners in labor. The group also advocates for programs and policies that keep the families of incarcerated women together.

This is especially challenging because many New York prisons are located upstate, while inmates tend to be from New York City. Sincethe elimination in 2011 of a free community bus program, loved ones, especially children, have an even harder time visiting prisoners. Regular family visits are a crucial component of rehabilitation; according to a report by the Vera Institute of Justice, prisoners who receive them are less likely to commit prison violations.

The trauma of having a mother in prison is only compounded by the trauma of rarely getting to see her. As Tamar Kraft-Stolar of WIPP says, for an 8-year-old to take a long, overnight bus trip upstate to see his mom, “It might as well be going to Siberia.”

Of course, had Tolokonnikova’s young daughter visited her in prison, it would have involved an actual trip to Siberia, where Tolokonnikova was serving time in a penal colony.

And that’s what makes this moment — and the pair’s activism — so powerful. They understand firsthand what it’s like to survive inhumane imprisonment, and they want to use their fame, however sudden and unexpected, to shed some light on an often overlooked problem. For those focused on prison reform in Russia, the United States and around the world, their advocacy opens up new opportunities to elevate the issue and share lessons across borders.

At the Amnesty concert, Tolokonnikova spoke through a translator, saying, “Freedom is not a given. It is something we have to fight for every day. It is our duty to speak for those who are still behind bars.” Let’s hope these brave women continue to do just that.

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