No cheer in tales of mice and men in the Gulag: For Chris Booth, mistakenly detained during Monday's fighting, a day in Moscow's maximum-security prison was enough

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CHRIS BOOTH, a British-born field producer with the American NBC television company, was arrested on Monday for using a walkie-talkie near the White House during its storming by troops loyal to President Boris Yeltsin.

Because Booth is new in Moscow and has not yet got accreditation papers, it took the authorities some time to establish his identity and he ended up in Moscow's 'Sailor's Rest' prison, whose occupants have included the plotters of the 1991 hardline coup attempt. This is his story:

It was Andrei who explained why they had taken my shoelaces. 'So you don't go and hang yourself,' he said, a wry grin creeping across his sallow convict's face. Locked up a year ago for the murder of a policeman, the proud possessor of a record as long as Alexander Rutskoi's face, he had seen it all before. But for those rounded up by over-zealous police in the struggle for the Russian White House, imprisonment in Moscow's maximum-security jail was something of a novelty.

On arrival at the prison, stripped of the equipment I had hoped to get through to my cameraman holed up at the White House, I enquired if I had the right to call the office and sort things out. 'You, sunshine, have no rights at all for the time being,' said an army major as he struggled to work out what my lip balm was and whether it could possibly have been of use to the insurgents taking a severe pasting from pro-Yeltsin heavy armour. The 'Sailor's Rest' is a curious establishment. Renowned in the writings of dissidents, and more recently as the lock-up of the ringleaders of the August 1991 hardline coup attempt, its semi-derelict corridors and rows of impossibly cramped isolation cells do more than justice to its reputation as one of the least user-friendly locations in the Gulag archipelago.

Rats scuttle around the communal toilet-bowl of the larger cells, excrement festoons the walls and a miserly window-slit gives on to the razor wire blocking what little evening sun slants towards the crumbling prison buildings. Generations of inmates have scratched desperate notes to girlfriends and wives in the flaking brown paint of the isolation doors. 'Prosti menya mama' (Forgive me mother) was a popular line.

Yet the staff seemed hopelessly inadequate for the ruthlessness of their workplace. 'Eh, Kolya, where did you stick that bastard with the new jeans?' yelled a guard tramping the corridor outside the cells. 'I can't find him anywhere.'

Nurses chatted lazily outside the room where every newcomer undergoes a gruesome blood test for syphilis. 'I don't know, Masha, but either these needles are blunt today or I'm losing my touch.' On me, they used not a syringe but a piece of sharpened metal and poured the blood into a test-tube. I have since been for a check-up with a Western doctor. Rumours that the rebels were to storm the prison and free their comrades added a certain tension to the proceedings.

The duty investigator, clad in a flak jacket, chain-smoking furiously, asked whether I wanted Yeltsin or Rutskoi to win and whether the British Labour Party supported the Working Moscow Party, whose devotees were clubbing raw police recruits earlier in the day. And no, cigarettes were not on sale and would have to be brought once a month by my parents. 'This is not a hotel, you understand.'

The day's catch from the streets was assembled in communal cells. Deprived of the barricades separating them on the outside, the inhabitants of Cell Five found themselves united by circumstances and the mutual need for nicotine and companionship.

'I came out on the street to support Yeltsin like they said to on television and the bloody cops arrested me,' moaned a middle-aged man in a fake leather jacket. 'That's Mother Russia for you,' came the gruff voice of the drunk in the far corner, picked up while out hunting for a bottle of vodka.

A 16-year-old caught in the crossfire was sullenly nursing the bullet wound in his thigh. He had been arrested the moment he left hospital. The prison nurses decided he was well enough to stay in Cell Five.

'You've got to phone my family. They'll be looking for me in the morgues,' an old man was pleading with a guard as the door swung open and he was shoved in.

'I haven't the time, my sweetness,' returned the guard and slammed the door. 'Got a fag, grandpa ?' the cell chorused as his eyes adjusted to the gloom of single-figure wattage.

A snappily-dressed businessman shifted his position on a miserable wooden bench to try to get some sleep. The word was going round that Yeltsin had imposed a curfew. The earliest any of us were going to get out was Tuesday morning.

(Booth was freed that day.)

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