Johnson's Russia List
11 April 2002
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A CDI Project
The Guardian (UK)
11 April 2002
To ease the pressure on Russia's appallingly overcrowded jails, Vladimir
Putin has decided to free thousands of female prisoners - including any
with a child under three. But these women face an uncertain future
By Nick Paton Walsh
In a few days' time, Veronika Kupriyenko, 19, will leave the room where she
has been incarcerated, cheek to cheek with 20 other women, for more than
two years. She will then face the biggest challenge of her life so far:
living normally again, but as an ex-convict, in Russian society.
Kupriyenko was sentenced to three-and-a-half years for stealing 10,000
roubles (£220) in the street. She got into drugs in her native town of
Yeletz, in the Lipetsk region, and she says that heroin and opium turned
her and her friends to crime.
"I was sentenced there under article 158.2," she says - this is the
convict's euphemism for petty theft. For two years and six months, she was
obliged to share a room with robbers and murderers at Novooskolskaya
"educational colony" in the Belgorod region, 600km (370 miles) south of
Moscow. But they all got on well, she says. "We never select friends
according to their crimes. No one looks at your crime here."
President Vladimir Putin's administration inherited a prison system heaving
under the strain of nearly a million convicts, the second largest prison
population in the world. Conditions inside these jails can be atrocious.
Things tend to be better for women than for men, but then everything is
relative. Amnesty International has documented women prisoners given only a
square metre of living space per person, suffering from appalling
nutrition, and denied basic supplies, such as sanitary products. Then there
is the tuberculosis, the world's biggest killer, a variant of which -
immune to basic medicines - is now rife in the cramped, poorly ventilated
However bad these conditions, this system is still very expensive to run,
and now something quite extraordinary is happening: Putin is letting the
women out of prison. Not just one or two, but thousands upon thousands of
them, in one big, radical sweep of reform. Last November 12,000 female
prisoners were put down for release. Now every woman with a child under
three is going to be released - a potentially huge number, although no one
is actually quite sure how many. Just like that.
Further release programmes will concentrate on those who are old, or who
committed their crimes as children, or who are serving ludicrously medieval
sentences - in Russia, you should not be surprised to find women or
children serving four years for stealing two chickens, a horse, or even a
loaf of bread.
Kupriyenko's release was ordered last November, and now she and another 179
women out of the total population of 250 in her colony are waiting to be
released. She says their fears are of the uncertainty and hardship of life
outside: "My friends are really afraid to go home. No one is waiting for
them there; no one needs them there. Many are afraid that they will be
unable to provide for themselves in freedom. They keep silent about this,
but you can read it in their eyes."
Kupriyenko - who speaks to the Guardian, cagily, from the phone in her
prison governor's office - says she fears that some ex-prisoners will soon
slip back into crime, joining the estimated 40% of Russian prisoners who
reoffend after their release.
One of her friends, Olga, has written to her about her first days out of
prison, she says. "The letter said: 'I came to live with my sister. I
knocked at her door. My sister began to speak to me about my time in jail,
but then said she did not have any time, and then closed the door without
letting me in.' We do not know where Olga is. She did not send us any more
In Soviet times local authorities were obliged to guarantee work for
everyone released from prison, and provide accommodation to the worst
cases. Now that infrastructure no longer exists.
Nadezhda Fedorenko, the head of this colony, says: "What concerns us is how
they will manage to settle in freedom. Many of them need help with
accommodation, shelter at least. But the main thing is to find a job. In
this colony the girls have come from 40 of the 89 regions in the country. I
have written letters to the governors of these regions asking for help. But
only the local one replied."
Ludmile Alpern, deputy director of the Moscow Centre for Prison Reform, a
pressure group, says: "The recidivism rate is so high because there are no
programmes to help women outside of prison. Some are not in society long
enough to look for a job before they return to prison."
The latest amnesty, for mothers, has raised new fears among prison wardens
and campaigners. On the one hand, they are pleased that women can be
reunited with children who may have been taken into care, while on the
other they fear that some women will abandon their children as soon as they
have secured their freedom.
Some regimes allow children to live with their mothers; a false blessing if
their mother is in a sizo - pretrial detention centre. Here five women live
in a 3m-by-2m cell with their children - with no natural light and little
ventilation, and often waiting years for a trial that may even acquit them.
Other regimes keep children in separate accommodation, near or in the
prison, giving them a stability that carers admit is often the children's
best shot, considering the uncertainties that await ex-convicts outside.
Some babies are reported abandoned on park benches, hours after their
And there are other public-health concerns about these enormous waves of
releases. Vincaine Sizaire is a TB advisor for Médecins Sans Frontières in
the former Soviet Union, and has worked in one of the largest women's penal
colonies affected by TB, Colony 35 in the Kemerovo region. Even before the
amnesty that will lead to their release, pregnant women received better
treatment in jail, and were released from tedious labour duties such as
making light switches in the colony factories. For this reason, Sizaire was
told, women deliberately try to get pregnant, even if they have TB. She
recalls how one of her TB patients became pregnant soon after a local
workman was called to the prison to fix a lock. "So many were pregnant in
our prison that we were told that it had to be a deliberate attempt to ease
their conditions," she says.
The result is that many of the mothers who are now being released will have
TB, she says, and will still be contagious. "We are doctors, so we can't
ask for our patients to be kept in jail and to finish their treatment, if
they have the right to leave under the amnesty. But once they are out, they
just disappear. They are given a little money when they are released, and
then their only obligation is to go to their local police station and be
registered. But many spend the money on a bit of a party and are then
Although Kupriyenko hopes to have her mother's support on her release, she
fears that it may be harder than she imagines. "I know it will be difficult
to find a job," she says. "Some women have to sleep rough. Others earn
money from working temporarily in kiosks on the street. But the hardest
thing is just finding a stable place to to cling on to."