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Reforming women's prisons

Prison Wall, Barbed Wire, Stone Tower, LamppostA prison beauty contest held in Russia's Far East has highlighted the drive for reform of the country's often-brutal prisons system.

The pageant, held on International Women's Day, wasn't simply about having a good time.
[generic file photo of Russian facility]

Authorities publicised the event as a way of showing how they are improving the lives of the 56,000 women in Russian prisons.

President Dmitry Medvedev launched a reform drive in 2009, after the death in custody of business lawyer Sergei Magnitsky caused a major scandal.

Women make up 5 per cent of a total 819,200 prisoners serving time in penal colonies and settlements across Russia.

That's no small number, but it's still 50 per cent lower than in the United States, where there are 148,200 women in state and federal prisons, out of a total population of 308 million, according to Amnesty International.

Women prisoners in Russia face the same problems as their counterparts in other countries ­ lack of rights to stay with their children, unhygienic conditions and crowded cells. Often harsh conditions in Russian prisons can have other effects.

"The most significant issue is, of course, that psychologically it is more difficult for women to adapt to a prison lifestyle," Valery Borshchev, a member of the Moscow Helsinki Group who specialises in prisoners' rights, told The Moscow News.

"Life behind bars can ruin a woman's psyche and change her attitude to life completely","Women giving birth face particular problems, as do those with immediate family waiting for them, he said.

Pregnancy precedent

There are signs of change. Yukos lawyer Svetlana Bakhmina, who was serving a six-year sentence, was released in 2009 after she gave birth in prison.

One of those to benefit from the pregnancy precedent was Yulia Kruglova, who gave birth to her fifth child last September after two months of pre-trial detention in hospital.

Kruglova had been sentenced to three years in prison on charges of fraud and embezzling 16 million roubles ($550,000).

In September 2010, the Samara City court ruled that Kruglova's sentence would be suspended until her youngest daughter reached the age of 14. The decision followed the intervention of children's rights envoy Pavel Astakhov and President Dmitry Medvedev.

Kruglova says being pregnant in a prison hospital is at least better than life in a cell.

"You can move around, walk as much as you want and breathe fresh air and see the sun," she told The Moscow News.

Kruglova described her hospital as a wooden building built in the 1950s, with wards for eight to 14 people.

But while pregnant women are freed from the duty of cleaning their prison cells, hospitals have different rules. "Patients clean rooms themselves. They wash the floor and wipe the dust and pregnant women do this too.

"When reporters began to arrive to interview me the prison hospital's staff created a more comfortable environment for me but it was just an exception, unfortunately," she said.

There are 13 prisons across Russia that have maternity accommodation where children can stay with their mother until the age of three.

"Then the children go to live with their immediate relatives," Borshchev said.

"This is a positive thing for women in prisons. At least those with children stay psychologically healthy," said Valery Sergeyev, a programme director at the Centre for Prison Reform.

Human rights activists who work with Russian prisoners say there is still much to do, particularly for women.

Reform a priority

In the 1990s, life behind bars was much the same for men and women with poor food and bad hygiene the norm.

"The psychological atmosphere in female prisons in Russia is horrible. I think that a prison deforms a woman's psyche," Borshchev said, adding that many human rights activists lobby for alternative punishment measures for women.

After serving a sentence, a woman has a completely different attitude towards life and it's more difficult for her to reform than for a man.

On the one hand, women's prisons do a good job of keeping inmates occupied. "They do sewing there, almost all women in prisons have vocations, which is a good thing for them," Borshchev said. On the other hand, barracks are crowded, with fifty to eighty women living together.

The good news, he said, is that will change.

Soft cell

Medvedev in 2009 ordered the Federal Prisons Service to make urgent improvements in prisoners' conditions. He told the service to abolish the toughest kind of penal colonies within a decade, replacing them with milder-regime prisons with cells, rather than large halls, and open-prison-style settlements.

"The change to a cell system is a good sign for female detention in Russia. It would be better if women could live three to four in a room, rather than dozens," Borshchev said.

Valery Sergeyev agreed. "Cell confinement will help women interact on a different level. They will be more like a family, rather than each one of them being an outsider."

Sergeyev also criticised the poor diet in Russian prisons. "We know of cases when girls in underage prison centres have lost weight because they simply couldn't eat what was being served there."

Better food is sure to be high on the wish list of all inmates.

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