Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kyrgyz Prisons in Dire State

By Sultan Jumagulov in Bishkek and Leila Saralaeva in Stepnoe (RCA No. 274, 30-Mar-04)

More than 100 women are crammped into one room.

Special room where inmates' bread ration is prepared.

View of womens' prison building.

Eighty-year-old Klavdiya Gavrilova serving 12-year sentence for killing her alcoholic husband.

Inmates counted twice a day to check there have been no escapes. Photos © Vyacheslav Oseledko

Standing in one of the unventilated rooms - where more than a hundred women are sneezing and coughing constantly - is almost unbearable, even for a short time. Each prisoner has just one square metre of space - a quarter of the international standard.

Olga, a pretty young woman who admits to being a repeat offender, shook her head sadly. "This is real torture," she told IWPR. "Women should not have to live in such intolerable conditions. Sometimes we can't even bear to look at one another, there is no place just to be alone and avoid seeing this human mass all the time."

Although the prison's administration has introduced bunk beds to alleviate the overcrowding, it hasn't solved the problem. Elena, a prison officer, said that some women still have to sleep on the floor, or three to a bed. "Yesterday they brought 34 more convicts from Osh. Where are they supposed to be put? So here they are, huddled on the floor," she said, pointing a group of women curled up on a heap of rags.

The prison - in the village of Stepnoe, some eight kilometres from the capital - was built in 1962 and hasn't been refurbished since.

The oldest inmate, 80-year-old Klavdia, was convicted of killing her husband. After many years of tolerating his endless drinking bouts, she finally lost her temper when he sold their last hen to buy drink.

The majority of women held here have been convicted of theft or drug offences. The prison is also used to house the mentally ill, but does not provide them adequate treatment. "They are brought here and put in the same rooms as healthy inmates. They create a lot of problems - they have fits, they don't really know what they are doing, they break things and do whatever they like," one warder told IWPR.

Prison food has been criticised in the past by inspectors, but there have been recent improvements. Vladimir Nosov, the head of the penal department at the ministry of justice, said this had reduced the number of medical problems suffered by inmates, although he admitted that the overcrowded conditions created a perfect breeding ground for infectious diseases.

The poor level of medical care is the women's greatest complaint, and the number of prisoners dying from infectious diseases is of huge concern. Around 600 inmates in Kygyz jails die annually from dysentery, cholera and tuberculosis.

Liubov, an elderly diabetic prisoner, told IWPR, "I suffer from a number of diseases but our medical centre doesn't even have the most basic medicines. If my condition suddenly gets worse, I'll probably just die."

Other women complained about the lack of dental facilities. "The dentists don't treat bad teeth, they just pull them out," said Nargiza. "Sometimes inmates have to pull out their own teeth - that's why so many of us have so few left."

Another problem is the lack of work available for the convicts. Only a quarter of them work in the bakery or the sewing and knitting departments - the rest spend the entire day lying on their beds waiting for the next meal.

Though prison conditions are poor, the economic situation in the country is so bad that some women commit minor crimes just so that they can be sent to jail. Olga, who is serving a sentence for fraud, believes that such cases make up more than half of the inmates. "Many don't even have a home to go to as their husbands and children have rejected them. Here everything is provided for them - a roof over their heads, food three times a day, some even have work and entertainment of sorts," she said.

While the problems facing the Kyrgyz penal system appear to be acute, the authorities insist that the situation is improving. Azimbek Beknazarov, chairman of the Kytgyz parliament's legal committee, believes that prison reforms implemented on the advice of international organisations are already yielding results.

Since 2002 all penal institutions have been under the control of the ministry of justice, which has provided access for international bodies, non-governmental organisations and the media.

"The improvements in this system have been possible thanks to various international organisations. They do not visit the prisons empty-handed either - some bring medications, others bring food and even clothes," said Beknazarov.

Sultan Jumagulov is a BBC correspondent in Bishkek. Leila Saralaeva is an independent reporter in Bishkek.

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