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

Kyrgyz Prisons Failing Inmates

Both compassion and future prospects for life on the outside are in short supply for women prisoners.
By Leila Saralaeva

Just weeks after 36-year-old Iva was released from Kyrgyzstan’s only women’s prison, she was once again behind bars.


With nothing to eat and nowhere to live she committed a robbery in order to survive and soon found herself back at the penal colony in Stepnaya, a village about 12 kilometres from the capital Bishkek.


That was three years ago and Iva, now a mother to two-year-old Vitalik, is again up for release. She hopes things will go better this time, but admits she is worried about life on the outside, where ex-convicts are stigmatised and ostracised.


“I would like to appeal to people not to ignore us prisoners, not to treat us as the dregs of society. We have already been punished. If they gave us some moral support, we might be able to lead better lives,” said Iva.


“Women need some kind of accommodation and employment. They need assistance in obtaining necessary documents. Otherwise they will always [go back to] crime and end up in jail again.”


Iva is not alone in her criticisms of Kyrgyz society and the country’s penal system where thousands of women are locked up, ignored, then set free with little support or any real hope of reintegrating into their communities.


“[They] need social and psychological rehabilitation ... after spending time in prison,” said Cholpon Omurkanova, director of Egl, a human rights NGO. “But unfortunately there is not yet a single organisation in the country which would deal with this problem.”


Akbermet Kudaibergenova, an activist with the Karmel foundation, agrees that the prison system is failing Kyrgyz women.


“We need to reform this system urgently, [to move towards a humane approach] and to provide real help for women prisoners,” said Kudaibergenova.


Prison director Victor Starostenko said many of the 611 women in the Stepnaya facility commit crimes like theft and drug trafficking in order to feed large families. Even those convicted of more serious crimes like murder are often striking out against abusive husbands or boyfriends.


Kyrgyzstan’s courts treat these women harshly, with long sentences commonplace for even relatively minor crimes.


“Our courts [show little humanity] towards them, so we have cases where a woman is imprisoned for three to four years because she has stolen a watch worth 40 soms (one US dollar),” said Starostenko.


“Young girls end up in prison because they can’t resist the temptation of a Snickers bar, or because hunger forces them to steal bread rolls.”


“After [they are released] they have nowhere to go to, so they commit another crime and [and end up back with us].”


The colony was built in 1962 during the Soviet era and hasn’t been renovated since. Inside, the walls are dilapidated, grey and falling down. The windows are broken and in winter it is so cold inside that the inmates say it is hard to breathe.


One woman caught tuberculosis while awaiting her trial on robbery charges.


The only signs of civilisation are television sets and an electric stove for cooking, though only those who receive supplies from home have anything to prepare there. The rest must make do on millet or buckwheat porridge, watery soup and black bread as the state budgets just 26 soms (52 cents) a day for prisoners’ food.


Young girls like 15-year-old Svetlana, who was imprisoned for killing her friend, are mixed in with adult prisoners, “Here we see and learn things that you would not wish on your enemy. If I spend a few years in this filth, will I improve, progress and develop? On the contrary, I hate the whole world here.”


The vast majority have little contact with the outside world and few visitors, as most are rejected by relatives once they are convicted of a crime.


The sister of a woman imprisoned for killing her abusive husband told IWPR she won’t be welcomed back when she is released.


“My family and I feel sorry for my sister ... but we will be ashamed before our neighbours and friends that a woman who is in prison is living in out home,” said the woman.


“We will help her to go to some other town where no one knows her. If she comes here it will be very difficult for her. She will constantly feel like a social outcast when her neighbours or friends will not wish to meet with her as they used to, or she will not be able to find work because of her previous conviction.”


Valeria, 28, was also rejected by her family after being sentenced to four years for stealing. Like many of the female prisoners, religious faith has sustained her in the absence of loved ones, and she finds comfort in the prison’s small prayer room.


“My daughter is five years old. I am not allowed to see her. This is painful and horrible. I can’t even express it in words,” she said.


“I am going to join [the Christian believers]. They tolerate the people like me and there is simply no other way to survive.”


Elena Dokunina, who has been serving her 25-year sentence since the Soviet era, agrees the church provides comfort for many inmates. “It is good that religious organisations have appeared. There these women can find refuge. Do you believe that they really have these strong religious beliefs? They go there, because they have to. They have nowhere else to go.”


As well as losing their families, pregnant prisoners must also cope with separation from their babies who are moved to a different building soon after their birth. At age three, the children are sent to an orphanage.


Prison authorities say they are forced to separate mothers and babies because of past experience when some women exchanged their children’s food for cigarettes. But prisoners like 33-year-old Aichurek say they have no such intentions.


“I decided to have a child because the years are passing and at least I will have one person who is close to me,” she said.


Though she won’t predict whether she’ll end up back behind bars, Iva is certain of one thing as she contemplates her imminent release: Kyrgyzstan’s women prisoners need help.


“The correctional system in Kyrgyzstan is like a cancerous growth in our society,” she said. “It is constantly growing and harming everything around it.


“Thousands of women go through this system and do not improve at all. Rather they go back into the community physically and mentally sick, their will broken and their life [ruined].”


Leila Saralaeva is an IWPR contributor.


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