Life in women’s prisons

A Pretty Picture

A new study of
Russia’s women’s prisons is a gripping look at sadism and


Galina Stolyarova


In Russian society
there is rarely much compassion for prisoners, even if they have served their


“They’re criminals –
what did they expect, a sanatorium?” is the typical response to stories of
overcrowded cells, inmates forced to sleep in shifts, lack of proper medical
care, or even sexual assault by fellow prisoners that has gone unpunished
because guards could not care less.


No compassion means no
interest, no investigation – and no improvement. And the issue of whether the
prison experiences of women differ much from those of men in Russia has never
really been discussed in public. The first attempt to investigate this field was
made recently by a group of four St. Petersburg sociologists who have now
published their research. It is likely to shock even some hard-hearted Russian


The book, Before and After Prison: Women’s
, so far available only in Russian, combines uncensored
stories written by prisoners with a professional assessment of their plight.

The sociologists
conducted 35 in-depth interviews with women who had served one or several terms
in Russian prisons. The women varied greatly. They had committed a variety of
crimes, with widely different sentences. They were all ages and from widely
different personal circumstances. Yet they had suffered similar ordeals behind


According to official
statistics, Russia’s prison population in 2012 totaled 714,000, of which 59,000,
or 8.3 percent, were women. Conditions in Russian prisons have been examined
before, but the research has mainly been done by lawyers and human rights
advocates. The studies have also been general and have not touched on gender.
However, as this study clearly demonstrates, Russian prisons seem almost to have
been designed to ignore or even punish femininity


A brutal lack of
privacy and an inexplicable degree of humiliation are perhaps the most shocking
elements in the women’s accounts. One repeated complaint was the stark lack of
personal space. As a prisoner, whether you are eating, working, sleeping, or
using the toilet, you are exposed to others.


Toilets and showers in
prisons do not have partitions. Remarkably, this nasty feature seems to be
retained even when the buildings undergo renovation. The principle of full
deprivation of personal space is adhered to.


Co-author Yelena
Omelchenko described one toilet renovation that left her


“In front of a row of
holes in the ground – not separated by partitions – they placed a large mirror.
I am still not fully convinced that the person who was responsible for that
interior design solution was not in fact a moral sadist.”


Another distinct
feature of Russian female prisons and penal colonies is that they seem bent on
systematically and severely suppressing femininity. Colored bed sheets are
forbidden. And if you soil your bed sheets – for example, with menstrual blood –
you can expect to be punished for it.


“When your period
starts unexpectedly, you’re not allowed to wash until your next allocated shift
for showering, which could be the next day,” recalled prisoner Galina in the


One drastic difference
between male and female prisons is that there are always lines of visitors
outside the men’s jails. By contrast, visitor areas in women’s prisons are said
to be strikingly empty, as if abandoned.


And getting out of the
league of outcasts and back into normal life is much more difficult for Russian
women than for men.


“You immediately feel
that loneliness abounds here. When a woman is given a prison term in Russia this
inevitably means almost complete exclusion from society at all levels,” said
sociologist Natalya Goncharova, a contributor to the


“A sentenced woman is
typically rejected by her husband or partner, her friends, her colleagues, and
social circle. By contrast, women rarely abandon their men when they are put
inside. On the contrary, women often give support to their partners who are put
behind bars.”


“Who visited me? If
anyone ever came, it was almost always our mothers. Nobody else gives a damn,”
said Lyudmila, who served a five-year term.


It comes as little
surprise that most women see giving birth as the surest way to regain some
social standing. They seek, first and foremost, to show society that they exist
and that they are normal, at least in the sense that they can be mothers, just
like those who’ve never been behind bars. When the sociologists asked their
subjects how they were planning to recover from the prison experience, and how
they would make a fresh start, a typical answer was “having a


“Self-esteem is so low
in these women, that they would usually even stress that they don’t even dare
hope to bring up a family with the father of their future child,” said
sociologist Guzel Sabirova, one of the co-authors. “They say that simply having
a child would be a good enough achievement.”


For most women who
were interviewed for the book, being an outcast is something they’ve known since
childhood. In the interviews, they often recall being abandoned by their parents
and having to live on their own before even reaching their teens. And the women
who end up in Russian prisons describe themselves as “strong” or


“My parents left me
when I was a child, and I would always repeat to myself that I would be able to
sort all my issues for myself,” said Lera, 34, one of interviewees, who was
sentenced to seven years.


“On the other hand, I
was always afraid that my men would dump me just like my parents did. I was
always on the aggressive side because I wanted to prevent the breakups, I didn’t
want to be kicked out again. But my attitude would always work against


There is one myth that
the study dispels – that relations among prisoners are gentler in female penal


“Women are cruel, and
they are extremely nasty to one another, vicious as hell,” said another
prisoner, Yulia.


“If you are ill, or
weak or old, they will be sure to exploit you, humiliate you, and harass you,
sometimes just for fun,” she said, recounting a snoring prisoner being hit over
the head with a shoe, guards being bribed with candy bars to turn a blind eye to
abuse, and even inmates sabotaging others’ prison work.


The Russian penal
system may be meant to deter crime, but it appears that for many women, it
succeeds only in leaving them physically and emotionally


Those feelings should
strike a chord with Russia’s legion of outcasts – the disabled, the poor, the
sick. For that reason, the book is likely to appeal to many Russians who have
never set foot in a prison – people who will, by the final page, hope fervently
that they never have to.


is a writer for
St. Petersburg Times, an
English-language newspaper

Reproduced by permission of Transitions On-line

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