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Ukraine: Women Prisoners Locked In Downward Spiral

  • Lily Hyde

Our Kyiv-based contributor, Lily Hyde, recently visited a prison for women in Ukraine and talked about conditions with inmates and prison officials. She heard that conditions inside are made more difficult by the country's economic problems. But she also learned that at least some inmates fear life outside the prison's walls.

Kyiv, 22 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The inmates of the women's prison colony in the northern Ukrainian town of Chernihev recite a lengthy list of grievances, but there is not much conviction in their voices. They know it has all been said many times before.

One of the inmates is 33-year-old Halina. She is a tall, thin woman who says she weighed 90 kilograms when she was first sent to the colony. Today, she weighs 62 kilos. She gestures around the featureless concrete yard, at the prison's crumbling walls and says in a dreary, sing-song voice: "Prison doesn't treat, it disables."

The some 1,600 women in the Chernihev colony have had plenty of time to realize the truth in that saying. All are repeat offenders, and many have spent more of their lives behind prison walls than they have on the outside. Warden Yuri Hudenko says 40 percent of the inmates at Chernihev have lost all links with the outside world.

Many of the women are in prison for serious crimes, including 153 for pre-meditated murder and many more for violent robbery and assault. But Hudenko says the largest proportion -- 60 percent -- are there for drug or alcohol-related offences.

Ira -- another prisoner who preferred not to give her full name -- says she is half way through a four-year sentence for using and selling drugs. Ira said that in other countries, drug addicts are treated. In Ukraine, she said, "they go to prison."

Ukraine locks away a high percentage of its citizens in its 129 penal institutions and 11 centers for underage offenders. Ukraine has 426 prisoners per 100,000 people -- lower than the United States but far higher than most European countries. The Netherlands has 75 prisoners per 100,000 people; England and Wales, 120 per 100,000.

Oleksandr Svetlov is head of the criminal law department at the Institute of State and Law. He says Ukraine's problem lies in its sentencing system. Ukraine's court system offers limited alternatives to prison sentences, such as fines, conditional sentences or community service. Svetlov said courts in Ukraine sentence every third case to imprisonment, while in Europe the number is more like every seventh or eighth case.

Along with every other social structure in the country, Ukraine's penal system is suffering from a serious budget shortfall and lack of reform. Svetlov says Ukraine has not built a single new prison since the 1917 revolution. Severe overcrowding and poor sanitation has led to a rapid increase in infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis. Prisoners have even collapsed from lack of oxygen.

Svetlov says conditions are slightly better in prison colonies, where most prisoners are sent after sentencing. Traditionally, colonies have provided inmates with work in factories from which they could earn money or material goods. But many of these factories now stand virtually idle because of the expense of running and replacing machinery or because of a lack of work orders. According to Hudenko, the Chernihev colony's sewing factory employs 550 women, who should be paid 1.20 hryvna per day for making work clothes. But Hudenko acknowledges there are problems meeting the payroll.

He said: "We've got places and equipment but not enough orders. Before, we got all state orders. Now we only get private ones, and they pay not with money but with barter."

General Alexander Ptashensky -- who heads the national Department for the Execution of Penalties -- says this problem is common in all of Ukraine's penal colonies. He said it means these institutions cannot afford to feed or clothe inmates properly. By law, the state is supposed to provide 1.20 hryvna per person per day for food. In January, Ptashensky said, the sum was actually 8 kopeks per person.

The women at work in the sewing room in Chernihev say they are supposed to be paid around 60 kopeks a month. In reality, they say they are paid nothing.

Ira says every inmate is issued two pairs of pants and two pairs of socks. All inmates wear blue thinly padded coats, each with a name tag. The coats are hardly adequate to keep out the cold.

Warden Hudenko says any prisoners who fall ill get "instant medical treatment." The women themselves, however, say they have to rely entirely on concerned relatives to send them medicine, and that those without relatives often go untreated.

Twenty-eight-year-old Alicia says there is no medication available for inmates and that medicine sent by family members usually never arrives. "But we've already stopped talking about this," she says. "We know it's the same everywhere." Halina estimates that only 20 percent of inmates get any material help from the outside.

Grim though the picture is of life in the colony, what awaits the women when they get out is often worse.

Twenty-six-year-old Natasha says that women sometimes commit crimes after their release in order to be sent back to prison.

"One of us leaves and she goes nowhere. After a month, she's brought back. She committed a crime especially to get back here, because there's nothing for her to do outside."

Warden Hudenko says that's true. He said that as they're leaving, some of the women say, "Don't worry. We'll be back soon."

The Institute of State and Law's Svetlov: "Psychology proves that people who have been in prison for a few years lose all socially useful links, lose their profession, their job. No matter how they were looked after inside, badly or well, they had a bed, they had food, and in freedom they have to find work, find somewhere to live, and pay for it. Sometimes they have no profession or they have lost their profession. Therefore ideally there should be a rehabilitation center in every town and region."

Freed prisoners can apply to their local unemployment center for work or unemployment benefits. But the benefits amount to about 5 dollars a month, and the jobs are few and poorly paid. If the person does not have somewhere to live, he or she cannot register at the center.

Halina recounted a letter she recently received from her father:

"My father wrote to me [and said] 'of course you've committed a sin, but you are better of living inside than we are in freedom.'"

Most of the women at the Chernihev colony come from poor families and are not highly educated. They worked in freedom as book-keepers or vendors. Being second or third time offenders mean they are already on a downward spiral they are unlikely to escape from.

Halina says "we were sentenced not for the crime itself, but for the fact of being in court a second time. We're all girls together. We've grown up together in prison."