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Alla Pokras on Female Prisoners with Children: a Complete Re-think of Current Approach Needed

Vera Vasileva , 05/04/12


· Prisoners  · Rights of Children has previously reported on the problems facing mothers with babies and children in prison. Today we return to this subject with Alla Pokras, programme coordinator at Penal Reform International who answered questions put to her by our correspondent Vera Vasilieva.

Russia's penitentiary system has 46 penal colonies for women. Thirteen of these have children's homes attached to them, containing children who have accompanied their mothers to prison. According to data provided by the Federal Penitentiary Service, as of 1 March 2012 there were 775 children living in prison.

The children's home is a sub-unit of the penitentiary institution in which it is located. The children's homes are supervised by the Medical Directorate of the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service and at a regional level by the Medical Directorate of the regional body of the Federal Penitentiary Service.

The running of the children's homes in the penitentiary system is regulated by the Russian Penitentiary Code, by Order No.640 of the Ministry of Public Health and Social Development, and by Order No.190 of the Ministry of Justice of 17.10.2005 "On the procedure for the provision of medical aid to convicted persons in places of detention and custody".

- How do children end up behind bars? Until what age do they stay there?

- The Orders of the Ministry of Public Health and Social Development and of the Ministry of Justice state that children are sent to children's homes in places of detention who were born when their mothers were either in a remand prison or a penal colony. If the mother was at liberty when the child was born, she cannot take it with her to prison. Children can be with their convicted mothers until the age of three. In some cases, if the child has reached the age of three and the mother has less than a year to go until the end of her sentence, the administration of the penal institution can extend the child's stay in the children's home to coincide with the end of the mother's prison term.

- What happens to the child if the mother remains in prison after they have turned three?

- If the mother is still serving her sentence then the child can be taken by its father, if of course there is a father. But, as a rule, in these sorts of cases the children are taken out of the penal colony quite a lot earlier than their third birthday. Likewise grandmothers, grandfathers or other relatives may also look after the child once they have registered guardianship. But this is also usually done at a much earlier age than three. Most often, if a child remains in the children's home until the age of three, it is because its mother has no relatives who are prepared to help her.

Otherwise, if there are no parents, then the child ends up in an orphanage like any other child that has been left without its parents' care. And in this regard there are currently a lot of difficulties.

We don't have very many women's colonies and they don't exist in every region of the country. There are even fewer penal colonies that have children's homes - in total there are only 13 of them and this is clearly not enough. Thus, children from various regions end up living in one children's home. If there are no places in a non-penal children's institution in the region in which the colony is located, then they refuse to take in the child and then try to send it to an orphanage near to the mother's place of residence before her detention.

Currently, non-penal children's homes are unwilling to take in children that have been born in detention. The reason for this is that on their release from prison their mothers do sometimes forget about them. And then this region becomes responsible for ensuring that the child is housed. Because these children have not been born at home or at their parents' place of residence, they don't actually have any rights to be housed at all.

When a child is sent to a children's institution outside the penal colony, it is not that simple for the mother to take it back on release. She must provide a certificate proving that she has housing and a place of work. So it often turns out that the mother will return to her place of residence in order to reclaim her rights to housing, find work and so forth, and only then return for her child after a certain amount of time. And sometimes they don't return for them at all.

- If I'm not mistaken, you believe that the most important problem is the separation of children from their mothers in prison and that you are of the opinion that they should live together in one place. Is this the case?

- The Convention on the Rights of the Child states that all actions taken by the state with regards a child should respect the interests of the child in the best way possible. Can the current approach that we have in our country possibly be considered in the best interests of the child?

The law states that imprisoned mothers should spend all their free time with their children living in children's homes attached to the colonies. But in practice everything is set up in these children's homes so that it is virtually impossible for mothers to make things work like this. Convicted mothers usually go to see their children once or twice a day in order to take them out to play.

It has long been proven by all the research that, in the first year of its life, a child needs what is known as its "main carer". Or to put it more simply it needs to be looked after by one person. The child needs to constantly receive a reaction to its behaviour - whether it is crying or smiling. It needs to held, cuddled and fed. It should feel protected literally from the very first moment of its life.

If a child is in a children's institution there might be one nanny there one day and then a different one the next. And there isn't a single nanny in any children's home that will sit with a child and hold it in her arms. For example, I have seen how feeding is done in these situations. The child lies in the cot. The nanny doesn't take the child in her arms at all but just sticks a bottle through the bars of the cot and feeds it like that. And that is how they grow and develop, and what's more with their mothers close at hand.

As a result, these children do not develop any trust in people or the world around them. And this leaves a mark on them for the rest of their lives. And it is very difficult to put this right.

Children from orphanages - whether they are attached to penal colonies or not - practically never cry out loud. I have seen several children like this with their sad faces in a large play pen and if there is something wrong then they don't cry but just moan softly. It's a terrible sight.

There is also another thing. When you are bringing up a baby then you know why it is crying. You know how it cries when it is sick, when it is just being grumpy or when it wants something. You work out all the undertones of your child's behaviour. But this way you end up with a situation where the mother leaves the penal colony with a two to three year old child that she practically doesn't know and whose reactions she doesn't understand.

Moreover, being together in the penal colonies with their babies could change the lives of the mothers as well. Many of them have themselves had very complex personal histories, are emotionally undeveloped, and received no warmth from their parents, or possibly had no parents at all. I have seen a lot of mothers like this. But instead of trying to keep the family together everything is organised so that circumstances conspire against the mother and child.

- But after all, probably not all convicted prisoners are good mothers are they?

- It's often said that female prisoners use the birth of their babies as a means of making conditions in prison easier. Pregnant and feeding mothers are given slightly better food. They cannot be sent to solitary confinement.

In addition, if she has a child the mother can expect her prison sentence to be shortened. There is also a regulation in the law allowing the suspension of a sentence until the child reaches the age of 14 for minor offences with a sentence of less than five years. Now this suspended sentence, and incidentally this is a very good thing, is being extended to single fathers.

- Critics of this practice say that mothers are not being treated the same as other prisoners, that they are not being punished as they should be.

- Of course, there are cases when a child is in a children's home attached to a penal colony and its mother who is living nearby doesn't even give it a second glance. Moreover, until the child reaches the age of one and a half, like any other mother she has the right not to work. Not all these women are prepared to live with their babies. They get bored, they find it difficult, they are not used to it and can't cope.

There are women, for example, who have said in conversations with me: “I'd be better off sitting out my two year sentence than be under surveillance until my baby turns 14.” In other words, they consciously made no attempt to get a suspended sentence in order to give birth to their child and bring it up outside prison. But these women are few and far between. In general, mothers are all very different, whether they are convicted prisoners or law abiding citizens.

However, whatever the case, a woman should take responsibility for her child and care for it. If she neglects to do this, then the very same mechanisms that come into play outside prison should come into force inside. Namely the limitation or denial of her parental rights. If the mother is causing some sort of damage to the child then she is neglecting her obligations. But then there are always mechanisms that can be brought to play with regards to her and the situation.

Penal colonies have obligatory education for prisoners until they reach the age of thirty. If a person has no education then he or she is taught. But here we have a situation where a person has no skills to interact with their baby, and they are not provided with these skills, although it would be possible. This seems absurd to me.

Perhaps it's not terribly reasonable to talk about international norms in the situation that we find ourselves in. But all the international documents contain the idea that imprisonment should primarily be used to correct the individual (in English they use the term "reform"). This not the sort of correction which we usually have in mind in our country - by collaborating with the prison authorities an individual really should learn something and reconsider their ways.

- Have you talked about these issues with women prisoners? What do they think about living together with their children?

- Undoubtedly, the majority of women want to be together with their children. There are children's homes where they are trying to get mothers and their children together as much as possible. But this is not the same as providing the opportunity of actually living together with the child.

- Is there any practical experience of the sort that you are speaking about, in Russian penal colonies, of mothers and children being allowed to live together?

- Back in 2001-2002, we at Penal Reform International organised joint accommodation for mothers and their children at the children's home attached to Women's Colony No.2 in Mordovia. Of course this was all done in collaboration with the administration of the penal colony. I thus had the opportunity to speak with mothers and staff and to observe the children's quality of life over several years from start to finish. In the first few years we used to go there nearly once a month, and I continued to have contact with one of the mothers for a long time after she was released and helped her to get back on her feet.

When we organised the joint accommodation the children fell ill a lot less often and their development improved. The difference could be felt immediately.

There is an accommodation unit for mothers and babies in the Children's Home at the Mozhaisk Women's Penal Colony. And as far as I am aware, the children's home attached to a women's penal colony in Nizhny Novgorod has also opened a small accommodation unit. Although I have to admit that I haven't seen it myself.

- How do the people working at other colonies react when you approach them with your proposals?

- The employees working at the children's homes attached to the penal colonies are not very enthusiastic about the possibility of organising joint accommodation. It's understandable why this happens: because if something happens to a child that is the mother's fault, then it is the employees who are held responsible - they end up being held to blame as a matter of course.

Why do we need to build these huge orphanages housing upwards of a hundred children? Each of them has several doctors working in them, there are nurses and now there are social workers and psychologists. There are also sometimes facilitators who can organise folk dancing for them. As well as speech therapists, masseurs and so on and so forth.

But what really needs to be done is to create small mother-and-baby units that can accommodate around 20 people, with the same medical facilities that are available beyond the confines of the penal colony. The way things are being done in our country is completely illogical from every point of view - from an economic point of view, from the child's point of view, from the point of view of the mothers' social integration, from every point of view. There needs to be a complete re-think of the approach currently being used in our country.

In general, the human rights problems facing prison children and their mothers are not restricted to the time that the child spends in the children's home in the penal colony. There are children that are being held together with their mothers in remand prisons and penal settlement colonies. And not everything is satisfactory there either. Often mothers with children have nowhere to go and get help when they are released. There are a lot of issues. We have only touched on a very small number of them here. The main problem in my view is the fact that the government bodies responsible for ensuring the children's welfare and protecting their rights are not even trying to look into the problem holistically or to develop an approach that would genuinely protect the rights of these children who find themselves in such a difficult situation in life.