Taboo, Disgrace and Abandonment: What It’s Like to Be Female Inmate in Ukraine
18 September, 2018

The room is simply furnished – with a small rug on the floor, a white refrigerator, a child’s bed, and a changing table. A brightly colored picture of a flower bouquet and some unsophisticated icons adorn the walls. The scene resembles a Soviet dormitory for families – modest but well-kept, providing for the basic needs of mother and child. Only the thick white grating beyond the sheer curtain betrays that this room is in a Ukrainian pretrial detention center.

“Each pretrial detention center contains one ‘children’s cell,’ so in each facility they come up with their own way to keep mothers with children,” says American photographer Misha Friedman. The documentary photographer, whose work has been published by the New Yorker, Time Magazine, Amnesty International, has visited 11 women’s penal colonies and pretrial detention centers across Ukraine.

“I saw that there are colonies here where women live with their children until the age of three,” Friedman says. He chose to focus on inmate mothers in his latest documentary project, as he believes their life stories, like nothing else, reflect what is happening today in the Ukrainian penitentiary system.

“I am not ready to judge whether it is bad or good to keep children behind bars with their mothers,” says Friedman. “My job is to show that this phenomenon exists, and how Ukraine is dealing with it in the context of its penitentiary reform, for children are one of the obvious lenses through which to see this reform.”

Women in Prison

Women convicted of serious crimes and sentenced to more than five years must serve time in a penal colony. Of the nine colonies for women in Ukraine, three have special facilities where pregnant and nursing women and the mothers of children up to three years old can live together with their kids.

According to the Ministry of Justice, which oversees the penitentiary system, today there are 25 children living with their incarcerated mothers. Eleven women are being held in pretrial detention centers together with their young children.

Of all the prisoners Friedman met, one mother he photographed stands out in his memory. She was presumably serving time for murder and asked him to take a portrait of her child.

“I asked – why?” recalls Friedman. “She said that her child will soon be three years old, so he will be taken away. But she will still be here for another nine years.”

If a mother’s sentence is due to end within a year after her child turns three, the child may be permitted to stay with its mother until her release. However, if the woman’s sentence is longer, her child will be put in a full-time nursery school on the premises of the penal colony if no one else is available to take it.

What surprised the photographer the most was that the women inmates receive very few visitors.

“The number of visits to male prisons and detention centers is completely incommensurable with the women’s visits. Women are abandoned. It does not matter whether it is a first or repeated offense, a woman in prison is much more taboo and shameful for a family; she is an ‘abandoned thing,’” he explained.

Special Rules

“The state should create conditions for women’s social rehabilitation and ensure their right to keep their families [intact]. The administration of the colony should facilitate their contact with the outside world,” says Oleksandr Gatiyatullin, head of the organization Ukraine Without Torture.

He believes that Ukrainian prison colonies should follow the United Nations’ 2010 guidelines for the treatment of women prisoners (known as the Bangkok Rules) in arranging conditions for convicted women with children. The document received little attention from Ukrainian authorities, but he notes that some special regulations for women with children exist.

According to the Criminal Code of Ukraine, pregnant women and those with children up to seven years old who are sentenced to up to five years imprisonment can be relieved of their sentence by a court decision. Instead they are given a probationary period under the supervision of probation officers.

“Women with children up to three years old who are on good behavior are allowed to live outside the [prison] colony,” says Gatiyatullin. “But I don’t think anybody has used this rule.”

A representative of the administration of the State Criminal-Executive Service within the Ministry of Justice confirmed that no woman with a child under three fulfilling her sentence has ever exercised the right to avoid imprisonment. When asked why, they surmised that the convicts did not have the necessary resources to support themselves and their child outside the prison colony.

Humanizing Reforms

Ukraine’s prison population has decreased in recent years, say human rights activists, thanks to changes in Ukraine’s Criminal Procedure Code and new legislation. In 2018 the total number of prison inmates in Ukraine was 56,638, compared to 154,029 in 2012.

In the first half of 2018 there were 1,803 women prison inmates. As of July 1, there were 17,760 people being held in pre-trial detention centers; 1,016 of these were women.

Reforms and attempts at humanizing the Ukrainian prison system have been taking place since before 2016, says Gatiyatullin. That is the year Ukraine’s State Penitentiary Service was liquidated and its duties taken over by the Ministry of Justice. Ukraine’s Criminal Code was overhauled in 2013, following numerous decisions of the European Court for Human Rights.

“It’s unclear how the system will develop, in what direction,” says Gatiyatullin, adding that the reforms so far have had little impact on incarcerated women with children, and many questions remain.

For example, women inmates with children up to age three are permitted a 10-day leave to find work before being released. Pregnant women are not, since this detail is not written into the law. There is also no law requiring that the routine medical examination of a woman entering prison be performed by female medical personnel.

“We need to treat women with respect from the very beginning,” says Gatiyatullin. “We need re-socialization programs, so that people do not leave prison embittered. The conditions of a country’s prisons say a lot about that country in general, and about the society’s maturity level.”

/Photos by Misha Friedman, with support from the Pulitzer Center

/Text by Yana Sedova, with support from Russian-Language News Exchange

/Translated by Larissa Babij