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Thursday, 28 March, 2002, 16:57 GMT
Russia's women prisoners amnestied
Women in large sewing room
Inmates of Ivanovo jail will get an early taste of freedom
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By the BBC's Alan Quartly in Moscow

Two buckets of potatoes, five sets of bed linen and other objects, a thief's haul coming to the equivalent grand total of 11 pounds sterling.

In Russia it would seem stealing that amount is enough to put you behind bars for a long time.

That's what happened to Larissa Kuligina, a villager from the Ivanovo region, north-east of Moscow, serving four years for theft.

Russia's prisons are packed with women like Larissa.

Life's lesson

Now the government has announced the latest in a series of amnesties to ease the burden on the country's overflowing prisons and Larissa is going home.

"It was a good lesson for the rest of my life. I pray that nobody else has to go through this," says Larissa.

The amnesty for women prisoners was passed by the Russian parliament and backed by president Vladimir Putin.

Up to 10,000 women are due to be released as the legislation begins to take effect.

Qualifying categories for release
those who committed crimes as minors
those with young or disabled children
pregnant women
women over 50
some disabled inmates
prisoners suffering from tuberculosis

But with tens of thousands crammed into remand prisons awaiting sentence, penal reform campaigners say the current convict amnesty is a drop in the ocean.

"It's just a temporary measure, that's all. Within maybe three or six months the prisons will be full again," says Alla Bakras of Penal Reform International.

Amnesty rushed through

Of Russia's rougly 750,000 prison population, around 45,000 are women.

In the textile town of Ivanovo the women's prison houses around 1,000 inmates, most of whom sit for hours on end in the noisy sewing room making military clothing.

Galina Fomina, deputy prison governor.
Galina Fomina, thinks some prisioners are unfit for release.

Against the rattle of the machines, deputy governor Galina Fomina complains the amnesty is being rushed through, forcing prison authorities to release women who would never have been set free in the past.

"Before, we had to take into account the whole life of the prisoner; her previous convictions. Now all we are allowed to consider is her behaviour during her present jail term."

"We have to release prisoners who we know will not make it outside prison. We can't refuse them."

Natasha Shasvezhentseva
Natasha Shasvezhentseva, won't be one of those going home.

Not all the women in Ivanovo jail will make the cut this time round, however.

Natasha Svezhentseva, serving six years for drug-related crime, still has years of her sentence to while away.

This week she is singing a song in a prison concert, one of the few entertainment opportunities.

But while other women will be making their way home, she will stay locked up. The amnesty, says Natasha, is not a long term solution.

International pressure

"I think there are many women who come back to this place. Because life is very bad in this country, because not all women can work/and they commit crimes because they are very poor."

This is the reality prisoners like Larissa Kuligina will have to face up to when they make their journeys home this month.

Sewing worker
Inmates spend long hours in the noisy machine room.

Russia can say it is responding to pressure from international observers and human rights groups to demonstrate improvements in the penal system.

But without a proper support system outside the prison walls, this latest amnesty may not be enough to end the woes of Russian jails.

The BBC's Steve Rosenburg
"The amnesty fails to tackle the causes of crime"
See also:

24 Oct 01 | Media reports
Russian jail goes posh
12 Jun 99 | Europe
Russia plans prison reform
27 Dec 01 | Media reports
'Death by instalments' in Russia's jails
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