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In a dozen or so children’s care homes strewn across Russia’s vast system of penal colonies, more than 800 children, all of them born to incarcerated women in prison, live until they turn four years old. In one of the largest of these in Mozhaisk, a town just hours from Moscow but light years from the prosperity of the capital, just shy of 100 have been hospitalized with bronchitis, pneumonia and other respiratory illnesses in the last several weeks. Government officials have blamed the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN), which runs the homes, yet critics say that the officials should refrain from engaging in simple “populism.”
Children did not begin to fall sick this week, or even this month, at the children’s home at women’s colony No. 5, located in the far west of the Moscow region. The first signs of a problem appeared this September, when a four-month-old girl choked to death at the short-staffed children’s home. Yet the real trouble hit last week, where a second child died, this time a ten-month-old girl, while serious lung ailments and respiratory diseases decimated the home’s population. The numbers of hospitalized toddlers and young children steadily rose; from 59 last weekend to 99 as of yesterday, according to the state oversight agency.
The local press focused in on the near absence of medical care at the penal colony. In particular, the children’s home lacked the means to diagnose the illnesses or provide qualified assistance, reported Polit.ru yesterday. Children’s rights ombudsman Pavel Astakhov later explained that the clinic had also even been operating without a pediatrician for the more than 100 infants and toddlers, after successive doctors left on maternity leave and none could be found to replace them.
Russia’s entire system of orphanages, run by the Health Ministry, has severe problems, say Russian officials, but in particular the prison orphanages, managed by the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN), suffer from institutional dysfunction. Indeed, FSIN has had enough trouble keeping its own prisoners alive, much less caring for newborns. Yesterday marked the second anniversary of the death of Firestone Duncan lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was refused medical care as a coercive measure and ultimately died in custody. Pre-trial detention deaths remain a common occurrence under FSIN’s bureaucracy, despite the public ire that the cases stir up.
Children’s homes in penal colonies are tightly guarded by the FSIN, said Elena Timofeeva of the children’s rights SAIR fund, cutting them off from the support that some NGOs regularly extend to government orphanages. “The children’s care homes [in the penal colonies] are completely different [from the usual orphanages]. They’re run under a closed system, and it’s impossible to gain access to them. We take in some children who transfer when they turn four, and usually we hear that conditions there are far worse.”
For women who are due to give birth soon, there is a way to avoid suffering the pains of childbirth in custody. Pregnant women and mothers of young children can receive a delay on serving their sentence, called an “otsrochka,” until the children come of age and can live on their own. There are certain legal considerations – the crime, for instance, can not be of an extremely violent nature, for instance murder. Alexei Parshin, a lawyer who works closely with the Anna Center, an NGO dedicated to protecting women from abuse, said that judges were considerably “humane” when it came to pregnant mothers, and that even a basic legal team could handle applying for the delayed sentencing.
When it comes to politics, however, the system can be fickle. Take the case of Anna Shavenkova, who ran over two pedestrians, killing one, and inspected the damage on her car while calling her husband before summoning an ambulance. Shavenkova, the daughter of a high-ranking local bureaucrat in Irkutsk, has managed to delay serving her 2.5 year prison sentence (for traffic violations leading to injury or death) until 2024, since she got pregnant before trial earlier this year.
In other cases, however, repeated requests for an “otsrochka” have been ignored. YUKOS’ lawyer Svetlana Bakhmina, who was arrested for tax evasion and embezzlement in 2004, appealed to the court for a delayed sentencing due to having young children in 2006. That was denied, along with a request in 2008, when she became pregnant again. She gave birth to a daughter, in custody, in 2008, and was ultimately released in 2009.
Slowly and laboriously, a government response is forming: authorities have slapped the Deputy Director of the colony’s health service Vladimir Fedchenko with a negligence charge for the infant deaths, which could lead to three years in jail. Moreover, Astakhov called for the children’s home in Mozhaisk to be closed, citing numerous legal violations of the medical code.
Closing the homes was “idiocy,” said Alla Pokras, a Moscow-based program director of the Penal Reform International NGO. Despite their checkered reputation, she continued, the homes serve to hold families together and give mothers an opportunity to see their children, especially when they are incarcerated far from their home regions. “[Astrakhov’s] words were just populism. The colonies work with the local authorities very rarely, because both sides think the other should fix the problem. If they brought together specialists, tried to improve communication and address basic issues, they could work out a good system which defends the rights of the child without violating the rights of the mother. To this Astakhov says ‘We must close this house.’ That’s not how this problem will be solved,” Pokras said.
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