In Kyrgyzstan, stealing a lollipop can lead to jail
By Antoine Lambroschini
Conditions are fairly relaxed at this prison near the capital Bishkek, which houses 450 female inmates and is the country’s sole women’s jail
THE prison governor can barely clothe the inmates and says some of their crimes hardly warrant a jail sentence. Kyrgyzstan’s dilapidated women’s prison exemplifies the problems of this Central Asian country that is more democratic than its neighbours but chronically badly governed, according to critics.
Conditions are fairly relaxed at this prison near the capital Bishkek, which houses 450 female inmates and is the country’s sole women’s jail. When not sewing in the workshop or carrying out prison maintenance, the women sit on benches chatting or wander freely among the buildings, where clothes hang from the windows, drying in the sun.
“It would be easier to lock them up in cells. But they need constant communication to let their personalities develop so that when their terms end they’re able to live in society,” said the prison’s head, Viktor Starosenko. Security arrangements are hardly severe: the guards are barely noticeable, just one crumbling watchtower overlooks the jail and the perimeter wall is barely three metres (10 feet) high.
In one corner a pile of iron bars, large stones and even an axe lie abandoned, all of them potential weapons. But despite the relaxed atmosphere, the prisoners are far from happy.
They are clothed only with the help of non-governmental organisations and whatever their relatives can provide, usually not much as they mostly come from poor families, many of them living far away.
Medicines are provided by the Red Cross. The diet is almost exclusively cabbage soup, porridge and bread and even that is sometimes inedible. “The food is bad. Sometimes the bread is mouldy,” said Venera, 32, who is serving a seven-year term after she fell on hard times and got caught up in Central Asia’s rampant heroin trade.
“Conditions are very hard. We sleep in dormitories of 100 or 110 people,” she said.
But the biggest question is why these women end up serving long jail terms. Starosenko says that many should not be in jail at all, having committed only minor offences.
One 20-year-old inmate was first sentenced to three years at the age of 15 for stealing lollipops. She is now serving a four-year term for stealing other food from a bazaar, he says.
Another inmate, aged 16, is serving a six-year term for stealing a mobile phone. In Starosenko’s view, 15-20 percent of the inmates should not be behind bars. Jailing people for relatively minor offences is a waste of resources this poor mountain republic can scarcely afford, he says.
But there is no sign of progress in parliament on adopting a proposed law that would introduce alternative kinds of sentence, something other ex-Soviet states including Russia have done to varying degrees. Nor does the justice ministry have any programme for helping inmates to integrate with society and keep out of trouble after their release.
Instead Kyrgyz politics appears paralysed by a political stand-off between President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and opposition forces, which this week prompted the prime minister’s resignation.
“Parliament must adopt a law on alternative sentences to imprisonment,” said Starosenko. “What’s the point of sending those people to prison?” afp