Aleksandra gave birth to her son Spartak in prison. Photo from project «Woman. Prison. Society»

«No breastfeeding behind bars»

How newborn children in Russia serve their sentences in places of detention with their mothers
июля 02, 2018


According to the project «Woman. Prison. Society», about 500 newborns and young children currently serve sentence with their mothers in Russia. On the International Children’s Day, the project team together with online news journal «7x7» prepared multimedia material. Two women told about the experience of pregnancy and delivery in custody: living in a cell for pregnant women, feeding a child in prison and the attitude towards mothers


Lives with a common law husband, also a former prisoner. She dreams about starting to communicate with her daughter, who still lives in the orphanage. It’s not easy to establish contact: Ksenia feels guilty for numerous terms and for leaving her daughter in an orphanage. She doubts that she can provide her with a decent future and present — it is not an easy task for previously convicted women to find a job. 

A small room in a family hostel. Cheese sandwiches and cakes on the table. A puppy, a half-breed of a German shepherd is fussing around. 

«Never alone, always busy,» explains Ksenia, a young woman. 

After prison, she does not hear well, so sometimes she asks to repeat the question. An awkward pause. 


If I give birth, I take care of all the financial issues

«I gave birth in 2002, I think that little has changed since then. As soon as I got in prison, pregnant, they immediately suggested an abortion. This is a common practice, we are needless trouble for them. They insisted, I refused. I was two months pregnant with the second child. I was twenty-eight years old, what abortion are we talking about? In case of refusal you need to sign a paper, that you agree to take care of all the financial issues. Feeding, clothes — everything the baby needs. So, if he will be dying of hunger due to a lack of milk — these would be my problems, not the prison’s. 

I’m sorry, I’m nervous when I think of this. 

Ksenia gave birth to twins in prison. The boy died and the girl had a serious heart disease. Photo from project «Woman. Prison. Society»


Imagine, you have to give birth. They try to do it very quickly. You went into labor, and they do not call the car. Because it has to be an ambulance, not a prison car. So, a convoy is needed. They understand that contractions can last several hours, sometimes up to a day. And as long as your blood does not drip down your legs, they do not drive you. Sometimes, they give you something heavy, for example, a stone, and they force you to walk up and down the stairs, in order to induce labor. I exaggerate, of course, but until you are crowning — they won’t call an ambulance. After all, the convoy does not want to go with you and stay for long. They want it faster. 

One girl, Kima, went up and down stairs with some heavy stuff. Up and down, for four hours. Until the blood started dripping down her legs and the waters broke 

That’s when they call an ambulance. They don’t care if you reach the destination or not.

But I had another situation, because in prison doctors injected me with aminazine (neuroleptic, antipsychotic medicine) by mistake. In jail, there was a girl, she was a cop’s accomplice. She brought him girls, he raped them. In short, she is in prison, and he is free. And they injected her with aminazine, so that she got to the nuthouse and did not evidence against him. And the prison doctor mistook me for her, and injected aminazine to me. My blood pressure was dropping sharply. I lost consciousness, I had foam around my mouth. Just a dead body. And they called the prison doctors urgently. Those were drunk. They basically drink. What else could you do in prison?.. So, they called cardiologists from nearby. And they said: are you crazy to inject a pregnant woman with aminazine? 

They took me to the Aleksandrovskaya hospital under escort, so that me and kids [Ksenia had twins] would not die in prison. I signed a permission for a C-section there, because the children were dying. I was eight months pregnant. Well, the convoy beat me, naturally, and I’m handcuffed. I had to sign. But I knew what a C-section is: it’s when you are cut, pardon me, from there to the throat. The doctor came up to me and said: 

«Sign, or you will die. The child is dead for sure. Sign, I’ll do everything neatly. They will finish you off. Then you are both dead.» 

Well, I gave birth. I had twins. The boy died, and the girl had a heart disease. I was to give birth on September 20th but did it a month earlier. The boy was already dead, without a heartbeat. I lost a lot of blood, three litres. You can imagine… But they did not have such a blood type. The nurse gave me only 2,5 litres. The convoy said that they were going to take me to the interregional prison hospital. However, the surgeon protested: 

«I sign the refusal that you took her by her own will. She’ll die on the way — the blood loss was massive. Her death will not be my fault.» 

And they left me for a day with an escort in a separate cell, I mean, a ward. In a day they took me to the interregional hospital, I stayed there for a month. When I was taken away, this doctor came up to me and said: «I made copies of documents. You will put them to jail yourself after you release.» 

They did not even give us diapers, saying it was bad for children»


The prison doctors don’t care about you. Especially if you are in prison, and not in the zone. You do not work, do not bring them income, you do not sew costumes for cops, firemen. Therefore, they don’t give a ***. They do not even care to take you to the hospital. I had a severe angina, a 39 fever, I could not swallow. I asked the doctor for something for the sore throat.

She said: «Do you have a Maggi cube? Put it in boiling water and inhale steam.» 

That’s what the doctor prescribed me. Then they gave some pills at least, analgin etc. And we had only bouillon cubes. 

A month later I returned to prison. My daughter was brought in a terrible condition after three days. Of course, a prison child does not need medical care. No one cared about her. And the child can not be brought to the prison hospital, so, we were separated for more than a month. 

So, how did I feed the child? I read the cards, I’m half Georgian. My cellmate expressed milk for me in exchange for card reading. While I stayed in the prison hospital for a month, a watcher of the tuberculosis department was also Georgian. He gave me cigarettes, but I did not smoke. Later, I changed these cigarettes in the kitchen. With a help of the balander [a chow server], I bought porridge. I strained it through the buttercloth, and fed her this. That’s the only thing Karina ate. Sometimes, I exchanged cigarettes for milk. 

We all shared one stroller for walking. There was a courtyard, empty, one bench, that’s all. No toys. We walked in turn or held babies in arms. But once the Finns or Germans came to film prison mothers. The prison administration put everything beautifully. Each of us was given a stroller and baby food, which we had never seen. They took everything back immediately after the foreigners left. 

Opposite to us there was a large closed room. My cellmate was a lock picker, so she opened the locks. Come on, she said, let’s see what’s inside. She has opened a room, and it was full of food, strollers, children’s things. Humanitarian aid. They took it for themselves, to take it out. Strollers, bags with food, everything was taken by the staff. 

In prison, the child lives with the mother up to three years. Then he is taken to an orphanage or by foster parents. Many give the baby away immediately. Because they understand what it is… The child has been next to you for three years, and then you have to give him away. 

When I served, I did not receive any «children’s» money. And when I was free, I went to get it. I was told that me and the child were supported by the state. I answered: 

«The state did not give my child anything, not a single bottle of milk.» 

Doctors? They came once a week, that’s all. On Wednesdays. And what kind of doctors were they? They did not even give us diapers, saying it was bad for children. Allowed one diaper a day, in case the parcel came. There are also no pads for women. 

No improved nutrition. After three months, the elder in the kitchen gave us two potatoes and a carrot for a month


There was a boy Vova, who had served in the zone for more than two years. He had already started eating solid food. Parcels from relatives helped. No one feed the children; all the provision of the child is on you. They did not care: if there were no relatives, then the child would starve. 

After I gave birth, no one was allowed to see me, and there were no parcels. They were afraid that I would imprison them for a dead child. 

I did not go to the zone, they let me go earlier on parole. The child was six months old. We were given 18 rubles and one subway token. It wasn’t enough. We needed food. The state itself is pushing you to a crime from the very beginning. It all depends on how cleverly you steal. I know people who were released in the morning, and in the evening, they returned for stealing. 

According to Tamara Lekareva, a perinatal psychologist and specialist in breastfeeding, children who are born in colony, and brought up in a situation of a very rare communication with the mother or a total lack of it, are called grey flowers.

«In the first year of life, the human brain grows incredibly fast. The basic parameters of intelligence are established. And the intellect can be of different forms: social, emotional. At this time, the personality is formed, and mother plays a huge role in the formation of this personality in the first three years of life. This is the foundation for life. The absence of mother leads to irreversible changes in a growing person, his personality. This is a pressing problem, because our society rarely think about what is happening in the colonies, where a woman gives birth to a child, and he is kept in deprivation,» says Lekareva.

«Everyone already knows what happens to children in orphanages, people talk about it and make movies. What happens to children who were born in prisons? It even pains me to think about this topic. When mother is allowed to feed the child only four times a day, this means that the child was abandoned. And so many times he was left, so many times he receives less warmth, attention. Even if caring for a child is good, adequate from the point of view of medicine, history knows many cases when children simply die without mothers. That’s how complicated we are. 

Even when small mice are provided with warmth, nutrition, they are stunted without a mother. But as soon as one stroking with a moist brush that imitates the licking of the female is added, the mice grow. And if we are talking about a person, can you even imagine? There is a research on this subject, but society is so ugly about this topic. Of course, this problem must be solved, and it must be talked about.»


Today the whole family lives in a small apartment in St. Petersburg. But recently, relatives were separated: Alexandra — in remand prison, her husband — on the outside, the newborn Spartak — in the hospital. Alexandra described how women gave birth in a St. Petersburg prison. 

Bunk beds for expectant mothers

Alexandra got to pretrial detention center No. 5 on Arsenalnaya Embankment in St. Petersburg, when she was pregnant. Before the pregnancy was confirmed by the prison doctors, she lived in a common cell without additional food. However, she could receive food parcels without restrictions. But there was no refrigerator, and carefully collected products could be stored not for long. 

Aleksandra is out of prison and has given birth to a second child. Photo from project «Woman. Prison. Society»


After the medical examination, Alexandra was officially transferred to a cell for pregnant women. The procedure is not so simple: you first have to go through the examination, get a gynecologist’s conclusion and the results of ultrasound diagnosis. As a rule, expectant mothers are transferred to a separate cell in the third or fourth month of pregnancy. Conditions in the cell for pregnant women are not better than in the common one, but there is more space: there are not 20 women, for example, but about a dozen. 

Alexandra was seven months pregnant, and there were no women with gestational age less than five months in her cell. Bunk beds were two-storey. 

«You lean on two beds and climb up like a gymnast.»

Alexandra also remembers how they took a shower: 

«There were four showers, but two of them did not work stably. As a result, we had a queue. Time was short, we had to rush.» 

One was washing herself, the other — washing clothes to speed up the process. Fifteen minutes for everything. You just reached the belly, and it was already time to leave a shower

And… you had to wait for the next bath day for a week. In summer, the temperature in the cells reached 40 degrees, the heat and stuffiness was terrible, the cells were full. The administration of the remand prison ignores the arguments of public observers that pregnant women need to be allowed to wash at least three times a week. 

According to Alexandra, pregnant women could walk once a day — along a barred concrete platform with a single iron bench. At the same time, according to the law, future mothers have unlimited walks, but this right is respected in a peculiar way. A woman can be taken out and forgotten for several hours or left without a walk. 

Labor in handcuffs

Delivery care in pre-trial detention facilities and colonies is a topic for a separate study. Women in the hospital are often handcuffed to a bed. The parturient women almost lose consciousness from labor pain. However, childbirth in handcuffs conforms to the law. 

Alexandra recalls: 

«I said: «I give birth, the waters broke.» I was calm, everyone was running around. They called an ambulance. They took me to an ordinary maternity hospital under escort. I arrived at the hospital around 1 am, and I was in the ward in the morning.

Alexandra gave birth to a boy. Usually, prison patients are taken back to prison a few hours after delivery. Alexandra was taken away immediately after suturing. She remembers sitting in the paddy wagon on a cold bench and any position was painful. 

Usually women meet children later, the first meeting can take place after a week or even a month. Thanks to Alexandra’s efforts, the child was brought to her quickly — in five days: 

«I said: «If my boy is healthy, bring him here». I went to the head of the medical unit and began to slowly screw his brains out. I wrote a statement, and in the evening, they brought Spartak, mine for sure, daddy’s copy.»

Alexandra recently became a mother again. She is breastfeeding David. Spartak grew up on formula — Alexandra’s milk dried up in prison: 

After childbirth, a woman is taken back to a pre-trial detention center or colony within two hours, and the child remains in the hospital

«During my stay [in prison], no woman breastfed. This is the most common and inhumane practice: after childbirth, a woman is taken back to a pre-trial detention center or colony within two hours, and the child remains in the hospital.»

In paddy wagon with a newborn

Mothers took newborns to the court. It took several hours to get to the court and to wait. During one of the trials, Alexandra tried to show the baby to her husband. But the convoy did not allow the father to even get close to his son. 

«We were taken to court on general terms. A paddy wagon came, there were two compartments behind bars: for boys and for girls. It’s cold and smoky inside, hard seats. So, I went with my son. In court, it was even harder. Spartak was two weeks old the first time we went there. No conditions, no accommodations for the child, only one bench inside. Guys usually helped me to get to the car, it was hard to do without help,» Alexandra recalls. 

Paddy wagon is a truck, you can get into it only by a high vertical staircase. It is almost impossible to do this alone with a child. Sometimes women are helped, some mothers tie a child to themselves with a handkerchief. After human rights defenders were outraged by what was happening, the authorities of the detention center chose another tactic: the prisoners were persuaded to leave the kids with their cellmates. 

Before the trial, mothers with children are kept in a small room — in a cell of 4 square meters for people in custody. According to standards, there should be a bench of 50 cm and a table. No conditions for feeding and swaddling, moms can not go anywhere. Sometimes waiting lasts 12 hours.

Invisible children

In ordinary life, the pediatrician visits the baby two weeks after birth, and then regularly monitors his and her development. Prison children are deprived of such attention: the pediatrician comes rarely; if the child feels bad, usually they immediately call an ambulance.

According to Alexandra, the doctor visited infants on his own initiative — he only received half-pay for teenage girls in custody. Then the specialist left, they were waiting for another doctor for a long time. 

Children who were born in prison are not formally serving their sentence, which means they are invisible to the Federal Penitentiary Service. They grow in extreme conditions of the prison system, devoid of sunlight and fresh air, they are surrounded by cold walls and floors. There are no medical services and no children’s medicines in prison. Ill children are immediately sent to city hospitals, separated from their mothers. 

«When Spartak was eleven months old, he was taken to the hospital. Before the hospitalization the child walked well, was active, cheerful. When he was brought back, I cried. Weak legs, vacant stare; as if he were a drug addict. And this happened literally in a week: apparently, they did not let him move. 

The child was given food by rules, and Spartak always ate well. For Alexandra, the delay in eating for a day or two was a disaster: she had nothing to feed her son. Young mothers tried to fight this, one girl even went on a hunger strike. There were not enough diapers. 

Alexandra spent one and a half year in the pretrial detention center. Release for prison moms is both a joy and a new challenge. 

«They did not give anything to the child when we left the detention center. At all. They gave me 830 rubles. There were no problems with clothes thanks to the sponsors, and my grandmother also sent something. I took them with me. I understood that the situation was awful, we could not buy anything. Children’s books were sent by human rights activists,» Alexandra says.

«Here’s another case: three of us filed for an amnesty. One girl was from Karelia. Her documents had arrived, the chief came to us and said: «G. is released». And she said: «Can I stay here?» She had nowhere to go. With a written application, the prosecutor allowed to stay overnight.

«The woman’s powerlessness in the prison system is horrifying: she has no opportunity to feed, neither to properly see her baby, nor to recover after childbirth. The woman is immediately sent back to prison. Alexandra was lucky that she persuaded the nurse to bring her newborn son. 

The woman’s powerlessness in the prison system is horrifying

Iron bunks without springs are welded from steel parts. A thin mattress is attached to them. You sit on it, and iron bars are imprinted on the body. You can not sit on the bunks. No bedside ladder, no bedside tables. In such conditions, future mothers live. According to the schedule, when a member of the penitentiary service enters the cell, the woman must stand up and report. It happens that healthy men break legs when going down from the «upper storey», and what about pregnant woman? Surprisingly, future mothers rarely complain about violations of their rights, they do not assume that such treatment is illegal and inhumane. When visited by members of the monitoring commissions, they ask to tell their relatives how the pregnancy is going, to send things or products. 

In my practice, there was only one case when a woman was able to maintain lactation and feed her baby. The children that are born to women prisoners are definitely bottle-fed up and this is abnormal and wrong, it affects their health. In Russia, the roots of the problem lie in the Gulag system, a lot of these things grow from there. The system evolved over decades, it changes with difficulty. 

Pregnant women are held in correctional institutions, there is neither observation nor diagnosis. In the case of pathology, it is difficult to take measures in time. In fact, they eat balanda [thin broth] — just like everyone else. During the heat they sleep on the floor, it’s cooler there. Pregnant women are kept in such abnormal conditions. 

I am sure that birth should take place in a civil hospital, before that there must be supervision and support by doctors. It is necessary to minimize the number of pregnant women with restraint imprisonment, sentenced to real terms. For those who did not commit especially grave crimes, it is possible to choose alternative punishments. A child should have the right to be born in normal conditions, out of prison. 

Sometimes women can not keep pregnancy: prisoners have miscarriages due to difficult conditions of detention. Most often these facts are not taken into account. 

This story is originally posted by the 7x7-journal and re-published as part of Eyes on Barents, a collaborative partnership between media organizations and bloggers in the Barents region


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