We know little about the lives of convicted women in Russia as a whole, and even less about the lives of convicted women in the North Caucasus. Crime is considered a huge disgrace for families in the region, and so the difficulties faced by ex-convicts are not discussed.
Estrangement During Imprisonment
On 19 March 2020, the Russian State Duma adopted a law in the third reading amending Articles 71 and 81 of the Russian Federal Correctional Code, thus permitting convicts to apply for transfer to correctional institutions in their own or neighboring regions. Although the correctional code already prescribes the right to serve one’s sentence in one’s official region of residence, in practice many convicts are sent to distant regions, thus making it impossible for them to see family members on a regular basis. The amendments are meant to address this problem, one faced by some inmates.
However, the right to a transfer can be exercised only once during the entire term of imprisonment and only if the region has a correctional facility of the same type. Moreover, there is no set time limit for authorities to review and decide on an inmate’s request for transfer.
According to Valery Hatazhukov, director of the Kabardino-Balkaria Regional Human Rights Center, the fact that convicted people from the North Caucasus are sent to other parts of Russia has long been a key issue when it comes to ensuring the rights of prisoners.
His organization mainly deals with requests for transfers, but almost none of them are subsequently approved by the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN). According to the agency’s own statistics, it received 4,900 requests in 2017, but approved only 388 of them.
In fact, the new amendments will not facilitate the transfer of everyone who requests one. The problem will remain acute for convicted women in the North Caucasus for a long time to come because not all of its republics and regions have correctional facilities. There are low-security facilities in Kabardino-Balkaria (450 beds), Dagestan (184 beds), Stavropol Region (1,044 beds), and Krasnodar Territory (1,093 beds). In Chechnya, there is a small section of a work-release prison, as well as a pretrial detention facility, where twenty to thirty convicts can serve their sentences while performing household work. There are no women’s penitentiaries whatsoever in Ingushetia and North Ossetia.
“Unfortunately, very many [convicted women] are sent out of [Chechnya] because we don’t have [women’s] prisons,” says Satsita Haydukayeva, head of the Women’s Resource Center in Grozny. “Only eighteen to twenty women are left [to serve their sentences] in the pretrial detention facility. When their cases are being investigated, before their verdicts are announced, there might be forty to fifty women in there. Then the rest are sent to the prison in Kizilyurt, in Dagestan, to Nalchik [in Kabardino-Balkaria], or further away in Russia.”
This, according to Haydukayeva, is what makes it impossible for her organization to provide comprehensive support (including psychological and legal support, and assistance with paperwork) to everyone who needs it. The Women’s Resource Center has been working with convicts for over ten years, but it can help only those who have been left at home to serve their sentences at the pretrial detention facility.
The center does not have the resources and staff to keep track of those sent to prisons in other regions. However, when they are released and return to Chechnya, some of them still become clients of the center—after coming face to face with other problems.
Crime and Loneliness
The majority of women sentenced to prison in the North Caucasus have been convicted of the possession and sale of illegal drugs. Selling drugs can be a way of earning money themselves, but it can also be a family business. The staff at the Women’s Resource Center say it is common for women to take the blame in order to get a shorter sentence and keep their spouses out of jail.
“[Chechen] women almost never use drugs—it is quite rare. They make a profit: it is easy money and a temptation. Sometimes they work on their own, sometimes it is the family business. The husband is in the business, and when he is caught, the woman takes the fall. But when she gets out, the husband has remarried, and refuses to give up the children—he does not communicate with her and lives a completely different life. She has nowhere to go. Her family, which at first asked why she took the blame because it would also make them look bad, then tell her they do not recognize her and will not take her in. That is where our crisis center comes in,” says Haydukayeva.
The Women’s Resource Center can offer free accommodation for up to three months, help with job searches, and professional training. Most of its clients have no work experience and often do not have even a vocational school education. Early marriages, which are common in the North Caucasus, traditional lifestyles, and a strong dependence on spouses and families do not equip women to make their own decisions. It is an impossible task for many of them to find a job and rent a place to live after they have been released from prison.
“I never tried [drugs] myself. Why would I do that? But I did sell them. I did it several times before I was arrested. Why did I do it? When, after the wedding, my husband was without work, it was really hard for us, and we started fighting with each other and with his parents. Then he found out about [drug dealing] from friends and told me some people do it. He also said that if something happened, I would have to be involved because I am a woman, and no one would suspect me. So I got involved. I just could not work up the nerve to mention him at all: I loved him. Later, of course, I said something, but only to his parents,” recalls 32-year-old Hava, who was sentenced to four years in prison.
After her release, Hava was unable to return home to her husband or her parents, so she moved in with a female friend. Her ex-husband remarried, and their children stayed with his new family. Hava sees them once in a fortnight on weekends. Her former in-laws helped her the first few months before telling her it was time to move on. She has been working as a manicurist for the past six months, but money is tight.
The Attitude of Relatives and the Role of the Muftiate
According to Haydukayeva, stories like that of Hava, who was not supported by her own parents, are not uncommon.
“Because of their mindset, it is difficult for people—not just young women but also their relatives—to deal with imprisonment. It is a great disgrace for the entire family. At a certain stage, if the convicted women want it, we invite clerics to establish communications and use all the levers at Islam’s disposal, since it is forbidden for Muslims to turn away from relatives—it is a big sin. We use this to build relationships. If we would just go to families and tell them they were wrong to act that way, they might listen to us, but nothing would change. But when clerics get involved, it is much harder to resist them—they have authority. If the man gets remarried, the children are given to the other woman to raise and shielded from their mother. Clerics try and facilitate contact between mothers and children, escort them on visits [to prison], and maintain relationships so the mothers are not erased from their lives. But it happens that families turn away all the same. There is nowhere to go, and the young women have to stand on their own feet,” Haydukayeva explains.
The second problem in family relations noted by my informants was overprotection. When families do not give up their daughters, they often become the principal enforcers of social control, fearing their daughters will again end up in prison. Even when their term of probation has ended, their parents often make them follow strict rules—asking them to come home early, restricting their access to money, and monitoring everything they do.
This was the situation faced by Salihat, who was sentenced to three years in prison. Originally from a small village in Dagestan, the 26-year-old moved to the city after she was released because her family had decided to sell their house and move to keep the neighbors from gossiping.
Her life changed with the move, Salihat recalls.
“I went back to college to finish my studies and get a job as a doctor. My parents did not let me go anywhere on the weekends. It got absurd: my dad would meet me at the door of the college and not let me go to the store alone. This went on for six months, until I threatened to run away from them. It is easier now, but they still do not trust me completely, and things will certainly never be like they were [before prison]. I understand them, too. I disgraced them, along with all my sisters and brothers,” says Salihat.
Finding a Job
Finding a job is difficult for several reasons. First, the North Caucasus has a high unemployment rate: according to Rosstat, it leads the rest of Russia at 11,4%. Second, women are assigned particular roles in society: gender norms and religious beliefs keep them out of many professions and trades. Moreover, ex-convicts are often stigmatized by prospective employers. Finally, assistance for job seekers is poorly organized: job centers offer low-skilled jobs for low wages, which can only be a temporary solution.
There are few centers in the Northern Caucasus that provide help to former inmates. In Chechnya, for example, I was able to find only one NGO. In Dagestan, such assistance is more widespread, including public and private crisis centers, but there are still not enough of them to meet everyone’s needs. Kabardino-Balkaria has no permanent centers where former convicts could turn for help in finding housing and employment. Women there most often turn to national Russian foundations and hotlines when solving their problems.
The Problem of Autonomy and Gender Stereotypes
Most of the difficulties and risks faced by convicted women in the North Caucasus are thus due to gender factors that impact their socio-economic vulnerability. The role of women in the ethnic republics is closely linked to family functions. “Non-family” behavior is considered deviant, so former inmates are heavily stigmatized: on the one hand, as violators of the law; on the other, as people who have deviated from their gender roles.
However, after their release, many of them are forced to rely on only their families and, in rare instances, their local muftiates and NGOs. Since nonprofit organizations are not respected in local communities, it is clerics who most often mediate between families and (ex-)prisoners. Other problems often emerge in family life, however, and in the end, women never do gain autonomy or learn to make their own decisions.
The problem is also that most women, after they are released, do not regard independence as a priority, even though ex-convicts often themselves want to increase their autonomy and need new skills. The most common and successful strategy among them is to remarry and make a new family, since prisoners are very often left without the support of their husbands and cannot regain custody of their children after a compulsory divorce.
It is also a problem that in small towns the tight social ties are an exclusionary factor: if news of a woman’s crime reaches people outside her family, soon almost everyone in the town will know about it, thus making it more difficult to make a new life. That is why you find ex-convicts who prefer to move to other regions where no one knows about their past. Moving away can be a fairly successful scenario, as well as a source of additional social isolation, because making new connections and finding work and housing in another region can be much more difficult.
This article is based on a short-term field study I undertook in August 2019. Its goal was to study the trajectories of convicted women and their problems in three ethnic republics of the North Caucasus (Kabardino-Balkaria, Chechnya, and Dagestan). My research mainly took the form of in-depth semi-structured interviews with ex-convicts and experts (human rights defenders, NGO employees and officials working with convicts and ex-convicts).
I would like to thank the editors of Legal Dialogue, Dmitry Piskunov, Abubakar Yangulbayev and Albert Kuznetsov, at the Committee Against Torture, and journalists Dmitry Okrest and Izabella Yevloyeva for their assistance.
Translated from the Russian by Thomas Campbell