Russia’s massive and dysfunctional prison system – second only to the United States in prisoners per capita – and the judicial system that feeds it have recently been featured widely in international media. While women make up just 8% of those incarcerated in the country, they are particularly vulnerable to the life ruining isolation conferred by a prison sentence.
A recent article in the St. Petersburg Times described the incredible stigma and rejection faced by women prisoners. A psychologist and author of a book on women in Russian prisons is quoted as saying: “a sentenced woman is typically rejected by her husband or partner, her friends, her colleagues and social circle. By contrast, women rarely abandon men over imprisonment.” HealthRight International social worker, Elena Efimova, agrees, noting that for many men, serving time in prison is almost expected, and his wife and children wait for him and are excited to welcome him home.
Elena Efimova, HealthRight Social Worker
Elena leads a weekly pre-release seminar in a women’s prison near St. Petersburg, Russia, and counsels former women prisoners, as part of her work with HealthRight and our local partner, Doctors to Children. She is accompanied to the prison by a lawyer, a drug addiction specialist, and a doctor from the government AIDS Center, which is the only source of HIV treatment in the country. Many of the prisoners are HIV-positive (a precise percentage is not made public, but experts suggest that the percentage is far higher than in the general population), and nearly all have had some experience using drugs. During the seminars, prisoners are encouraged to visit a city-based government crisis center, supported by HealthRight and Doctors to Children, upon release to seek help adjusting to life on the outside, accessing medical treatment, entering a drug rehabilitation program, and resolving family conflict. Most women who visit the crisis center are completely overwhelmed by their circumstances and are grateful for the quiet counseling rooms, safe child play area, and community of women who are struggling with all of the same problems. The women quickly become friends, caring for each other’s children and sharing tips on finding a job. They are linked by the harrowing experiences that have taught them how to survive, and their determination to learn how to live.
This project is supported by the Elton John AIDS Foundation.