Motherhood Behind Bars: A Journey of Love in Captivity

02/02/2024
During the year Elena and Vasilisa, specialists from the foundation " Give a Hand", regularly visited three Russian penal colonies. A perinatal psychologist and a neonatologist told pregnant and recently delivered prisoners about how to be the best moms in the world, no matter what.

Pregnancy, childbirth, and the first years of motherhood are a difficult, exciting time for any woman. However, this experience takes on a different dimension when it occurs within the confines of a prison, a place seemingly unfit for such a transformative phase of life. 

The “Lend a Hand” Foundation sheds light on this unique situation. They shared stories about the preparation of incarcerated women for childbirth and motherhood, the daily lives of these young mothers and their children in penal colonies, and the vital need for external support for these women.

The “Lend a Hand” Charitable Foundation was established in 2014. It provides targeted assistance and implements systemic support projects for women with children, pregnant women, and teenagers in detention, as well as their families.

In 2022, the foundation embarked on a new initiative for pregnant inmates and mothers with children in penal colonies, supported by the CSS Foundation. This pilot project brought a perinatal psychologist and a neonatologist to work with 92 women, 86 children, and 11 staff members in baby nurseries of Mozhaisk, Azov, and Chelyabinsk penal colonies.

“We are Listened to but Not Heard. We Need Someone from Outside the System.”

The foundation has been a support system for prisoners for over 10 years, developing trust with correctional facilities across the country. In 2021, the foundation received a rather unexpected request from the administration of one of the facilities.  

“We were asked to bring in a breastfeeding expert to the baby nursery at the colony to talk about the physical and psychological aspects of breastfeeding,” says Natalia Kostina, the foundation’s director.

Despite the staff of psychologists, pediatricians, and educators in the baby nurseries, the administration recognized the gap in understanding and connecting with the young mothers, since “the penitentiary workers are but an extension of the system, so external experts are needed.”

“Our initial visit of specialists to the Mozhaisk Colony took place in May 2021. It was deeply enlightening and felt absolutely necessary. Then we realized that we need to continue this work. Around that time we learned that the CSS Foundation was holding the “Stronger with CSS” financial contest, which aimed at helping children in difficult life situations. We decided to participate and we won.”

The “Mom Behind Bars” project was significantly enhanced with the addition of two new specialists: Elena Shidlovskaya, a perinatal psychologist, and Vasilisa Avramenko, a neonatologist and breastfeeding consultant. This initiative was particularly focused on three penal colonies in Mozhaisk, Azov and Chelyabinsk, respectively, creating an environment where mothers and children could be together. In Russia, there are a total of 34 women's penal colonies, and 12 of them include baby nurseries, providing shelter for approximately 500 children during their first years of life (according to the data provided by the Federal Penitentiary Service of Russia).

Perimeter within a Perimeter

“The baby nurseries in colonies are essentially a perimeter within a perimeter A two-storey building with rooms for several women and their children, a room for babies living without parents, a dining room, a playroom, etc. The site of the nursery is separated from the main territory by a fence, access is strictly limited, and there is a playground and a place where you can take a walk,” says Natalia.

Nurseries also include a kindergarten, where mothers take their children before going to work, and where the children whose mothers did not want to or could not live with them reside.

Mothers living here enjoy privileges like improved living conditions, less strict regime and being able to freely leave the room for outdoor walks with the child but face the challenge of balancing childcare with limited work opportunities. 

“For many women, work is extremely important because it brings in money, even if small,” comments Natalia Kostina. 

Each request for a shared living is considered on an individual basis. 

“It is possible to live together if there is available space in the nursery. In Mozhaisk Colony, for example, there are only 25 places for mothers, and at the time we carried out our there were about 50 women with children there. Those who smokes or display violent behavior will definitely not be accepted. And breastfeeding is a factor in favor of shared living,” explains Natalia.

Mom Behind Bars

The women that ended up in prison with a child come from diverse backgrounds but a rough portrait can be drawn up:

“Average age of 25-35, mostly single, likely convicted of non-violent crimes. The most popular offenses among young mothers are those under Article 228 (acquisition, storage, and transportation of drugs). The jail time under this article is pretty significant, from 5 to 7 years,” explains Elena Shidlovskaya, the project’s perinatal psychologist.

However, the gravity of the crime, the corresponding Criminal Code’s article and the background of the prisoners are of no interest for the team of the Mom Behind Bars project.

“For us, they are just women who find themselves pregnant or recently gave birth in these challenging circumstances. Our mission is to assist these mothers in adapting to their current environment. Their main difference between them and women on the other side of the fence is that they are more anxious and less informed. That's what we are addressing,” says Elena.

The CSS-supported project spanned a year and included a variety of activities like intensive two-day sessions in each colony for different groups of women and Federal Penitentiary Service staff, as well as the creation and distribution of an educational booklet.

The specialists conducted group sessions tailored to the specific needs of pregnant women, mothers with infants, and mothers of toddlers, respectively.

For Pregnant Women

– “For the pregnant women, I explained what happens to the mother's body during childbirth, while Vasilisa focused on the newborn's experiences at birth and their crucial first hours. I taught the women breathing techniques for labor, and Vasilisa instructed them on how to breastfeed, discussing screening, vaccinations, and more,” Elena shares.

The foundation's volunteers knitted models of uteruses, breasts, and newborns, since only soft items are allowed in correctional facilities. This hands-on approach made the classes significantly more engaging.

Following the group sessions, which were mandatory for the inmates, individual consultations were available upon request.

“There was a telling case. On our second visit to the Azov colony, a woman we had previously counseled as a pregnant inmate approached us. Now a new mother, she expressed her gratitude, saying, 'It was my fourth child, but only you taught me the right way to breathe. The contractions were much more manageable thanks to the breathing techniques’,” recalls Elena. 

For Women with Children Under One Year

In sessions with mothers of infants, Elena discussed baby development stages and the crucial bond formation between the child and mother.

Vasilisa's expertise was in the first year of a child's life, advising on developmental milestones, things to pay attention to, skill acquisition, massage techniques, breastfeeding, introducing solid foods, and the beginnings of potty training.

For Women with Children Aged One to Three Years

With toddlers becoming increasingly active, the program's focus shifted to emergency first aid and health consultations. Vasilisa provided mothers with guidance on their children's health and prepared them for the eventual separation from their child.

The project showed a high demand among mothers for relevant, up-to-date information about their own health and the development and well-being of their children.

“The institutions have general psychologists, but lack specialists in pregnancy, childbirth, and infancy. Many staff members, being older, don't keep up with the latest trends in pediatrics and perinatal psychology," Vasilisa explains.

Support for Penitentiary Employees

The project also catered to Federal Penitentiary Service employees working in the baby nurseries. The Foundation’s team organized sessions on burnout prevention, child psychology, emergency response, CPR, and even team-building exercises.

“The reception varied. Some correctional facilities were highly engaged, while others were somewhat dismissive. Nevertheless, we firmly believe in the importance of these events, offering a breath of fresh air and a chance for development,” the Foundation’s director believes.

Publication of a Methodological Manual

A significant outcome of the project was the creation of a “Booklet Diary on Motherhood and Preparation for It,” a guide with straightforward instructions for childbirth preparation and early child care.

“Competition is What We Dream Of”

Mom Behind Bars emerged as a flagship project among the foundation's initiatives aimed at supporting incarcerated women and children. Following the end of CSS Foundation funding, the project continues in three other Russian correctional facilities. Vasilisa and Elena teach women how to be better mothers, offering them everything mothers can provide in such circumstances.

With only twelve colonies in Russia housing inmates with children, the foundation's work is set for the long term. "Lend a Hand" remains the one and only NGO in Russia addressing these issues systematically.

The Foundation would be happy to share its experience with other NGOs.

“We believe motherhood can alter a woman's life trajectory. A child can inspire a return to a dignified, law-abiding life post-incarceration. In turn, early maternal attention is critical for children, even if they never see their mothers after age three. This complex, multifaceted work desperately needs more involvement. But for now, competition is what we only dream of,” says Vasilisa.

Changing societal attitudes toward those with incarceration experiences is another crucial aspect of the “Lend a Hand” foundation's work. In 2023, the NGO won the “Acting Together” CSS competition again with its “Release: Step by Step” project. This initiative focuses on young men soon to be released from the Arkhangelsk juvenile correctional facility, aiming to reintegrate them into society with the assistance of career coaches and psychologists.