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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Babies May Be Prison Moms' Ticket to Freedom

APInmates returning from work to their barracks at Women's Prison No. 15 in Samara.
SAMARA, Central Russia -- Among the barbed wire and gray barracks of Women's Prison No. 15 stands a square building painted a cheerful pink where the laughter of toddlers mingles with the gentle voices of doting mothers.

An island of innocence in an otherwise gloomy landscape, the nursery is home to 37 children whose mothers are serving sentences. But thanks to an act of Kremlin clemency, the rows of cribs could soon be empty.

The network of prison nurseries, which house the children of minor offenders and murderers alike, reflects the privileged place of motherhood in Russian culture. Prison officials say the system allows mothers and children to form a crucial bond -- even if it is often followed by a painful separation when the child is sent to an orphanage at age 3.

But in January, President Vladimir Putin went a step further for incarcerated mothers, recommending that all female inmates with children in prison nurseries be pardoned. Regardless of their crimes or how much of their sentences they have left to serve, inmate mothers are expected to be released with their babies in a few months.

Much remains unclear about how the pardons will be implemented, and the announcement has stirred fears among prison wardens that even women who are not dedicated to their children will be freed. But Kremlin officials say pardons will be granted only to mothers whose children would be best served by their early release.

Of the 45,000 women in the country's prisons, nearly 500 have small children who live in prison nurseries.

At the prison in the Volga River city of Samara, mothers get two one-hour visits with their children a day. Nursing mothers also get four shorter visits for feedings.

Once children reach age 3, if their mothers still have more than a year left to serve, they are transferred to orphanages.

"Everything is good here, but raising a child in a home setting would be better," says Yaroslava Kachurka, 24, as she cradles Yuliana, a 3-month-old girl with a soft tuft of dark hair. "Now there's been talk of pardoning us, so we're hoping."

Black lines from smudged mascara run down the cheeks of Inna Kartseva, 23, when she talks about her life behind bars with Viktor, also 3 months. Born in the prison hospital, Viktor has never seen his father, who is also in prison. Kartseva and her husband were convicted on drug charges, and she maintains they are innocent.

"When they put us in jail, it seemed as if life was over. Thank God for this child," she says.

With more than six years of a seven-year sentence ahead of her, she too is putting all her hopes on the pardon initiative. "They're waiting for me at home," she says.

Nursery director Tatyana Skvortsova says she would welcome pardons -- though not for all mothers.

"Most of them are great moms, but there are some who have to be dragged in to play with their children," she says, citing the example last year of a woman who left her 10-month-old on a park bench a month after her release on parole from Prison No. 15.

In other cases, mothers may love their children but be unable to care for them due to a lack of housing or strong family ties, Skvortsova says.

In such situations, social welfare agencies have little to offer children beyond putting them in orphanages. Help for families plagued by poverty, abuse or alcoholism is virtually nonexistent. Children's advocates say this is a major reason for the country's large number of street children -- a problem Putin recently vowed to tackle.

In this context, prison may be the best place for some mothers and children, many prison officials contend.

If the mothers are pardoned, "I can't guarantee that these children won't fill up the cellars and train stations," says Valery Yakovlev, acting chief of the Samara region's prison system.

According to the Kremlin plan, mothers' cases will be reviewed by regional pardon commissions that are still being formed.

Robert Tsivilyov, head of the Kremlin's pardons department, says each case will be reviewed individually with the child's best interest in mind and on the basis of the prison staff's recommendations.

Unlike the amnesties that the State Duma periodically passes for minor criminals to relieve overcrowding in prisons, motherhood pardons could be applied to those convicted of murder and other serious crimes.

Neither the new pardons nor the prison nursery offer much comfort to most mothers held at Prison No. 15 -- the majority of whom have children on the outside.

These women fill their days sewing military and hospital uniforms at the prison factory, rehearsing their acts for the prison talent show and watching TV soap operas. The pink building stands as a reminder of what they're missing.

Last fall, Svetlana Mardagaliyeva's son turned 3 and was transferred to an orphanage. There is no guarantee they will be reunited even after she has served her remaining 4 1/2 years.

To get him back, she will have to prove she has housing and a steady income.

"Something still draws me to the nursery, but what?" she says. "I guess it's just habit."