Ukraine’s repressive and corrupt prisons struggle on, unreformed
All people are equal to the female guard at the entrance door to Kyiv’s Lukyanivsky detention center: from within her glass-fronted guard booth, reinforced with metal bars, she barks commands at visitors — rich and poor, important and inconsequential alike.
The capital’s main prison, commonly called “Grandpa Lukyan,” and its gruff guard, symbolize the country’s unreformed, repressive penal system. Built in the 1860s, the prison has outlasted the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, and has been handed down, unrepentant, to independent Ukraine.
Its former inmates include ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, current Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko, both of whom were imprisoned by the corrupt regime of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. The head of the State Fiscal Service Roman Nasirov was held there in March on corruption charges before being released on bail.
For a century and a half, thousands of prisoners have languished behind its thick iron bars, suffering from brutal treatment by guards, poor living conditions, and an inhumane criminal subculture.
And most of those behind Grandpa Lukyan’s walls, are, technically, innocent, says Denys Chernyshov, deputy justice minister, who is in charge of the penitentiary system.
“Sixty percent of people here have not been convicted, they’re just under investigation. They’ve not been found guilty of anything. They’re just like you and me,” says Chernyshov.
“So how can we keep these people in such horrible conditions?!” he adds while inspecting the prison on Aug. 1.
Chernyshov says he wants to improve conditions in country’s prisons via reforms that started in 2016 after Ministry of Justice took control of them.
But not much progress has been made, other than changing the names of the state penitentiary bodies.
Chernyshov says the ministry lacks the funds needed to renovate crumbling prison buildings and hire more professional guards.
In the yard of the Lukyanivsky detention center, a large white Caucasian Shepherd Dog barks at strangers. The guards advise people not to get too close — they say it once almost tore the arm off a guard.
The guards speak about this as if there was nothing unusual about it — just ordinary prison life.
Valeriy Bunak, the head of the detention center, recalls that in January one detainee beat a prison guard with an iron bar so severely that the guard was left with a disability.
A video from a camera of Lukyanivsky detention center, which can be found on YouTube, shows detainees holding down another pris- oner and cutting off part of his ear, also in January.
And it’s not just in Kyiv that there is such violence in the prison system: On Aug. 19, dozens rallied by Odesa detention center in protest at the beating of detainees, which allegedly started after a woman guard was found brutally killed and dismembered on Aug. 17, allegedly by a detainee.
The Odesa Oblast prosecution started an investigation of the case, posting photos of one detainee with signs of injuries from a beating on his back, chest, and arms.
Since 2012, Ukrainians won 39 cases in the European Court of Human Rights, complaining about the torture and abuse they said they had experienced in the country’s prisons.
And in 2016, the prosecutors opened the first criminal case in Ukraine’s history against a prison guard for alleged torture of a convict, according to the justice ministry — a guard of Shyryayevsky colony in Odesa Oblast illegally placed a convict in a punishment room, prosecutors claimed. The case, however, was closed later the same year.
Human rights activists say the lives of detainees and convicts became better after parliament passed a new Criminal Code in 2013, which shortened the prison terms for most crimes and allowed more detainees to be released on bail.
As a result of the changes, the number inmates of Ukrainian prisons decreased from almost 147,000 in 2013 to some 60,000 now. The number of detainees of Lukyanivsky detention center shrank from up to 4,000 in the 2010s to some 2,500 now.
But the monitors of the National Preventive Mechanism, a civil monitoring group of the detention centers formed under the office of ombudswoman Valeriya Lutkovska, reported in 2016 that abuse in detention remains high.
In Zamkova colony in Khmelnytsky Oblast, the monitors met four convicts last year, who cut their arms in protest against threats they said they were receiving from guards.
The guards and detainees of the Lukyanivsky detention center call its buildings by the names of the state leaders at the times of their construction. They include “Katenka” called after Russian Empress Catherine II, “Brezhnevka” after the Soviet leader
Leonid Brezhnev, and “Kuchmivka” after former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma.
The number of detainees in prison cells varies drastically, from just two or three in some, to up to 20 detainees in others. But mold and dirt can be seen in almost all the prison corridors.
Many prison buildings are now closed, having gone without repair for decades. The repairs made to many prison cells are mostly funded by “charity donations” from the detainees who are kept there, prison head Bunak said.
Human rights activists say conditions are worse in the temporary holding cells where prisoners wait to be taken to court or other prisons. The small non-ventilated cell rooms are freezing in winter and baking hot in summer. Prisoners can be kept there for hours without fresh air, or access to water or a toilet.
In the prison kitchen, the chefs gesture at unpleasant substances boiling in three large pots. They contain soup, porridge and a chicken sauce for the detainees.
In 2017, the food budget for prisons is 40-percent underfunded, Chernyshov’s spokesman Yuriy Maslak said. According to the justice ministry’s numbers, only about $10 is spent by the state on food for each prisoner per year. Most prisoners survive on food brought to them by relatives.
The detainees cook their food for themselves in their cells, which have their own small electric stoves. The prison also has an online shop, where the relatives can order products for the detainees, though for inflated prices.
Cats freely walk around the Lukyanivsky detention center and sometimes sneak into prison cells. Despite the detainees being prohibited from having pets, the guards usually turn a blind eye to this.
A former detainee told the Kyiv Post that prisoners can have their own cell phones (prohibited by prison rules) if they “negotiate” this with a guard for about $20. The former detainee asked not to be named due to the stigma convicts commonly suffer in Ukraine.
Detainees may also ask the guards to move them to a better prison cell, and pay for it via their relatives or lawyers, the former detainee said.
While the guards deny these claims, Maslak said that such cases “may occur due to the meager salary of the prison workers.”
Lukyanivsky’s medical building is as shabby and run-down as the rest of the prison. Services are limited as the prison hospital lacks doctors, good medicines, and has medical equipment from the 1960 to 1980s. Countrywide, about 90 percent of prison hospitals need total renovation, justice ministry data shows.
“Many detainees see doctors for the first time here,” said Alla Parkhomchuk, the hospital’s executive head, adding that many detainees are drug addicts.
Every fifth convict in Ukraine has HIV, and about 60 percent of them have hepatitis C, statistics from medical journal The Lancet show. About 75 percent of new cases of tuberculosis in Ukraine also occur in prisons.
Chernyshov said the prison hospitals now survive thanks to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, which supplies them with all of their anti-tuberculosis and HIV drugs. The International Committee of the Red Cross also provides aid.
He is, however, skeptical about current proposals to place prison hospitals under the control of the health ministry. He said civilian medics would be unprepared for the dangers of treating convicts.
Oleksandr Matviyenko, who has worked as a guard at Lukyanivsky detention center since 2002, said many new workers quit after just a few days. It is a tough job, and comes with a meager salary of only $115 per month.
Maslak, Chernyshov’s spokesman, said the ministry plans to vet the country’s 30,000 prison guards, as was done with the police, and raise their salary to at least $300 per month.
He said prison guards are now receiving training from Norwegian and Canadian specialists at a special school in Bila Tserkva in Kyiv Oblast. “We want to have guards who don’t just beat people with truncheons, but who are professional psychologists instead,” he said.
The ministry also plans to close about 20 out of some 150 prisons this year, as many of them are practically empty.
Chernyshov said the ministry is looking for an investor to construct a new prison outside Kyiv. As part of the deal, the investor will gain the territory of the centrally located Lukyanivsky detention center to redevelop. But since the new project would cost some $60–70 million and will take a minimum of seven years before returning a profit, it’s a very hard sell.
“We don’t have any such investors in Ukraine,” Chernyshov said. ”And foreign investors are skeptical, considering our investment climate, and the war.”
A guard walks along the corridor of the Lukyanivsky detention center in Kyiv on Aug. 1. All of the center’s buildings are in a poor state or repair, and some are so dilapidated that they are out of use altogether. (Kostyantyn Chernichkin)
Denys Chernyshov, deputy minister of justice, (L) talks to Valeriy Bunak, the head of the Lukyanivsky detention center, during an inspection of the prison in Kyiv on Aug. 1. (Kostyantyn Chernichkin)
Workers wash fish that is to be served to detainees of the Lukyanivsky detention center in Kyiv on Aug. 1. (Kostyantyn Chernichkin)
A prison guard shows a cell on the roof, where the detainees of the Lukyanivsky detention center may enjoy the fresh air, on Aug. 1. (Kostyantyn Chernichkin)