Prison officials allow a unique look inside Kharkiv corrections facilities

by Andrew Nynka

KHARKIV, Ukraine - In a very rare move, high-ranking prison officials here, usually known for their strident secrecy, opened their doors to journalists, academics and a local theater troupe for a look inside correctional facilities in the Kharkiv Oblast and a unique interaction with prisoners incarcerated there.

The move was the first of the Arabesque troupe's three-part plan to draw attention to Ukraine's prison system. Members of the Kharkiv-based theater group, which was allowed to perform inside the correctional facilities, initiated the program because they say Ukraine's correctional system is in need of reform.

Prison officials here said that they allowed the five-day program, which began on April 8, to show the conditions of prison facilities in Kharkiv, saying that there was nothing to hide. While Volodymyr Butenko, the head of Ukraine's State Department of Penal Corrections in the Kharkiv Oblast, did acknowledge that improvements could always be made, in an interview with The Ukrainian Weekly he seemed to strongly suggest that any major reform would be unnecessary.

Indeed, a rather comprehensive tour of two prisons on April 12 revealed bright, clean and very well kept facilities that, compared to much of the surrounding neighborhood, would appear to provide a better life inside the prison walls than outside.

Following that tour, several psychologists and sociologists who have seen and worked in other incarceration facilities in Ukraine and abroad said that the prison facilities in Kharkiv appeared to be first rate.

However, Ukraine has a reputation of over-crowding in its prison facilities and a shortage of trained corrections officers - a result of the huge increase in crime and criminals after a Soviet police state withered away and an economy that has failed to provide adequate jobs and living standards for its citizens.

Svitlana Oleshko, program director for Arabesque, said that the physical appearance of the facilities is not the major problem and not the reason the theater troupe is calling for change. She says reforms are needed in the treatment of prisoners and the programs used to support prisoners when they leave Ukraine's prison system and return to society. "There is also the question of torture," she said.

Since declaring independence in 1991, Ukraine has signed onto several European accords in which it has promised to bring its penal system and human rights standards to European levels.

Some of the speculation about overly violent disciplinary action revolves around a report issued several years ago by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (known as CPT). That report said, in part, that "the allegations [made to the commission by prisoners] mainly concerned kicks, punches and blows with a truncheon."

"However, a number of allegations were heard of even more severe forms of ill-treatment, such as: electric shocks, pistol-whips, burns using cigarette lighters, asphyxiation by placing a gas mask or plastic bag over a detained person's head, beating detained persons while they are handcuffed and suspended by the legs and/or arms or maintained in a hyper-extended position (techniques known as 'elephant,' 'swallow' and 'parrot') and beatings on the soles of the feat. In many cases, the severity of the ill-treatment alleged was such that it could be considered as amounting to torture," the report read.

One of the major conclusions reached by the CPT investigating team was: "in the light of all the information at its disposal, the CPT can only reach the conclusion that persons deprived of their liberty by the militia in Ukraine run a significant risk of being physically ill-treated at the time of their apprehension and/or while in the custody of the militia (particularly when being interrogated), and that on occasion resort may be had to severe ill-treatment/torture."

All prison officials in the Kharkiv Oblast interviewed by The Ukrainian Weekly said they abide by Ukraine's rules regarding torture, which is no longer officially sanctioned as Ukraine begins to meet modern-day standards regarding the treatment of prisoners.

In the past eight years over 1.5 million people have been imprisoned in Ukraine, serving an average of five years in prison. "Over that time period prisoners are often changed into completely different people with different values, and often become a burden on society," said Tatyana Pylypchuk, a 31-year-old artistic director for Arabesque.

"We do not want to send these people back into society without having made any changes to their character," Mr. Butenko said. Although the corrections official was referring to positive changes in a prisoner's character, Arabesque representatives say they believe many of those changes are actually negative and life-altering.

Ms. Oleshko cited as an example the situation at Kharkiv Prison No. 25, a medium-security facility that holds people convicted of a wide range of crimes, including unarmed theft and murder. Prisoners in that facility sleep in dormitory-style quarters which can hold more than 15 people at a time, often mixing very violent personalities with more mild, non-violent ones.

"Who's influencing whom here?" said Ms. Oleshko. "Is the person in on simple theft influencing the murderer, or is it the other way around?"

Ms. Oleshko also said that, although there are facilities to help ex-convicts adjust to life outside the prison, "in reality these programs do little, and many of these people end up back in prison."

In addition to giving journalists access to several facilities, officials in the Kharkiv prison system allowed the theater troupe to perform avant-garde play titled "Malenka Piesa Pro Zradu" (A Small Play about Betrayal). The performance was given in five separate correctional facilities scattered around this city to more than 1,000 inmates.

Arabesque, which was created in 1993 out of the Kharkiv Cultural Institute, spent six months working out the details with the oblast government to get clearance for the program, as well as clearance for journalists, psychologists and other specialists to enter the jails and view the conditions.

According to members of the cast, the post-modern play was intended to look at the topic of betrayal among individuals, specifically in social, intimate, family, government and political situations. The play - which Arabesque originally debuted in 2001 - was picked in order to stoke reactions from its audience.

Several of the guards in Kharkiv's Prison No. 25 voiced their disapproval of the theater troupe's performance. One guard, who asked not to be identified, said that he believed the performance was a disruption to his duties of keeping order and discipline in the prison, and to the strict atmosphere the prisoners are used to.

Following the play, inmates were given the opportunity to voluntarily fill out questionnaires created by several sociologists and psychologists. Arabesque says it plans to use the questionnaires in later parts of its overall project - conducted in conjunction with members of Ukraine's State Department of Corrections and the Ukrainian non-governmental organization Public Control - to get a better look at prisoners, specifically their psychological well-being.

Regarding Arabesque's goals for the project, Ms. Oleshko said, "we want the people to hear about the various results, details and data that we're putting together. And, next, get that information to various experts, academics, the mass media and government officials in Ukraine."

Prior to each of the five performances a select number of inmates were also allowed to help the theater troupe prepare the stage and set up props for the show.

"We're not against using new methods to interact with the people [prisoners]," Mr. Butenko said. "In fact, when Arabesque came along with this project we took the opportunity to work with them."

But actors said that rank-and-file prison guards were much less helpful. "We're in their way - we're tying up their work and you absolutely get the feeling that they don't want us there," Ms. Oleshko said regarding the group's interactions with guards while inside several prisons."We wanted to use this program as an example of a deeper, fundamental problem that plagues Ukraine," the 30-year-old Kharkiv native said.

"They need to understand that people need to ask questions. They don't seem to understand that they need to inform the public of the status of their work," Ms. Oleshko said during a roundtable discussion following the group's performance.

"We have the right to ask," said 22-year-old Tatyana Oliynyk, a member in Arabesque from Kyiv.

"This is not only a matter of the jail system in Ukraine, this is all of Ukraine. The government must understand that people have the right to ask for a report on what they [government] have accomplished and the job they are doing," Ms. Oleshko said.

Following the performance, journalists were able to speak with prisoners and tour the facility. While conditions appeared very suitable for a prison, many of the inmates appeared extremely shy or severely disciplined, to the point where eye contact seemed uncomfortable to many of the incarcerated.

The head of Kharkiv Prison No. 25, Viktor Khirnii, said that approximately 1,500 prisoners are held at the facility. They are men convicted on charges ranging from petty larceny and racketeering to murder, he said.

The question of a tuberculosis epidemic seen in many of Ukraine's jails was raised, but officials here said only that it is a situation they deal with accordingly and not something they categorize as a major problem.

"Is it so hard to believe that there are no negatives - that we are living well and doing our jobs, both guards and prisoners?" Mr. Khirnii asked.

The prisons in Kharkiv appear to be in such good shape because they can finance themselves. There is little money coming from government coffers, but the prisoners in Kharkiv spend their time making automobile trailers and carved wooden furniture, which they sell to the public.

According to prison officials, in 2002 the prison facilities in the Kharkiv Oblast made 38 million hrv (roughly $7.2 million) from the sale of these products. Government funding to the prisons in this oblast, in contrast, provided only 7.4 million hrv (roughly $1.4 million). According to Oleksander Dehtiar, deputy of Ukraine's State Department of Penal Corrections in Kharkiv Oblast, of the money that came from the government 5 million hrv (just under $1 million) was spent on prison personnel.

Anton Oleinik, a doctoral candidate at Moscow State University, said Kharkiv's prison facilities can be described as among the best in Ukraine. Mr. Oleinik explained that he has seen facilities in France, Canada, Kazakstan and Russia.

Walking into Kharkiv's Prison No. 25, the amount of color and light throughout is immediately striking. The top half of many of the walls is covered with a simple, multi-colored mosaic tile, while the bottom half is covered in carved wood, which prison officials said is all constructed by inmates. Much of the furniture, including prisoner's beds and tables, is also made on the premises.

The prisoners have the choice of purchasing their own food, which they can later cook - each floor has a kitchen - or they can go to the facility's cafeteria, which looks much like a large summer resort dining hall with its carved napkin holders that sit on wooden picnic tables. They have their own showers and partially enclosed toilets, access to a library and a church - built by prisoners. Additionally, many are allowed to garden on the prison grounds, and all are given what officials here described as more than ample recreation time.

To give the inmates better access to training and education, prison administrators have developed a staff of professionals in 30 diverse fields.

To meet inmate's psychological needs and to help socialize deviant behavior, a corps of psychologists has been added. In addition to providing counseling at the prison, officials said psychologists work with the inmates to help them adapt to life on the outside as well.

The State Department of Penal Corrections has identified not only rehabilitation, but inmate adaptation after a prisoner's release as a major goal for the department. It is developing a network of adaptation centers throughout Ukraine that will provide counseling and ex-convict services for those who have re-entered society. Such centers are said to already exist in Zhytomyr, Lviv, Kharkiv, the Kyiv Oblast and Crimea.

Arabesque officials said they chose the name of their program - Zony Zrady (Zones of Betrayal ) - because of the betrayal they see being perpetrated against Ukraine's prisons, which are referred to by some as "zones."

In continuing with the program, Arabesque is next planning a series of roundtable discussions. The first will be held in Kyiv on May 20 and will look at the political and social problems of Ukraine's penitentiary system. The second roundtable will be held on May 23 and will look at penitentiary reform in the context of Ukraine's integration into European structures.

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, April 27, 2003, No. 17, Vol. LXXI

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