KYIV – The dimly lit cavernous hallways of the tsarist-era Lukyanivska Prison emit a dank and musky smell. Unmitigated mold growth and years of neglect have rendered a whole cell wing and the basement uninhabitable, even by Ukraine’s Soviet-era prison standards.
Called “Katka” by its inmates – after Catherine II of Russia who ruled the tsarist empire when the facility was built in 1863 – the prison has had several units added since, the latest being the women’s ward built with Swiss-funded money in 2007.
Notoriety always accompanied the Lukyanivska Prison.
Used mostly to hold prisoners in between court appearances for alleged crimes, it has a history of prisoner mistreatment and inhumane conditions associated with sanitation, overcrowding, and poor health care and food.
During Viktor Yanukovych’s truncated presidency in 2012, the complex housed over 4,000 inmates – more than 60 percent above capacity, forcing many to sleep in rotation throughout the day. When The Ukrainian Weekly visited the detention center on April 18, it housed 2,448 inmates, just 26 short of capacity, according to deputy prison warden Oleksandr Savchenko.
“And that’s when you count the Ukrainian standard of 2.5 square meters per inmate in comparison to the European Union accepted area of four square meters,” he said.
This blighted site, encompassing 496 square meters located 2.5 miles from Kyiv’s city center, is now being offered for development to investors in exchange for a modern facility to be built outside the city.
Deputy Minister of Justice Denys Chernyshov wants to initiate public-private partnerships as part of his vision for overhauling the nation’s penitentiary system, which also includes a prison older than Lukyanivska – one in Lviv that dates to the era of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
“Today, the penitentiary system serves the two functions of punishment and isolation,” he told The Ukrainian Weekly in his office located only a mile away from Lukyanivska Prison on April 19. “In many ways we haven’t advanced far from the Soviet Union… basically the USSR was a system of torture.”
A banker for 20 years before being appointed deputy justice minister in late October 2016, Mr. Chernyshov now is reforming a penitentiary system consisting of 148 various incarceration centers, housing over 61,000 convicts and staffed by nearly 28,000 personnel. By the end of 2016, the Penitentiary Service was liquidated and put under the direct purview of the Justice Ministry to enact control over a system that costs taxpayers nearly $148 million to maintain.
Thus, “actual reforms have only started,” the former banker said.
Overall, Mr. Chernyshov wants to ensure that former prisoners return to society “rehabilitated,” and to change the public’s perception of ex-convicts as “predators” and of wardens as “torturers.”
The colossal undertaking has been divided into what he calls “blocks.” This includes bringing much of the outdated Soviet legislation to European Union standards.
Providing a simple example, he said, “officially, convicts can’t have electric kettles in their cells because it’s not enshrined in law since they didn’t exist in the Soviet times.”
Another component is to improve health care in a system rife with HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis.
“Many who enter the system for the first time at pre-trial detention centers also get their first medical examination in life… so we want to know all the risks associated with their medical condition,” Mr. Chernyshov explained.
Personnel, “who are in contact with criminals throughout their shifts, unlike police officers,” deserve higher pay he added. On average, they currently make three times less than the reformed police force. Mr. Chernyshov wants to improve their training.
The deputy head of Lukyanivska’s social and psychological department, Oleksandr Matvienko, for example makes only up to $260 per month, he said. He has endured attacks by underage prisoners who mistook him for another guard, has witnessed prison breaks and is “always psychologically probed” by more experienced criminals.
Improving the quality of food, which Mr. Matvienko described as “edible, but not entirely desirable,” is also a priority of the deputy justice minister, as is boosting education for inmates and building or upgrading prison facilities that date to the Soviet era. Energy efficiency upgrades as well as other infrastructure improvements are sorely needed, he noted.
“We haven’t got the money, so we’re looking for areas where we could save and free up money,” Mr. Chernyshov said.
One such area is personnel, as there are 7,600 more employees than the accepted ratio of one guard to three prisoners. Paradoxically, pre-trial detention centers like the Lukyanivska Prison require at least 100 more employees, but nobody wants to work for such low pay in stressful conditions.
And because of changes made to the Criminal Code, prisons lost to Russian occupation in Crimea and areas of the easternmost Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, as well as other reforms, the prison population has halved to 61,000 convicts in three years’ time. So, currently there are too many incarceration facilities that are being heated and powered by electricity and overmanned, wasting taxpayers’ money.
Still, the numerous problems besetting the deputy justice minister overshadow what he has accomplished thus far and is pushing through.
He has secured tuberculosis medication for the entire year with drugs donated by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Earlier this year, together with the Canadian and Norwegian governments, Mr. Chernyshov launched a full-fledged probation program. Aside from providing beds and sheets, the international Red Cross is helping to install 10 medical laboratories at pre-trial detention centers.
Mr. Chernyshov is also building alliances with the Health, Finance, Internal Affairs ministries, as well as the Prosecutor’s General Office to tackle other areas of interest within the “block” components.
“Don’t think vested interests are absent,” he said of the legislative part of reforms. “We have 39,000 hectares of land with real estate and some 100 state-run enterprises, like a granite quarry, that are at stake.”
As part of his public-private partnership plan, for example, the deputy justice minister wants to wholly or partially lease land on the Justice Ministry’s balance sheet to “strategic players.”
The road is long and winding, though.
“It’s a long process,” Mr. Chernyshov said of penitentiary reform. “To cure someone, you must first give a diagnosis, then the diagnosis has to be confirmed, then a treatment plan is given, even an operation might be called for, followed by rehabilitation. The system is sick.”
Back at the Lukyanivska Prison, Mr. Matvienko from the social rehabilitation and psychological department, sighs with relief. He just finished recounting how after 14 years of living in a student dormitory with his wife and daughter, the state provided him with a 30-square-meter apartment on the secondary market as part of his service.
“I had to sue in court for the flat because the woman who had occupied it was illegally living there dating to Yanukovych’s presidency,” he said of the ordeal. “Now the next step is to privatize it from the state.”