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COVID-19 has reached Ukraine's prisons

Ukraine's jails are struggling to cope with COVID-19 – jeopardising inmates' health in the process.

Marharyta Tulup
8 June 2020
General clinic No. 19 at the Brygidki prison in Lviv, Ukraine.
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Photo (c): Anna Ilchenko

Editor's note: On 6 June, an inmate at the Kropyvnytskyi penal colony died of COVID-19. The ombudsman stated that sanitary measures had not been observed at the facility.

On 11 March, the Ukrainian government announced a nationwide quarantine, and at the same time its Ministry of Justice changed the rules governing the work of pre-trial detention centres and prison colonies. Meetings with families were banned (video links were permitted) and both staff and inmates had to take their temperatures daily and accept mail and parcels only from people wearing masks and gloves (which were to be disinfected and left in a separate building for 24 hours), whilst cell blocks and canteens were to be disinfected every three hours.

Prisoners, meanwhile were only allowed out into exercise areas with their cellmates. The Ministry also restricted work trips by Penal Service staff and the movement of inmates (other than for urgent medical needs), and also moved court proceedings to video as well isolating new arrivals in separate blocks for two weeks.

The experts are assuring people that all these new arrangements are being complied with, despite the fact that two urgent amnesty bills, including one affecting prisoners in the highest health risk group have been lying around in parliament unexamined for two months.

An infection under lock and key

The first cases of coronavirus among jail inmates in Ukraine were reported in pre-trial detention centres a month after the start of the national quarantine, when on 28 March a female prisoner arrived in Chernivtsi temporary isolation facility. Her initial health check revealed that she had the virus and so was banned from standard prison accommodation and removed to a civil hospital where her diagnosis was confirmed and where she remained.

On 14 April, another woman who had been moved to the Chernivtsi prison colony from a temporary isolation facility was also confirmed with the coronavirus, and on 22 April a deputy head of the Kropyvnytskyi colony also tested positive for the virus, leading, according to the Penal Service to 50 possible contacts receiving positive test results.

On 23 April one more inmate with a confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis was moved from the temporary isolation facility to the Chernivtsi pre-trial detention centre. As a result, other convicts began a protest, locking themselves in three cells, and three of them cut their wrists. The Penal Service claims that the virus victim was moved separately, by appropriately protected staff, although afterwards, “two inspectors requested leave from their management”. Then, on 29 April, data appeared confirming that an inmate of the city’s pre-trial detention centre had tested positive for the virus. The number of victims among convicts has however remained unchanged over the past month.

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Inside penal colony No.1 in Vinnytsia, Ukraine | Photo: Ombudsman of Ukraine

In the words of Deputy Minister of Justice Yelena Vysotskaya, neither pre-trial facilities nor penal colonies are accepting inmates with high temperatures – they are dispatched to hospital, while newly arrived convicts spend three weeks in a separate facility, staffed by protected personnel: “because we can’t speak about an automatic threat to the whole institution”. Vysotskaya believes that the virus cases among prisoners are mild ones and were contracted outside, before they were imprisoned: “We can’t refuse to accept them. Prison heads are determined not to accept them, as they have to protect their staff and other prisoners – they are all susceptible to the virus threat. But that’s our work”.

Lies, damned lies, and statistics

The official figures state that out of a total of 53,000 inmates of penal colonies and pre-trial detention centres, only 507 have been laboratory tested for COVID-19, and only 21 have tested positive, among them two remand prisoners and one convicted criminal already confirmed in April. The majority of infection cases – 16 - have been among Penal Service staff, with two medical workers also infected. The Penal Service has also not revealed which type of facilities have reported cases of the virus, and after the start of the quarantine more detailed information only appeared on 25 May, when area-based figures were released, showing that staff at facilities in 12 regions had been infected.

Yevgeny Zakharov, head of a Kharkiv-based rights group, doesn’t believe the numbers. He thinks the real number of virus victims is much higher, but is hidden because of the lack of mass testing of prisoners and prison staff. He cites, for example the Darnytskyi children’s home in Kyiv. There, only one case was officially reported, but when children and staff were tested, 81 people turned out to be infected.

“I would like to see at least one facility penalised over just one infected staff member”, says Zakharov. “The infection figures are low because we don’t test. Not even at state expense. I know that among others, the head of the Kropyvnytskyi pre-trial detention centre was canvassing donations from the public in order to test 40 staff members and 20 convicted prisoners who had been in contact with the virus. And I know that he asked them to take the test at their own expense”.

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The hard data: distribution of COVID-19 across Ukraine's prison system. | Image: State Penitentiary Service of Ukraine

For the moment, all cases among prisoners have been treated at pre-trial detention centres’ and prison colonies’ medical facilities. But even people in the Ministry admit that serious cases can’t be treated there – only “high temperatures”. According to Vysotskaya, in April the Penal Services bought in no medical supplies – only protective measures. She is clear that prison medical facilities can’t provide specialised treatments – they have no facilities for artificial respiration, for example, so they send virus victims to Ministry of Health facilities. But as she says, Kyiv’s hospitals, for example have made no special preparation for sick convicts “because of a lack of resources”.

According to Yevgeny Zakharov, the penitential system initially assumed they could rely on civil hospitals to treat COVID-19 victims, but the Ministry of Health categorically refused to admit them. “Then some Penal Service departments were allowed to use inter-regional hospitals, and suspected Coronavirus patients were sent there. Thirty beds were made available in a prison colony in Bucha, near Kyiv, for example – several services of the Lukyanivska pre-trial detention centre were moved there. But people still won’t be given tests. No one actually knows whether the coronavirus is present there or not. And nobody tells you anything about reasons for deaths there”.

The state of prison healthcare

In late 2017, the Ukrainian government opened a health centre for its Penal Service sector, the main reason being to remove medical staff from the control of the Prison Service, so that they could have more independence to report and treat physical injuries. They did not, however, allocate any more money to prison medical facilities. Penal Colony medical staff will privately tell you that their location, poor transport services and poor pay means that civilian medics, including infection specialists, are loath to take jobs at closed facilities. Some colonies have no proper facilities for infection isolation with a separate entrance and bathroom suite with tiled walls that can be disinfected.

Yet another issue around prison medical services is a lack of a specialised system to transport unwell inmates and blood analyses to hospitals. Not all out-of-town clinics in the regions have their own transport, so doctors have to either negotiate with colony heads or organise trips off their own bat. Inmates of some facilities happily admit that they have to pay for trips to hospital for tests or treatment.

Prisoners in Ukraine are usually transported from place to place by train. But one journey, even just between regions, can last for weeks. Three services are responsible for these movements: the Penal Service draws up the list of people to be moved, the National Guard organises the stages to be covered and “Ukrainian Railways” provides the means of transport and disinfects the compartments. Prison carriages are disinfected in the same way as standard ones – washed down with soap and soda and cleaned of dirt, but not disinfected with an antiseptic. But since the start of quarantine these transports have effectively stopped, so prisoners who have contracted serious illnesses have no access to specialised hospitals for diagnosis and treatment.

General clinic No. 19 at the Brygidki prison in Lviv, Ukraine.
Photo (c): Anna Ilchenko | Анна Ильченко

In the clinic at the penal colony in the Khmelnitsky region, for example, there are two inmates with advanced TB. They have been waiting for transport since 19 March and claim that their conditions are getting worse – the coughing is on the increase, but the treatment they are getting isn’t helping them. “The start of the quarantine has meant a stop to the previous pattern of movement for the benefit of treatment”, the colony’s senior medic told monitors from the regional Ombudsperson’s office on 7 May. “The order has been given, but they haven’t moved. The issue is still under discussion”.

Given that Ukraine has recently suffered an almost two-month stoppage of public transport and traffic (between 17 March and 25 May even the Metro didn’t work), the return home of released prisoners has also become difficult. The Penal Service itself doesn’t deny it and regularly expresses its thanks to religious and charitable organisations, the police and the families of other released prisoners for their help in bringing their family member home.

"They survived however they could"

Despite the fact that the State Budget was increased during the quarantine to provide additional means of protection for Penal Service workers, the first masks and other protective clothing only appeared in prisons a month after it began. The Penal Service, for example, announced that on 7th April it received 100,000 masks, 90,000 pairs of gloves and 2,000 body suits, and on 10 April it also got 3,000 litres of disinfectant, at a cost of 3.6 million Hryvnya from the government’s reserve fund (approx. £100,000)

Deputy Minister Vysotskaya gave this comment in an interview with Slidstvo.info: “There was nowhere to buy all this stuff at first. It took two weeks. In those weeks people survived however they could with help from charities, local government, and sponsors, and sewed themselves masks. And we lived like this for a month.”

Later, the Ministry of Justice re-allocated some of its funds among these causes, depending on the number of convicts. Thanks to the Red Cross, as well as business people, businesses and regional volunteers, 8.6 million Hryvnya (approx. £255,000) has already been collected to help buy masks and antiseptics for prisoners.

Rights activists have particularly remarked on the lack of protective clothing in prisons, and the fact that they have to use bleach as an antiseptic, for which it is not designed. According to the Ombudsperson, from March to April 2020, 1,322 detainees attended court hearings at Kharkiv’s pre-trial detention centre alone (only 164 video conferences have ever taken place there): “The facility’s staff have not been provided with individual protective clothing. Workers are given one mask per person per shift on their way to work – these can only provide proper protection for two hours“, say activists who have studied quarantine conditions imposed without advanced warning.

Vysotskaya has also confirmed the fact that at the height of the quarantine, prisoners in Ukrainian pre-trial detention centres were sent to court sittings without masks: “Things went on for a month without any personal protection available, since we had no masks. There physically weren’t any in our facilities. We asked if we could defer meetings or run them as video conferences. The number of trips out fell, but there were still an enormous number – 500-600 a day. Now, thanks to our donor organisations, local government offices and charitable friends we have means of individual protection and we can go to court, even in our masks. But it’s still contact, and very close contact…Also, after leaving a pre-trial detention centre to attend a court case, there isn’t a separate room where someone can wait before someone else comes, which would be the right thing to do.”

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Pre-trial detention centre in Mariupol, Ukraine | Photo: Ombudsman of Ukraine

At the Chortkiv pre-trial detention centre in the Ternopol region, there is no room which can be separated from the rest of the facility; this means that people coming out of court and after investigative operations aren’t able to be isolated for 14 days, as they should: they have to wait in pre-trial areas, which is effectively to be a risk to other inmates. As there is also no isolation space for those who have contracted the virus, one person’s illness can turn into a threat of mass infection.

An illusory amnesty

In an attempt to avoid a coronavirus epidemic, more than 26 countries worldwide have decided to release prisoners. In some cases, this means an early release for people in a risk group; in others, a pardon or amnesty. In Europe, this release policy has been followed by Germany (where the decision is taken by federal states individually), France, Italy, Austria, Portugal, Cyprus, Belgium, Norway, the UK (especially Northern Ireland and Scotland), Ireland, Slovenia, Albania, Belarus, and Azerbaijan.

According to Helsinki University researcher Olga Zeveleva, who studies world practice of the war on coronavirus in prisons, research hasn’t shown any link between the early release of prisoners and the type of regime in a given country: “The release policy isn’t necessarily associated with the more democratic states. It doesn’t happen in Finland, for example, whereas Iran has carried out an extensive amnesty. Judging by the preliminary analysis of our research group, we can say that in countries where prisons are particularly full, governments release prisoners more often and more quickly”.

Despite the fact that Ukrainian legislation permits annual amnesties of prisoners, the last amnesty conducted by its president was signed in 2017, although amnesties took place every year until 2011 and with the spread of the coronavirus, some have begun talking about revisiting this practice.

On 27 April, the Ukrainian parliament, on the initiative of its PM introduced an Amnesty Bill, aimed at averting the spread of the coronavirus. The Justice Ministry has announced that if it is passed into law, about 3,000 people will receive amnesties. Another bill – on annual amnesty legislation – had already been introduced on 6 March. According to standard practice, on average 900 more people convicted of non-violent crimes could also be prematurely released. In other words, if both bills are passed into law over 7 percent of Ukraine’s current prisoner population will be freed.

The bill relating to coronavirus amnesty provides for early release in various situations: prisoners with serious illnesses and disabilities, those with underage children and elderly convicts, and also takes into account the length of the sentence already served. The greater part of those amnestied will have served a minimum quarter of a sentence for non-violent crime (1881 people).

According to Ukraine’s Helsinki Human Rights Union Oleksandr Pavlichenko, a rights group worked on the coronavirus amnesty bill and paid particular attention to the organization of the prisoner release operation: transport to their homes in quarantine conditions, observation points. “We wouldn’t just throw them out onto the street. And the system was designed for streamlined release”, declares Pavlichenko.

The experts are, however, less hopeful about the coronavirus release bill being passed. It was introduced in parliament on 27 April, but since then only one committee has examined and supported it (the Human Rights Committee already passed it on 7 May).

“The Ministry of Justice has the political will to pass the bill. They are drafting explanatory leaflets to convince MPs to vote for it. But there’s a lot of scepticism around the bill. The 2020 amnesty bill will, I think go through. But that’s standard legislation, irrespective of the coronavirus”, human rights activist Pavlichenko tells me.

Pavlichenko’s co-activist Yevgeny Zakharov believes that both amnesty bills have been well drafted and should be passed into law as soon as possible. He feels, however, that there is little chance of this happening: “The MPs aren’t behind them: they all complain that they are unpopular and are only interested in their own popularity ratings. I’m afraid that we can expect not just an outbreak of the epidemic in institutions and organisations, but protests among prisoners as well. They, after all are at a very high risk of infection: the epidemic isn’t waning, tests aren’t being carried out and the usual measures to protect the public are simply not available to prisoners. Nor is access to treatment. Lots of inmates are hoping at least for an amnesty, but as soon as they realise that there isn’t going to be one, things are going to get nasty.


Translated from Russian by Liz Barnes

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