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Is COVID-19 present in penitentiaries and pre-trial detention centers?

05.01.2021
Yevgen Zakharov

Summary: A review of the measures against the spread of COVID-19 in the penitentiary system of Ukraine.


As of 1 April 2020, 19794 detainees were held in 17 pre-trial detention centers (SIZO) and 12 penitentiary institutions with SIZO functions, as well as 32 942 convicts in 76 correctional colonies and centers. Around 28 thousand employees worked at those institutions. According to the regularly published data from the Health Center of the State Criminal Executive Service (SCES), 1126 diagnoses of COVID-19 are confirmed for 31 detainees, 38 convicts, 924 employees of SCES and 133 employees of Health Center of SCES as of 4 January 2021. Only 2330 PCR tests were performed, including for 1362 contact persons. The correctional centers, which do not have medical units of the Health Center, are not covered by the statistics.

The scarce data on patients with COVID-19 in the penitentiary system should not be misleading: we believe that there are many more patients, but it is not detected. The testing of the prisoners is not provided for at all. Some of the prisoners underwent tests before coming to SIZO. The monitoring of the correctional colonies shows that in many of them the medical units are filled with the convicts that are treated for colds and are not tested. The medical units usually lack infectious disease doctors that could diagnose the course of the disease. At the same time, there are many requests for medical assistance, the prisoners often believe they have COVID-19. However, it is impossible to verify their statements. Therefore, the result is: no testing – no COVID-19!

As told by Ombudsman, Lyudmyla Denysova, when COVID-19 is detected during the dissection of the deceases prisoners, it is not documented in the statistics; it is believed that they died due to their main disease – AIDS, tuberculosis etc.

The prisoners are discriminated against comparing to the free people: they cannot undergo tests, and the presence of the personal protective equipment (PPE) fully depends on the wish and ability of the management of the institutions to allocate funds for that purpose. The regulations of the Ministry of Justice and Health Center of SCES do not provide for the duty to provide the prisoners with PPE.

The introduction of the quarantine worsened the general situation with provision of medical assistance. For example, the persons with tuberculosis that was detected after the introduction of quarantine were left without the treatment, because they could only receive it in the specialized institutions for such prisoners. Since the transfer of the prisoners was prohibited during the quarantine and Ukrzaliznytsia did not work, such patients remained where they were during the introduction of the quarantine. Thus, seven convicts with tuberculosis were in Interregional Hospital at CC No.85 in Bucha and could not get to the specialized CC No.27 in Kharkiv region, and in June Ombudsman Lyudmyla Denysova arranged the special stage that would transport such patients. The similar story concerned seven convicts in Voznesensk colony No.72 and in other institutions with other diseases.

The employees of Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (KHPG) compiled the Questionnaire and gathered the information on the current state of the penitentiary institutions through previously established contacts with the convicts, their relatives, lawyers, as well as the employees of the penitentiary institutions. We have received data about the changes in the regime of serving the punishment caused by the epidemic, the data on the real capabilities of the institutions of Health Center concerning the prevention of the spread of COVID-19: the staffing, the supply of medicines, necessary conditions and equipment for diagnosing ant treatment, etc, the availability of personal protective equipment etc. We have received the information on the state of counteracting the epidemic from 36 penitentiary institutions, including 7 pre-trial detention centers (Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odesa, Cherkasy, Zaporizhya, Kherson and Kropyvnytsky), 9 penal institutions (Dnipro, interregional hospital at Dnipro penal colony, Chortkiv, Ivano-Frankivsk, Vinnitsya, Poltava, Novhorod-Siversk, Vilne, Bakhmut), 18 correctional colonies (Sofiivka, Synelnykiv, Zhovtovodsk, Kryvy Rih, Zamkove, Tsuman, Bucha, Berdychiv, Mensk, Kropycnytsky, Odesa, Stryzhavka, Poltava, Oleksiivka, Kachanivka, Temnivka and two territories located on the uncontrolled territory, – in Donetsk and Slovianoserbsk) and 2 correctional centers (Igren and Khroli). The data was collected several times, since the situation is dynamic and there were certain changes in some institutions.

The general systemic problem is insufficient amount or complete lack of PPE. Only the employees of the institutions and medical workers are provided with them, and not all institutions have them. As our respondents tell, in penitential institutions and SIZO the masks are only given to the persons who are brought to the court hearings. In correctional centers the prisoners receive them when they leave the premises of the centers. In correctional colonies the convicts usually do not have protective equipment. There are such institutions in which the staff either does not have any masks or does not use them.

The second general systemic problem is the lack of the medical assistance. There is a catastrophic lack of doctors, there are no medicines. As a result, in many institutions the medical assistance is essentially absent. For example, a respondent from Poltava PI No.23 reported the following: “The prisoner has a throat pain for almost a week now, there are headaches, dizziness, muscle pains, sometimes the temperature rises, but the doctor has not visited him yet. Only once a junior inspector gave a thermometer. The temperature was 38,8”. The convict points out that there are too few doctors in the institution, that is why they do not help. This is what a convict from Stryzhavka colony No. 81 wrote: “Although I am in an interregional hospital, it is very difficult to have a consultation with a doctor. My temperature rises every day, there is vomiting, but the help is not provided. The doctor rarely admits patients, and he only examines the newly arrived ones”. A respondent from Dnipropetrovsk PI No. 4 writes “There are very few doctors in the institution, that is why they do not come to help. This is due to impossibility to visit all the convicts in one day. After the doctor is called he comes on the next day at best”. Accordingly, the requirement of daily temperature screening is not complied with.

The third common problem is the impossibility to keep the social distance of more than two meters. It is only possible to attempt to decrease the crowding and change the procedures in the penitentiary institutions with the aim of increasing the social distance between the prisoners after unloading the penitentiary institutions.

The situation varies concerning other questions. The situation is mostly better in female colonies than in male ones. The isolation of the diseased persons is performed promptly in eight colonies, slowly in 15 and it is not performed at all in 13 institutions. In some of the institutions there is the opportunity to exercise, other do not provide it. In 4 institutions the prisoners have access to Internet in the specially equipped rooms once a day according to schedule, in 9 – twice a week, in 7 – once a week, in 16 institutions prisoners do not have access to Internet. In 28 institutions there are no explanations about the symptoms of the disease, how to protect oneself from it, the rules of disinfection etc, in 9 institutions some information is provided.

The prisoners serving the sentence in the form of restriction of liberty (in correctional centers) are most at risk of contracting COVID-19 or transferring this disease outside. Those institutions do not have medical units and the convicts have more contacts with the outside world. Here is a description that is generally typical for all correctional centers: “I am in the correctional center. Around 10% of us work here, others do not do anything, because the institution cannot provide us with work. Only gauze bandages are currently issued in the center due to coronavirus, and only for the persons who leave the territory of the institution. The temperature is measured only for the tick. If the coronavirus gets into our center, everyone will get sick. Since according to the law, we have to be escorted to shops, drug stores and the clinics, and we constantly contact other citizens. We can easily contract the virus or transmit it to others. The living conditions in the institution also contribute to contracting the disease. We are constantly in close contact with one another. It is very difficult to be alone”.

There was an acute question of denying the visits of the relatives to the convicts, it adversely affected their mental state. After the joint proposition of KHPG and Ombudsman first in early August the short visits through the glass partition were allowed, and in October – long-term visits. However, we proposed the condition of the relatives having a negative test for COVID-19 carried out no earlier than a day before the visit. The instruction also added the requirement of the convicts undergoing tests at their own expense. That requirement seems unreasonable, it is very difficult for the relatives of the convicts and looks like a humiliation.

The correctional institutions could be unloaded due to amnesty and parole. Back in April the Ministry of Justice with the participation of the experts from Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group developed the relevant bills, they were approved by the Government on 24 April and introduced for the consideration to the Verkhovna Rada on 27 April. However, they were not examined in the committees. It was told that the President is against such measures, because it would adversely affect his political rating.

Therefore we decided to start the campaign for the adoption of the Law on amnesty. KHPG publicly announced such position. Center of Public Liberties, Amnesty International Ukraine, UHHRU and other members of “Human Rights Agenda” platform as well as other organizations took part in the campaign. On 9 June a rally of the relatives of the convicts was carried out near the Office of the President and Verkhovna Rada, An open letter from human rights organizations and other civil organizations to the President and the management of VRU was published on 8 June, the signatures were gathered on KHPG portal, it was signed by more than 40 organizations and 400 citizens. At the same time KHPG arranged the collection of signatures under the similar letter from the literary persons – writers, interpreters, journalists and publishers, signed by 56 literary persons, including the ones most known in Ukraine and beyond (published on 15 June), and letter from Kyiv city art community (published on 16 June), which was signed by 32 artists, art critics, gallery owners, photographers and others.

As a result, the draft laws were considered on 17 June, on the session of the profile Parliament Committee. The draft law on parole was rejected, the draft law on amnesty was sent for revision, however, in September it was removed from consideration.

The information campaign directed at adoption of the Law on amnesty was ongoing. On 10 July a Human Rights Club took place on that topic. On 7 July the article by Yevgen Zakharov was published in “Nove Vremya”, on 22 July – the article by Oksana Pokalchuk, the director of Amnesty International Ukraine, on liga.net portal. The Letter of the political prisoners to the leadership of the state in connection with prevention of the spread of COVID-19 in penitentiary institutions was published on 16 July, it was signed by 16 political prisoners of the Soviet regime and 10 political prisoners of the regime of 2014–2020, on the need of the amnesty.

On 1 July the group of 89 deputies introduced a new bill on Amnesty to the Verkhovna Rada, (reg. No.3765). However, it is not considered either, for the same reasons.

The collected information was once again summarized in the form of the report On the readiness of the penitentiary system of Ukraine to counteract the spread of COVID-19, which was published in Ukrainian and English.

In late August, KHPG resumed monitoring visits to the correctional colonies, and in three months it visited 38 colonies. The general impression – a significant increase in the convicts in the medical units who still do not receive adequate medical assistance

Meanwhile COVID-19 pandemic grows. The position chosen by the state authorities, which consists of expecting that the penitentiary institutions and SIZO would remain free from the disease, is wrong. Those mistakes may cost much.

If the leadership of the spate is serious about the fight against the spread of COVID-19, it must carry out the testing for the prisoners and staff in the institutions where there are confirmed diagnoses, at the expense of the state, and urgently consider the draft law No.3765. Not to mention the norms of Article 3 of the Constitution, that the life and freedom of a person are the highest social values in Ukraine, and that establishment and provision of human rights and freedoms is the main duty of the state, and Article 24 – that the citizens have equal constitutional rights and freedoms and are equal before the law. Because the attitude of the leadership of the state to coronavirus in prisons shows that those constitutional norms for them are only hypocritical and empty declarations.


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