Does Ukraine face a wave of prison unrest?


An animated debate has been taking place on the pages of the newspaper “Evening Kharkiv”.  It was initiated by an interview with Volodymyr Butenko, the former Head of the Kharkiv regional division of the Department for the execution of sentences (hereafter the Department), and has thus far elicited responses from the present Head of the same division, Alexander Kizim, and a former officer from a pre-trial detention centre (SIZO), Volodymyr Azhyppo.. 

Given the fact that one side is making claims which the other side almost entirely refutes, with neither, at least in these articles presenting clear evidence, it seems best to highlight the main details of the claims and counter-claims.

 The original article was published under the title: “V. Butenko: “Ukraine is facing a wave of prison unrest”, and was based on an interview taken by journalist, Yevgenia Chabak. 

The incidents of mass self-mutilation by inmates of a pre-trial detention centre (SIZO), the rising number of people committing suicide in penal colonies, frequent allegations from prisoners of violent treatment from penal system employees are seen by Volodymyr Butenko, the former Head of the Kharkiv regional division of the Department for the execution of sentences, as symptoms of a crisis in the system. He warns that in the near future Ukraine could be swept by a wave of prison uprisings.

The fact that the situation in Ukraine’s penal institutions requires radical measures was, incidentally, at the top of the list of issues discussed at the last general meeting held at the Prosecutor General’s office., during which the state of Ukraine’s penal institutions came in for a lot of criticism.

Asked what aroused the most concern, Volodymyr Butenko responded that there was a move back towards the GULAG system, and claimed that this was most evident in the issue of staffing.

“There was always a problem with enough staff, and many who were taken on proved to be unsuited to working in penal colonies. However we were quite clear that if these people discredited the system one, they had to be got rid of.  Now just take a look at what’s going on in the Kharkiv region. The head of colony No. 100 was once dismissed from his post as head of a pre-trial detention centre (SIZO)  Under him they put two kilograms of grain into a hundred litre pot, and called it porridge.  And instead of meat they were given bouillon from bones, and bones with nothing, not even a bit of cartilage left on it. After that sort of diet for a couple of months, people’s stomachs were totally destroyed.

Butenko also claims that a deputy head of a colony who he says  took a direct part in beating an inmate to death was allowed to resign, without charges being laid, and later quietly allowed to return, and it now looks as though he’s going to be appointed head of a SIZO.

“We were already moving towards a European level of prisoners’ standards. And now the process has been frozen. I don’t think there will be a total return to the GULAG system, but this halt could cost us dearly.  Here again all information about what is happening in the colonies is not available, and the press can only try to jump  to catch a glance at what is going on behind the fence.  And from the other side they also jump, trying to throw over at least some kind of information.

They have removed the real professionals from our penal system, and replaced them with people like those I mentioned, or people who had never had any experience of work in penal institutions.  Yes, they may be bright but it will still take them a wide to get to know the ropes, and there’s no place in the penal system for hangers-on. People “from the side” must not be appointed to the highest positions. That’s what leads to incidents like the mass self-mutilation in the SIZO”,

Law enforcement officers and human rights organizations were unable then to agree whether this had been a case of demonstrative self-injury or a mass suicide attempt.

“It could have been both. However the point is not in the deepness of the cuts. The inmates could have attracted attention in different ways, by refusing to eat, to go out for their walks, by barricading themselves in their cells. If they decided on cutting their veins, it was because they wanted attention from the outside world, they didn’t trust the administration.  Now that is a very serious signal. .

They should have spoken with everyone in the cell, in the presence of lawyers, and in the first instance with those eighteen prisoners who didn’t support the “action”.  They should have been given the chance to say whether it was the administration at fault, or the prisoners.

Instead, both in Kharkiv and in Lviv, where a few days later prisoners did the same thing, they tried to conceal the whole thing for a few days and didn’t let anyone in to see them. This can only suggest that all that time, they were being systematically worked on. It is vital to draw the necessary conclusions as soon as possible since if these things are not reviewed as they should be, they will lead to even more serious problems on a state scale”.

What do you mean by that?

“If in the nearest future nothing changes, Ukraine faces a wave of prison uprisings, with what happened in Kharkiv and Lviv being the first warning of this. I would predict that in half a year in our colonies there will be further disturbances, events of a mass nature. And the prisoners will always consolidate and support protest actions. It just needs someone to begin it, and the wave will begin. Donetsk, Luhansk, Lviv, Zhytomyr, Transcarpathia, Chernivtsy, … This is a terrible business, and would cost society dear. I hope that the management of the Department will realize in time and begin to make changes.

The number of suicides rose sharply in the last year. Why do you think this was?

“To a large extent each suicide is the responsibility of the employees of the system, who didn’t notice the warning signs. Each such case should be carefully investigated.  For example, recently in the medical unit of a SIZO a prisoner hanged himself. He was a drug addict and alcoholic, and they attributed it to alcoholic psychosis.  Yet surely it was possible to predict that he would behave in such a way. Who did they put him in the same cell with, and who monitored the situation?  After all 99% of those who try to kill themselves do give some sign of their intention, and it’s not hard to monitor this.  The main remedy for reducing the death rate in colonies would be a more humane attitude to prisoners.

People released from penal institutions often complain that the staff beat them.

“These are all links in the same chain. From the point of view of the administration, an inmate must be obedient, intimidated, and answer “yes sir!”. And the best way to achieve this is to keep the prisoners in inhuman conditions. For example, a SIZO provides the gates to the prison system. A person who’s ended up there could have been at liberty the previous day.  He’s shaking with fear, and the first thing they do is tell him “You’re nobody here, you’re scum” and punch him in the kidneys.  The person’s terrorized, and even more eagerly hands over money.  It’s terrible. But it’s precisely this we’re seeing a return of.

The problem is that while people are in the colonies, they won’t say anything to anybody. They claim that prisoners can write to the prosecutor, but nobody will read their letters. And where, in even one colony, will the head not open a package sent by his prisoners to the prosecutor?  That’s why there aren’t any official letters, just bits passed on through circuitous routes. And then, when the person has been released, it’s too late to prove it all.

Incidentally, on the subject of violence. In an interview given by the current Head of the Kharkiv regional division of the Department for the execution of sentences, Alexander Kizim, the latter said that in the Poltava region “special means” are applied much more rarely than in the Kharkiv region …

As soon as an “inconvenient” prisoner expressing disagreement with the actions of the administration appeared in the Poltava region, he would be quickly moved to Kharkiv. That way everything was wonderful in Poltava, the person had created a problem they got rid of the person. Kharkiv was always the place where they dumped prisoners who caused problems for the administration. It was specifically here that all the criminal elite served their sentences.

I would like us to return to European practice in this, where people should serve their sentence where they committed the crime. And there’s no use arguing that relatives could exert influence on the sentence. Those are problems for the colony employees and not for society.

And as for Poltava. We all knew that if a person came to our hospital from the Poltava region, then it was definitely a person who was going to die, from cancer, tuberculosis, etc.  They were sent to us so as not to spoil their statistics. Why were they forced to go through the exhausting move during their last days?

A lot has been said recently about so-called “press huts” in SIZO where they beat confessions out of inmates. Do these exist?

Of course.  The point of such “press huts” is that the people are “pressed upon”, i.e. forced to confess to crimes or to give some information. It’s all simple: you have 4-5 prisoners to carry out instructions in one cell, and you place the person you want to “crack” in there.  He has only to set foot in the cell, and there on to him. And that’s it – the person won’t sleep, eat, drink until he says what they need.  These “press huts” are essentially a legacy from the days when the Department was under the control of the police. We don’t have anything to do with uncovering crimes, it’s not our task, but unfortunately we still follow orders. Whereas we must get used to the penal system existing clearly within a legislative sphere. A person comes, serves his sentence with all his rights observed, and nobody can give the command to “exert influence” on him. For this, in the first instance, we need public control. The system must be open and if a person having been put in a SIZO starts having pressure put on him, he should be able to get a lawyer to defend his rights immediately.

… At one time I abolished the ruling existing in the colonies when if a prisoner was walking along the corridor, and a member of the administration was coming towards him, the command was given: “Face to the wall”. What is that, and why?  Yes, it was in the instructions, but those instructions were written in the old, GULAG days.

… Yes, I feel shivers down my spine from people like Chikotilo (who murdered more than 50 people), but it is not our role to judge their past. We need to distance ourselves from what crimes prisoners committed, and see a human being in front of us, and take the right approach to them. The role of penal institution employees is to ensure that convicted prisoners are kept from society.  Nobody has the right to beat them, put pressure on them, or intimidate them.  

Today you’re at liberty, but tomorrow you could end up on the other side of that fence. And if, God forgive, my life brought me there, I personally would hope for a decent attitude to me.

“Evening Kharkiv”

As we mentioned, the above interview prompted another interview with Alexander Kizim, the Present Head of the Kharkiv regional division of the Department, and with a former SIZO officer.

Alexander Kizim believes that the former head was trying to mislead the reader.

Regarding Butenko’s statement that Ukraine faces a wave of prison uprisings:

“I would like to state that these assertions are not even contentious, they are absurd. Such “predictions” are unfounded and intended to discredit and create a negative impression of penal institutions and their personnel”.

Kizim suggests that if Butenko has real evidence to back his claims, as a professional, and as a patriot, he should present them.

With regard to the alleged returned to the GULAG system, Kizim states that this is quite simply inconceivable and objectively impossible. “We stand firmly on a position where the execution of the law is ensured in relation to each convicted prisoner”. 

Kizim goes on to describe the humane treatment of prisoners based on the best psychological teachings.

With regard to Butenko’s allegation that the head of a penal institution will read prisoners’ letters to the prosecutor, he says:

“It’s interesting where he knows that from. From his own experience?  I don’t think that the head of a penal institution could stoop to that.  The head is a serious, responsible figure, and he certainly has more serious and important tasks than to peep through keyholes”.

About SIZO:

“The events in the SIZO, the escape last year, and the mass self-mutilation in May of this year were for me, as the new head, a bitter lesson. It would seem that at such a serious unit there were poorly trained and often inexperienced personnel. There were incidents where the personnel showed arbitrary lawlessness in relation to the inmates.  Why were they moved from cell to cell unnecessarily?  I established also that they had been unlawfully, against all orders, taking to training production workshops. And more – the inspectors had passed on forbidden items to the inmates from their relatives. Now that really is GULAG multiplied! It’s not surprising that criminal proceedings were launched against one of the officers at the beginning of 2006.

Based on what we saw, we analyzed the situation in the SIZO and took decisive measures and overhauled the staff, replacing four officers. Since many of them have no legal education, we are organizing a system for their training. Other staff moves have also been carried out.
About torture in “press huts”:

Alexander Kizim expressed surprise, and stated that he believed this was all pure fantasy. He said that such allegations needed to be substantiated by facts.

He was highly critical also of Butenko’s allegations about officers of “another department”:

“Police officers have a hard enough job in present circumstances, and they are accused of having torture rooms and other such unspeakable things. I can only say that our forms of cooperation in searching for criminals and uncovering crimes are being improved, for which I can only thank our colleagues who treat their work responsibly and seriously”,

“I cannot deny that I concluded that one must actively cooperate with journalists after the incident in the SIZO involving self-mutilation. Since then I have frequently invited the media to visit, and see what is happening. For example, to No. 109 colony where the prisoners freely live, work, develop the land and look after cattle.  Incidentally the harvest is expected to be good, and I will take the opportunity to invite journalists to see how the harvesting goes”.

As mentioned, the above is only part of this interchange.  Whether or not there are other motives for the criticisms made, it is interesting to read the above and compare them with other information regularly appearing on this site.  We would also mention the very serious overview of the penal system given in Human Rights in Ukraine – 2006, which can be found at:


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