Where is Ukraine’s prison system heading?


Oleksandr Betsa has launched a scathing attack on the State Department for the Execution of Sentences [the Department] and changes over the last three years. He hopes to galvanize the public to demand that the President and Cabinet of Ministers take decisive measures to bring some order into the Department, promote transparency and openness to public scrutiny.

Oleksandr Betsa has been involved in the penitentiary system since 1981: in training penal staff, as well as involving civic organizations in work helping the penal system and social work with prisoners and resocialization.

Over the last 7 years 1.5 million US dollars has been given in aid for penitentiary reform and public participation in its implementation.

This money was used, for example, to create the Bilotserkivsk Staff Training Centre.  The latter was intended to train personnel in dealing efficiently with current tasks involved in promoting professional development.  This is not happening.  Money was also spent on setting up a Department press service, however Mr Betsa asks whether journalists have actually heard any noises from this service over recent times.  He points out that there had been plans to provide journalists with permanent accreditation at the Department and make it possible for them to go to penal institutions without having to wait months for a permit.

Disastrous staffing policy

Hopes were pinned on the new Head of the Department Vasyl Koshchynets appointed on 21 March 2005.

There were however doubts since he came to the Department without professional or legal training in the area.  Betsa believes this appointment to have been a mistake by President Yushchenko and speaks of upheaval in the Department, especially after staffing rotations which led to managerial positions, especially in the regions, being given very often to outsiders understanding little as regards the specific work of the department and coming from quite unrelated departments.  Such appointments included;

  • Managerial personnel in the Donetsk Regional Division of the Department who after a few months work, and for the first time in the history of the penal system, were arrested at the beginning of 2006 for demanding a cut for giving government contracts to certain firms.  Could this be why the prices for food items which prisoners can buy in Donetsk region penal institutions became so astronomically expensive?

A number of police officers accustomed to quite different work were appointed as regional managers;  Betsa cites the example of a police colonel who was appointed head of the Department’s Lviv Regional Division. A few months later a group of prisoners resorted to self-mutilation, and there was the first open revolt by personnel of the Lviv SIZO [pre-trial detention centre] against their boss alleging abuse of his position and denigrating behaviour. A check by the Lviv regional prosecutor’s office found the alleged irregularities to have indeed taken place due to the unlawful actions and abuse of position of penal institution heads.

There were other much publicized incidents involving prisoners attempting self-mutilation, going on hunger strike, etc, in 2006 and 2007.

Betsa believes that the almost total rotation of managerial personnel during those years exacerbated the problems, leading both to protests from prisoners, and from subordinate penal staff.


Betsa believes that the staffing policy of the Department and treatment of subordinates have become so twisted that some of the competent employees feel compelled to resign.

He asserts that the heads of penal institutions are frightened to show any initiative and are expected, on fear of dismissal, to prevent any leaks of negative information, especially where this involves infringements of prisoners’ rights.

Reports issued by human rights organizations following information about hunger strikes or similar in penal institutions are standardly refuted by the Department after checks carried out by people whose independence gives cause for doubt.

The author states that three of the staff of the relevant department of the Human Rights Ombudsperson’s Secretariat, who are called upon to check complaints, are themselves former employees of the Department. 

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