Some opinions on and some details of prison life


An article reprinted from ‘Vecherniy Zhytomir’, No. 13, 1999

In September 1998 M.Brodskiy, a member of the Parliamentary Committee on legal questions of the activity of law-enforcing agencies, suggested a draft of law ‘On amending the Penal Code of Ukraine’ to the Supreme Rada. In particular, M.Brodskiy suggested to introduce to the Penal Code an article about torture, to define the notion of torture and to introduce rather grave punishments to those who apply physical and moral torture. That it was M.Brodskiy who suggested this law is perhaps not accidental, because he himself had stayed behind the bars of Zhytomir preliminary prison.

Perhaps it is not accidental that the Ukrainian secret service and the Ministry of Justice sent to the Parliamentary Committee their recommendations, where they say that they do not consider timely the inclusion of responsibility for torture into the Penal Code. The editorial board of ‘Vecherniy Zhitomir’ was rather interested in the attitude of the Ministry of Justice, because now it is in charge of all penitentiaries, and mere staying in these establishments is considered by many international experts as torture. Many international organizations protest against the absence of progress in reforming the court system and prosecutor’s offices, which had to fight with such conditions and punish the guilty.

The town of Zhytomir has the honor to possess the wide range of penitentiaries: ‘coolers’ (detention blocks of militia precincts), a preliminary prison and a colony of strict regime. The editorial board turned to a man who passed through all of them and asked him to describe the conditions. He agreed, but he asked to remain anonymous, since his ‘confession’ could harm several people who are still in the penitentiaries.

The upkeep of the incarcerated in the above-mentioned penitentiaries is directed by several laws and sublegal acts, among them the Ukrainian law on preliminary incarceration, the Correcting Labor Code, the Rules of internal order and several others. They blatantly disagree with many international legal norms and, in particular, with the UNO Convention against torture and other inhumane or degrading treatment and punishments, as well as with the European Convention on protection of human rights and freedoms ratified by Ukraine. Besides, they disagree with the operating Constitution, in particular with Articles 22, 28, 31, 43, 63 and others.

In addition these far from liberal acts are rudely violated by the Ministry and administration. This perhaps made the Ukrainian security service and the Ministry of Justice protest against the introduction of the punishment for torture to the Penal Code. The routine violations of the international documents are numerous. For example, according to Article 74 of the Correcting Labor Code, each convict in a colony must have not less than 2 square meters of floor space; in the prison the limit is 2.5 square meters (by the way, a dead body on the graveyard has much more); this very modest norm is normally violated. In accordance with the Rules of internal order, not more than 1800 convicts may be kept in a strict regime colony, but in reality the number of the inmates is more than 2300. According to Section 11 of the mentioned Rules, one water tap in a washing room must be for 10 people, in reality they have one tap for 30 – 40 people. In reality 350 – 400 people must wash themselves and their clothes under 20 showers during 2 hours. Only this can be qualified as torture. This condition results in the abundance of lice and scab. Another plague is fast expansion of TB. To protect themselves from this disease convicts mugs kept their own mugs. Then the mugs were confiscated and put to the common use in the canteen. The confiscation was explained by the shortage of mugs. The punishments applied are certainly degrading. For example, a convict is made to stand in five feet from the wall with his feet as wide apart as he can stretch them, leaning against the wall with hands wide apart; in this posture the punished is made to stand for hours. A detachment of convicts (100 – 120 people) can be made to march in a circle in the prison yard under rain, snow or scorching sun. The convicts having just returned from the work and having the right for rest are forced to march as well. Such ‘correcting measures’ are frequently used by detachment commanders L.Galichev, P.Tychyna and Yu.Bugayev.

However, the described conditions look like a sanitarium compared to those in the detention block of Bogunskiy precinct. The block contains ten cells of different size accommodating from 2 to 20 inmates. The walls and floors are made of cement. In the non-aired cell there stands an open toilet seat. The density of the population is such, that it is possible either to stand or to seat on the floor, since there is no room for walking. In bigger cells, instead of berths, there is a platform, called ‘dais’ on which the convicts sleep as sardines in a tin (if there is enough place, otherwise they sleep, sitting or lying, on the filthy concrete floor), bed-clothes are certainly not available. In summer, when in the non-ventilated tobacco smoke filled cell the air becomes unbearably stuffy and stale, the convicts sweat and take off all their rags, the ‘dais’ becomes filthy and sticky from sweat and stenches even stronger than the open toilet seat. The ‘dais’ is wiped during cleaning of the cell with the same rag which is used for washing the floor and the toilet seat. The toilet seat tank is controlled from the outside, from the passage, and in order to wash down its content one must call the militiaman on duty. Will he pull the handle and when depends on his whim. Once a day the cell population is taken out for ten minutes for washing. Certainly, neither soap nor towels are given. The drinking water is raw, it is brought in a big basin from which the thirsty drink without mugs. Under such conditions it is near to impossible not to catch a disease. It is easy to fancy what the sick feel, staying round the clock in the overcrowded, non-ventilated concrete box full of stench and smoke, through which an electric bulb dimly shines at night and day time. Add here alcoholic delirium and abstinence sufferings of some convicts, fat lice, unhurriedly crawling upon the ‘dais’, brought by non-stop scratching tramps, and fancy yourself inside such a cell.

Is it surprising that normal people are ready to sign absolutely all accusations, not thinking about the consequences. Everyone wants to get out of this hell as soon as possible, undoubtedly this hell is organized deliberately just to force the suspects to confess. If this measure does not help, there are lots of auxiliary methods, starting with a primitive beating and ending in sophisticated tortures, after which a human being becomes an invalid, and not only a moral one. Such facts were described in detail in the newspaper ‘Kiyevskiye vedomosti’ of 12 January 1998. As to the possibility to turn to an advocate under such conditions, you may recollect the case of Brodskiy. Even to him, a well-known public figure, advocates could not break through.

Even the preliminary prison, compared to the detention block, seems a paradise. There they give bed clothes, permit to have radio and TV, toiletries, and stationery, they have a daily walk and weekly bath. Still it is not quite the paradise. There stands an open toilet seat in the cell and concrete floors, although by Section 12 of the Rules of internal order the floors must be covered with planks. As to having bath, it is done under 3 – 4 showers during 15 – 20 minutes for 30 – 35 convicts. They have a choice: either wash themselves or their underwear, which is dried inside the cell to render better conditions for developing TB. Theoretically they have medical aid, but there is a shortage of drugs. They have library service — one book per one month per one head. The books are worth the service. The medicinal drugs brought by relatives pass to the sanitary department, and receiving drugs requires a long bureaucratic procedure. It can take two days for obtaining one pill. The food, both in quantity and quality, would make a pig die of indigestion. The convicts survive as a rule, but they get gastritis, stomach ulcer and the like. Since cells are overcrowded, convicts walk along a wall in turns, and for the most inmates the turn never comes. During the so-called walk people mostly stand, because the floor space of the walking yards is 15 – 20 square meters, so 30 – 35 people cannot walk around, or they walk in turns. People who stay in preliminary prisons for 5 – 6 months suffer from muscle dystrophy, but there are the unfortunates who spend in the prison two years or more.

Both in detention blocks and in the preliminary prison rubber clubs are frequently used. Besides, at any moment the convicts can be taken out of the cell, and then a total search, the notorious shmon, is carried out, after which only the walls and the berths welded to the floor stand on the previous places. All other belongings are piled in the corner maximally shuffled. Idle and curious convicts computed that 30 – 50 cockroaches fall to the share of one convict. Nonetheless, plastic bags are forbidden, perhaps to facilitate the approach of cockroaches to food reserves. The citizens of Ukraine are kept in these inhumane conditions, although their guilt is not proved yet, and some of them will be released either by court or before it.

How can one speak about the ‘right for legal protection’ if in the preliminary prison with about 2000 inmates, there is only one cubicle for lawyers. It should be added that communication through letters is forbidden and during 2 – 3 years a convict does not see his relatives and friends, may not write to them and may not receive a letter. Besides, a stool-pigeon is present in each cell, who tries to learn details of the alleged crimes. Certainly, it is the work of professionals to choose the ODA methods, but these methods must be legal. The stool-pigeons are usually convicts already condemned by court, and the joint upkeep of them with suspects is forbidden by law. It seems that the prison administration and prosecutor’s office try to forget this rule.

In all colonies, including Zhytomir one, the situation is created when practically all actions of a convict may be called a ‘violation of the regime’: wrinkles on the blanket, being late to morning exercises, keeping hands in pockets, bare head, etc. Because of such ‘serious violations of the regime’ a convict is punished by exclusion from those released conditionally before the full term, or from the list of the directed to the colony-settlement. Prison guards unearth such violations with the zeal worth of better application. Some comb the barracks catching those who did not go to the meal, others catch those ‘order breakers’, who dared to take a slice of bread from the ration of those who did not come to the canteen. This is a serious and frequent violation of order. Something positive must be said about the prison administration. Even in our difficult times Zhytomir prison (in contrast to the majority of similar penitentiaries) has still retained three meals per day. Certainly, the food is inadequate, the necessary additional source of food are parcels from outside, but the administration sternly restricts the number and weight of the parcels. To compensate the starvation the convicts are driven daily to the yard to do morning exercises with the musical accompaniment. The exercises are not cancelled in rainy or frosty weather. To cheer up the sportsmen they are forbidden to put on warm clothes, for example sweaters. Improvisations are frowned upon: a guard punished a 46-year-old convict for doing another exercise instead of jumping. Since the prison is overcrowded, all the convicts cannot relieve themselves before morning exercises, so all are awaken 10 – 15 minutes before the reveille, although the prison rules promise eight-hour sleep. Call up is done thrice in daytime, out of doors in any weather, although the prison rules permit to do it indoors, when the weather is nasty. At night the convicts must dry their wet cotton-wool-padded jackets in their overcrowded cells.

Many other prison rules are also violated. For example, Section 35 Part 4 reads that ‘the duration of a short meeting of a convict with his visitor may not be less then 2 hours’. In reality it lasts about one hour or less. ‘A long meeting must last 24 hours’, but in reality a convict is led to the meeting at 13:30 – 14:00 and is led away at 10:00 next morning. The usual explanations are that there are no rooms, no opportunity, etc. But the most convicts also had no opportunity to find a job and feed their families, so they had to steal. Courts, however, did not take into consideration these mitigating circumstances and condemned the thieves: some for stealing a hen, some for stealing three meters of pipe, some for a bucket of potatoes.

The prisons are overcrowded contrary to the law. But not a single warden has ever refused to take new convicts, although, according to Article 60 of the Constitution of Ukraine, he has the right to disobey orders contradicting the law. Moreover, each new shipment of convicts arriving to the colony is met with orchestra.

That will be a great pity if the Supreme Rada does not accept the article about torture to the Penal Code.

PL commentary.
We reprinted this article (in a slightly abridged form) from the newspaper ‘Vecherniy Zhytomir’, since the conditions of upkeep in other prisons are very similar. The editorial board of ‘Vecherniy Zhytomir’ informed that the newspaper possess a lot of auxiliary information concerning the facts described in this article.

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