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Prevention of spread of COVID-19 in penal institutions through the eyes of detainees

Yevgen Zakharov
We have received the information about the situation with counteracting the epidemic in 36 penitentiary institutions. Some institutions differ significantly for the better – Chortkiv penal institution No.19, Ivano-Frankivsk penal institution No.12. The situation is much worse in other institutions.

In order to prevent the spread of coronavirus on 13 March the Ministry of Justice issued the Order “On prevention of spread of COVID-19 coronavirus on the territory of the penal institutions, pre-trial detention centers and health care institutions of State Penitentiary Service of Ukraine“, and the day before that the Ministry of Justice, the Health Center and the Department for the Execution of Criminal Punishments issued joint Order “On approval of the Plan of anti-epidemic measures to prevent the introduction and spread of acute respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus, in the penitentiary institutions and pre-trial detention centers of SPS of Ukraine, for 2020”. Since the visits to the institutions are prohibited by an Order of the Ministry of Justice to everybody except the lawyers and the officers of law-enforcement bodies, we decided to collect the information about the current state of the penitentiary institutions and compliance with those regulations through the previously established contacts with the convicts, their relatives, lawyers and the employees of the penitentiary institutions. We invited them to answer our Questionnaire “About the measures taken to prevent COVID-19 in the institution in which you or your relatives are held” which was published on the site and pages of KHPG in the social networks. The data was collected near a month after the Order and Joint Order.

We have received the information about the situation with counteracting the epidemic in 36 penitentiary institutions, including 7 pre-trial detention centers (Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odesa, Cherkasy, Zaporizhia, Kherson and Kropyvnytskiy), 9 penitentiary institutions (Dnipro, inter-regional hospital in Dnipro penitentiary institution, Chortkiv, Ivano-Frankivsk, Vinnitsya, Poltava, Novgorod-Siverskiy, Vilne, Bakhmut), 18 correctional colonies (Sofiivska, Synelnykivska, Zhovtovodsk, Kryviy Rih, Zamkova, Tsuman, Buchanska, Berdychiv, Mensk, Kropivnitskiy, Odesa, Stryzhavska, Poltava, Oleksiivska, Kachanivka, Temnovska and two colonies located on non-government-controlled territory, – Donetsk and Slovianoserbsk) and two correctional centers (Igren and Khrolivka).

Some institutions differ significantly for the better – Chortkiv penal institution No.19, Ivano-Frankivsk penal institution No.12, sanitary and anti-epidemic measures in them intensified in April. Thanks to the efforts of the administration of the colonies and charitable assistance provided, both employees, medics and detainees are provided with personal protective equipment (PPE) – masks, gloves as well as antiseptics. The detainees are not taken outside without masks for a walk or for other purpose. Wet cleaning of all premises is carried out, once a day at first, twice a day on the late April, all surfaces are disinfected, including doors and windows. The possibility of immediate medical attention is provided, the temperature is measured contact-free almost daily. Every person with the smallest symptoms of cold is immediately isolated. The explanations were provided concerning COVID-19 symptoms and disinfection rules. The convicts serving their sentences in those institutions have daily access to internet during an hour and even more. The searches are cancelled, court hearings are only held in the form of video conference. The visits of the lawyers are provided, but the conversations are carried out either through the glass or on a distance of two meters or more. The respondents note the sensitive attitude of the administration of these penitentiaries towards prisoners.

The situation is much worse in other institutions.

The general systemic problem concerns the insufficient quantity or lack of PPE. Only the officers and medical employees of the institutions are provided with them, and not all institutions have them. The PPE only started to reach the institutions in the late April at the expense of 3.6 million hryvnias, allocated in the middle of March, and interregional departments report on their Facebook pages about the quantity of acquired masks, gloves, suits etc. This data obviously shows that there won’t be enough PPE for the detainees. And this is not surprising because the joint Order did not envisage the provision of personal protective equipment to the detainees, only for the officers and medics. As told by our respondents, in penitential institutions and pre-trial detention centers the masks are only provided to those who are to attend the court hearings. In correctional centers the masks are provided when the convicts leave the territory of the centers. In correctional colonies the convicts are generally left without PPE. There are also institutions in which the staff either does not have masks altogether, or does not use them. Such reports are common. For example, we have received the following report concerning the situation in Oleksiivska colony No.25: “The administration of the institution does not have personal protective equipment because it was not provided. The administration itself treats the threat of epidemic too lightly, it believes that nobody will get ill. Besides, the production sews masks that are later sold, the institution is not provided with them.

The second general systemic problem is the lack of medical assistance. There is a catastrophic lack of doctors and medicines. As a result in many institutions ill detainees almost never receive medical assistance. For example, a respondent in Poltava penitentiary institution No.23 reported the following: “The convict has a sore throat for almost a week, headaches, dizziness, muscle pains, sometimes the body temperature is rising, but he was not visited by a doctor yet. Only once a junior inspector gave a thermometer. The temperature was 38,8”. The convict points out that the institution has very few doctors, that’s why they don’t come to aid. The following was written by a convict from Strizhavka correctional colony No.81: “Although I am in an interregional hospital, it is very difficult to achieve the consultation with a doctor. Every day my body temperature rises, there is vomiting, but I do not receive assistance. The doctor rarely admits patients and only the newly arrived people undergo examinations”. A respondent from Dnipro penitentiary institution No.4 states that “There are very few doctors in the institution, therefore they do not help. This is due to impossibility to visit all convicts in one day. The doctor comes when called on the next day at best”. Accordingly, the requirement of daily temperature screening is practically not complied with.

The third almost common problem is the lack of detergents and disinfectants, as a result of which the wet cleaning and disinfection, if any, are carried out at the expense of the detainees. Chlorine is commonly used which is dangerous in high concentrations. The detainees also buy the hygiene products at their own expense. The systemic supervision over the condition of sanitary and hygiene is absent altogether. It would have been carried out by separate sanitary and epidemiological services, but they have been reduced in the penitentiary system even earlier than district sanitary stations. Obviously, there is an urgent need to restore them as structural units, or at least to have a plan of practical actions in case of quarantine, special conditions regime and other similar situations.

Here is a typical description by a respondent from Berdychiv correctional colony No. 70: “The temperature screening of the colony employees is carried out with a malfunctioning electronic thermometer, it shows no more than 33 degrees. There is not enough masks. The disinfectants are very diluted and are useless. The conditions are unsanitary, and there is not enough medicines. The convicts begin to show their dissatisfaction because they are not allowed to meet their relatives. If one person with COVID-19 appears the infection will spread instantly, and less than a day later the entire colony will be infected. There is nothing to treat the infected with, consequently we will all die.

The fourth common problem is the impossibility to keep social distance of more than two meters. Only after unloading of the penitentiary institutions it would be possible to attempt to decrease the congestion and change the procedures in the penitentiary institutions in order to increase the social distance between the detainees.

The situation is patchy concerning other issues. In female colonies the situation in general is better than in male ones. The isolation of diseased persons is carried out quicker in 8 institutions, it is slow in 15 institutions, and it is not carried out at all in 13 institutions. In some institutions there is the possibility to exercise, it is absent in others. In 4 institutions the convicts have access to Internet in specially equipped rooms once a day according to schedule, in 9 institutions – twice a week, in 7 – once a week, in 16 institutions they do not have access to Internet at all. In 28 institutions there are no explanations about the symptoms of the disease, how to be protected from it, or the rules of disinfection etc, in 8 institutions some of this information is provided.

The convicts serving the sentence in the form of limitation of liberty in the correctional centers have the highest risk of contracting COVID-19 or transmit the disease outside. There are no medical units in those institutions and the convicts have more contacts with the outside world. Here is a description generally typical for all correctional centers: “I am in a correctional center. Around 10% of us are working, others do nothing because the institution cannot provide us with work. Due to the coronavirus, only gauze masks are currently issued at the center, and only the persons leaving the territory of the colony receive them. The temperature is measured only to make a mark. If the coronavirus enters out center everybody will get ill. According to the law we must be escorted to the shops, drug stores and polyclinics, and we constantly contact other citizens. We can easily contract the virus or transmit it to others. The living conditions in the institution only contribute to infection. We are constantly in close contact with each other, during any time of day. It is very difficult to be in solitude”.

Among all the institutions there are those where the situation is the worst: you could find all the indicated negative signs in them, as well as the actions such as unscheduled searches that are conducted without any protective equipment. Thus, according to a detainee from Odesa pre-trial detention center, in that institution there are the following issues:

Weekly searches by rapid response groups without the use of  any protective equipment by the officers;

The access to the Internet is out of the question, it is not even possible to speak to the relatives on the phone, because the payphone is not working for over a month;

There aren’t any additional quarantine-related sanitary and hygiene measures;

The isolation of persons suffering from infectious diseases is not ensured, in particular, a person with tuberculosis was held in a cell with others, he died after three days;

The masks are given only to the colony employees, but not everybody uses them, the prisoners are not provided with masks;

The disinfectants and personal hygiene products are not given to the prisoners, they can only be acquired at the prisoners’ expense;

The additional wet cleaning and ventilation is not carried out, as well as daily disinfection of the places of common use;

The prisoners’ body temperature is not measured.

Here is a picture from Sofiivska prison No. 55 in Zaporizhia region, drawn in the early April.

Two convicts sew masks but they are not given to the convicts. The employees do not wear masks. There was recently a fluorographynobody but the doctors wore the masks. It is difficult to call for a doctor, and when they arrive they are rude and insulting. There are no medicines. They conduct the searches without masks or gloves. There were no explanations about coronavirus. The roof is leaking, the heating was turned off, it is cold in the cells. They feed us with stinky cabbages and spoiled canned food”

But the worst situation concerns the colonies on non government-controlled territories: there was virtually no attempt to prevent the spread of coronavirus, nothing has changed in the life of the prisoners. There is no disinfection, no personal protective equipment – neither the employees nor medics or detainees have them. It is possible to see a doctor, but the medical assistance won’t be effective, because there are no medicines. The unscheduled searches are conducted as before. The access to Internet or telephone is out of the question. As our respondent says: “We are treated like bastards, and the fact that we want to return to Ukraine entails additional, arrogant attitude. There is no quarantine at all. Although the administration is afraid to get ill. The only quarantine measure is the restriction on visits and parcels. In general many things here reverted to the state that was many years ago”. The report about a pogrom in Yenakiyevo colony No.52 involving the humiliation of convicts and deliberate spoiling of the entire food supply, arranged by the special forces on 29 April, eloquently confirms the above testimony of the convict. In our opinion, these facts should become the subject of study of UN and OSCE monitoring missions and discussions in Normandy format.

It can be expected that with the emergence of coronavirus in penitentiary institutions the administration would better comply with the requirements of the Order and joint Order, especially given that in April the institutions received the costs for obtaining the PPE, detergents and disinfectants. However, whose costs would only be enough for a short period of time, and the problem of protection against the disease will worsen again. The sanitary and hygiene condition of the penitentiary institutions is dynamic and requires constant monitoring, therefore we will continue to collect the information concerning the situation in the institutions. The Government has introduced to the Parliament the draft laws No.3397 and No. 3396 on amnesty and parole, and we expect their adoption as soon as possible, because it will allow to unload the penitentiary institutions. However, the problem with providing the detainees with the personal protective equipment and testing for the presence of COVID-19 is still unresolved. Until the testing is carried out the state and society will not know the real picture concerning the condition of infection of the staff of penitentiary institutions and the detainees.

The publication was prepared with in theimplementation of UNDP project “Civil Society for Enhanced Democracy and Human Rights in Ukraine” with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark.

The material provided in this publication is subject to copyright. However, the United Nations Development Programme welcomes the dissemination of such informatioт for non-commercial purposes.

EC Project “Making Ukraine resistant to torture, ill-treatment and impunity”

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