Ukraine works to reform its jailers' mindset

August 21, 1998

International experience in prison reform is helping make Ukrainian penal colonies more humane as the republic struggles to shake off Soviet-era systems.

A pioneering partnership project between the International Centre for Prison Studies at King's College, London and the Kiev Institute of Internal Affairs will introduce trainee and mid-career prison officers, psychologists and management staff to new approaches in preventing prisoner suicides, working with lifers, sentencing policy and special programmes for drug users, youth and women offenders.

The Pounds 20,000, two-year project, funded through the United Kingdom's Department for International Development's Know How Fund, comes at a key time for the Ukrainian prison system.

As a member of the Council of Europe, the former Soviet republic has declared a moratorium on the death penalty and in April reorganised its prison system as an independent department, free from interior ministry control.

After seven years of independence - the longest period of sovereignty in a 1,000 years - a disastrous economy is fuelling crime. The republic, population 50 million, has 184 prisons holding 280,000 inmates, compared with Britain's 60,000 inmates and 57 million population.

Ukraine's high level of suicide in the general population, 33 deaths per 100,000 annually, is higher among prisoners: 40 per 100,000.

Olexander Betsa, an interior ministry colonel who heads the department of social pedagogics at the Kiev Institute, wants Ukrainian prisons to become a model for prison reform. "Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma is pushing for the adoption of a new criminal code. By the time there is a decision on this, our programme will already have been working for a year and we shall be ready to start retraining staff and educating future prison officers."

Course modules in the project, part of a regional academic programme managed by the British Council in Kiev, will be developed in collaboration with the international centre for delivery through existing bachelor, specialist and masters programmes in the institute's law and psychology faculties.

Kiev Institute staff will visit Britain to see how the prison service training college at Newbold Revel, near Rugby, works. They will also visit Gartree Prison, Liverpool, and Onley Young Offenders Institute in Leicestershire.

More than 1,400 full-time students study at the institute's 20-acre site in Kiev's eastern suburbs, where academic functions are combined with basic military training for interior ministry recruits. Some 700 career prison officers are enrolled on distance-learning programmes and up to 120 each year will benefit from short retraining courses.

Staff and students at the institute who have experience of working in Ukrainian prisons agree about the need to modernise.

Vlad Trachkov, a psychologist at a medium-security prison colony in Cherkassy, eastern Ukraine, said: "It's necessary to reform the prison system. The previous system was based on punishment. Now that we are in the Council of Europe we have to prove that we are moving to a more democratic attitude towards prisoners."

Captain Oleg Shymeev, an institute lecturer with ten years' experience of working in prisons, said that the complicated system inherited from the Soviet Union meant that more than a dozen different types and levels of prison colonies were operated using interior ministry staff and army personnel for various functions.

Prison staff also had legally to carry out police duties in colonies, further complicating relationships and increasing management problems. "We need to simplify our system to make it easier and better to manage. When the governor is the only person responsible for all spheres of the prison it will be much easier to achieve order," said Captain Shymeev.

One reason for prison overcrowding was a lack of a community service system and total control over sentencing by judges.

Andy Barclay, an associate of the King's College International Centre and a former prison governor, said the British side was keen to share Council of Europe and United Nations' concepts of humanitarian standards in prisons with eastern Europe. The centre is hoping to run REAP schemes in Russia, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Moldova, he added.

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