Ukraine: "If Prison Acquires a Voice, Everything Will Change"

Global Voices Online
Wednesday, May 2, 2012

On April 2, the Ukrainian TV channel TVi aired Kostiantyn Usov's documentary [uk, ru] about Kyiv's Lukyanivska prison, highlighting the shocking treatment and living conditions of the inmates and drawing attention to the widespread corruption of the facility's staff (GV text about it is here).

The documentary, which has caused much outrage and debate in the past month, is now translated into English and available with subtitles on YouTube.

Usov has shared the link to the film's English version on various social networks and online media platforms, including his Facebook page [uk]. User Natalia Vorotchenko posted this comment [uk]:

[...] You've done a tremendous job... and the English translation allows even more people - those abroad - to see the truth! Step by step, blows are being dealt to the regime of the communists and the oligarchs, and I hope that it will soon vanish... And this will happen in large part thanks to your work, your stance and your heroism! [...]

In the April 19 interview [ru] with Vecherniye Vesti newspaper, Usov talked about the steps being taken by the authorities since the film's release. According to him, the acting head of Lukyanivska has been forced to resign; the government has allotted 1.5 million hryvnias (approx. $185,000) for repairs inside the facility; the prosecutor's office is investigating all the violations mentioned in the film; the prison's authorities have confirmed that the walls of the cells are covered with harmful fungus.

Much of the footage in Usov's film comes from those Lukyanivska inmates who had agreed to take risks and help document their lives, using mobile phones smuggled inside the prison via bribe-taking prison employees, an illegal yet routine practice at this and other facilities. In the Vecherniye Vesti interview, Usov claimed that the "shadow" profits of Lukyanivska's staff involved in illegal transactions with the inmates and their contacts outside amounted to 1.5 million hryvnias a week. On Facebook, where Usov shared the link to the interview, user Juriy Prohorov wrote [ru]:

Every lawyer and anyone who's ever had to deal in some way with the Ukrainian legal system knows everything that [Usov] has told about in his film, and everyone from inmates to prison guards are fine with it... But [Usov] deserves credit for saying it all openly... [...]

On April 21, Usov noted [uk] on Facebook that "for the first time in 20 years, Ukrainian prison officials have started addressing inmates [using the formal, respectful form of the 'you' pronoun]:

[...] Yes, it may seem like no big deal to some. But in fact this is the breakthrough moment.

On his Ukrainska Pravda blog, journalist Artem Shevchenko, one of Usov's film crew members, shared his views [uk] on the film's significance:

[...] It appears that [the film is relevant now] because, due to the regime's politics, prison is gradually turning into a self-sufficient actor in [Ukraine's] social and political life. There is no doubt that prison is one of the factors of today's public politics. Prison [features in top news in the media]. Some are intimidating others with prison. Others are proud of [their prison experience]. [Inmate transportation vehicles] are the most popular cars of the 2010-2011-2012 season. [...] By jailing his main political opponents, President [Victor Yanukovych] seems to be catering to the complexes of his youth, which he [acquired behind bars]. A young person's mentality, maimed by prison experience, cannot be any different. When such a person gains power, [he/she] subconsciously starts building a prison [outside the prison walls].

Blogger and activist Aleksandr Volodarskiy [ru] (aka shiitman) spent a month and a half at Lukyanivska prison in 2009. He was detained for "hooliganism" [en] after imitating a sexual intercourse outside the Ukrainian Parliament on Nov. 2, 2009, as part of a protest against censorship by the Ukrainian National Expert Commission for Protection of Public Morality [ru] ( [uk]). In early April, he wrote two blog posts about Usov's documentary, explaining how the Ukrainian prison system works and why the film might do more harm than good to those kept in detention - and suggesting ways to improve the situation. Below are excerpts from these posts.

April 5, 2012 [ru]:

[...] The prison is indeed like this, only worse.

They didn't show the "boxes" where people who are being transferred to courts/police stations and back are kept for hours. Tiny boxes with no air to breathe and often no place to sit, at times packed with dozens of people. Also not reflected is, to my mind, the key issue: IMPOSSIBILITY of communicating legally. You can't call a lawyer unless you use a banned mobile phone. The lawyer has to take initiative and come to the inmate [him/herself]. A question arises: how will the lawyer learn about violation of the client's rights if the client has no right to get in touch with [the lawyer]? Similarly, inmates cannot get in touch with family in order to ask them to send some specific food or medicines. If a person gets sick, he should wait for his lawyer's visit, to share his complaints with him, and the lawyer would then share them with family members. One can die of pneumonia a few times during this period. If you want to survive, you'll have to use the phone - local doctors can at best offer aspirin. That is, this system initially includes corruption. [...]

I'm afraid that the first result of Usov's investigation will be (or is already) a mass [search] and confiscation of phones from all cells. The cops' first reaction to any information leak is an attempt to deal with the source of this leak. They won't be solving problems by themselves - because they themselves are the problem. [...]

April 7, 2012 [ru]:

[...] Many influential [inmates] don't really need things to be "in accordance with the law." [...] They need personal comfort. [Drugs and alcohol]. Things that no one will ever legalize in prison.

For that they are quite ready to tolerate beatings, anti-sanitary conditions, diseases, and the necessity to be humiliated by the cops and to pay them. [...] The same type of logic works in the society as a whole. People don't want a revolution and radical changes, they are genuinely afraid of them. Because revolution inevitably causes the government's reaction that may affect not just the revolutionaries. And in general - who knows what happens after this revolution - while even though there's evil all around now, this evil is familiar. [...]

Usov's mistake is that he decided to entertain the ordinary [viewers] with exotica. [...] He has dealt a tremendous blow to the prison corruption infrastructure, which is not only feeding the cops, but is helping people to survive here and now. [...] It's not right to sacrifice the people, not right to throw noncombatants into the line of fire.


The only way to make sure these people haven't suffered in vain is to raise two important questions:

1. Lifting the limitations on meetings, packages and correspondence for the inmates. These limitations don't contribute to finding the truth, they should be seen as a type of torture.
2. Legalization of phone connection (technically, it can be easily done by providing each cell with a couple of cell phones [...])

This is something that has to be discussed at all levels now. Not the "corruption" and not even the "fungus."

Having a legal connection with the outside world, the inmates will get a chance to talk about what's going on in prison.

If prison acquires a voice, everything will change.

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