How do children live in prisons and beyond?

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Many Belarusian teenagers have been in the dock since 2014, the year when Decree No. 6 “On Urgent Measures to Combat Illicit Drug Trafficking” was published. After the 2020 elections, boys and girls were also jailed because of their actions against state security forces, comments on the Internet, and participation in public events. But children are also imprisoned in orphanages, dispensaries, and boarding schools. Sergei Pernikoza, a Ukrainian human rights activist and coordinator of the “Police Under Control” monitoring campaign, who has been visiting places where children are not free for more than seven years, came to the “Our House” voice chat room. We talked about how children live in places of detention, if the government helps teenagers in difficult life situations, and about what to expect for Ukrainian children after boarding schools and prisons.

– Sergey, in Belarus there are a lot of orphans who, after leaving an orphanage or losing their parents, respond to offers of easy earnings and end up in prison. Could you please tell us how Ukrainian children end up in prison?

– If you look at the system as a whole, a child first goes to an orphanage, where he stays until a certain age, then ends up in an educational institution, where he is only given housing for the period of his studies. The government provides for the children, but does not try to socialize and support them. There are no programs in orphanages and boarding schools to teach them how to handle finances. A person receives an allowance and doesn’t know what to do with it, because he hasn’t had a chance to use the money. He takes the path of least resistance and spends the money to obtain second pleasures. Under the influence of depression, he chooses the path of drugs and quits his life. As part of my activities, I visited a men’s prison in the Dnepropetrovsk region. We saw a list of people who are there, we wished to communicate. One prisoner said that he was in prison for drug possession. He was HIV-positive and had to be put on treatment, but he wasn’t given any medication and didn’t have much time to live. He also said that he was an orphan, had been in a boarding school, after that he went to college, did a little studying and started using drugs. The society didn’t see that the person was a drug addict and didn’t react. Another case – in the pre-trial detention center we met a man who was brought up in an orphanage. When he turned 18, he started vagabonding, because he didn’t have a place to live. He didn’t go to college, ended up on the street, and joined a religious institution where he was sexually abused. This affected his psyche and made him commit a crime.

– There is only one juvenile colony in Belarus – correctional colony No. 2 in Bobruisk. Girls serve their sentences with adult women. Is there a separate prison for underage girls in Ukraine and how do places of detention for girls and boys differ in principle?

– There is not much difference between places of detention for children of different genders. Very often boys and girls are in the same building, just in different sectors or on different floors. There is also no fundamental difference in the attitude of the staff – they are in the same conditions. Except that I have not met girls in pre-trial detention facilities: it is mostly boys who commit crimes. There is no division in orphanages and boarding schools – here boys and girls are usually in common groups. In psycho-neurological hospitals girls and boys are also together. By the way, the colonies in Ukraine are closing, the number of prisoners is being reduced there by liberalizing the criminal code. People choose other punishments: fines, correctional work. There are two juvenile colonies in Ukraine now. But there are not so many delinquent girls who have committed especially serious crimes. Despite the fact that the colonies are called correctional, not labor, people work there for 10-12 hours and get a penny. For a month of work, at best they can buy a pack of cigarettes – it’s a kind of slave labor.

– In Belarus, torture of children in detention is not unusual. For example, such cases happened to Nikita Zolotarev, Emil Ostrovko, and Vitaly Prokhorov. And how often do Ukrainian teenagers in conflict with the law face torture in prisons?

– Facts of torture of children in prisons in Ukraine are not systemic, but they exist. By torture we mean not only violence by the administration, but also violence by other child prisoners. We had a story in our practice of working with a young man who was bullied in a children’s colony by his peers under the patronage of the administration. He had no other choice but to kill the child who was abusing him. So he went to serve his sentence for murder, knowing full well that this would happen. He confessed that he committed the crime because he couldn’t stand it anymore, and the administration and the state couldn’t help him. It’s terrible that the government wasn’t concerned about what would happen to this man and pushed him to make this decision. But there is also the acute issue of punishing children in places of detention. There was no one-size-fits-all solution in the institutions. The staff tells us that they don’t give children candy if they don’t obey. It is not directly mentioned, but there are physical punishments basically. In this case, the child cannot explain that he was punished, and he gets a lifelong psychological trauma.

– Many children (orphans, orphaned children, kids from dysfunctional families) are left alone when they leave prison, there is no one to support them, they need to look for a job, and no one wants to hire an employee with a criminal records certificate. How can a child who has been through prison not go back there again in such conditions?

– Such children are doomed, by and large. If a child gets out of a place of detention and integrates, it’s a miracle. Society does not care about such situations, and, as a rule, the person returns to the same colony from which he came, because there are not many options. Either the colony, or the street, where people do not live long, or a psycho-neurological boarding school, where a mental disorder is written into the record, and the person stays there for the rest of his life. Very often in the colonies are those who have been there since childhood and returned four or five times. We want to do a project about children who graduated from orphanages, to tell how their lives turned out. There is a strong feeling that all of them, as a rule, end up in penal colonies. The government isn’t interested in them: as soon as they come of age, they can do whatever they want. There is an option to go to a psycho-neurological boarding school, where they will have a roof over their heads and where they can be fed. The worst situation is with the children who are in psycho-neurological hospitals and boarding schools. No one is interested in taking them out of this system, since increasing the number of patients in the institutions means more money. There is no motivation to work with people, to teach them, to help them in life. There are social rehabilitation programs only on paper, but they don’t really teach them anything. A child caught in this system cannot get out and socialize – it’s a life sentence. Institutions of this type must change the vector of their activities so that their effectiveness is determined by what they have been able to teach people. Children are much less protected than adults. We had a case where we found children in a neuropsychiatric institution who had not been outside for four months. When we asked why, someone told us it was because of the coronavirus. It turned out that one child tried to run away, and that’s why they stopped letting children out at all.

– In Belarus, in general, there are many facts of the use of punitive psychiatry on women and girls, but the government tries to hide them. So what happens with punitive psychiatry in Ukraine, where, as you said, a lot of children are kept in psychoneurological boarding schools?

– If such cases occur in Ukraine, there is a huge resonance in society. But children who have no parents or relatives are not interesting for the media. Therefore, such facts pass by. Moreover, many enter psycho-neurological residential institutions willingly, in exchange for food and a roof over their heads. It should be noted that such institutions are not located in city centers. There are buildings that are 80-90 kilometers away from the regional center, which means it is unrealistic to leave the place and get an education.

– Another important question that is impossible to avoid. How often do teenage pregnancies happen in places of detention for children?

– At the beginning of my response I would like to point out that pregnancy is one of the methods of reducing punishment in a pre-trial detention facility or a penal colony. If a woman gets pregnant, the judge can change her measure of restraint. In my practice there was a case where a woman was pregnant after being in a pre-trial detention facility for two years with prisoners of her own gender only. As for teenage pregnancy – the situation is catastrophic. Children stay in boarding schools until they are 16 years old, and sometimes even longer (until they finish school). They can have a sexual life at that age, and no one controls these moments, by default thinking that children do not have sex. Such facts do not become high-profile, society is not informed about them. There is no adequate work with children on birth control. The situation is very sad. We do not know about the facts of teenage pregnancy in places of detention, but this is not a positive thing – it is rather alarming. After all, we do have the facts of sexual relations between children, but they are hidden from us or dealt with in other ways. This topic should be dealt with in more detail, because it is unclear how much of this pregnancy was desirable, whether the underage girl wanted an abortion, where the babies who were born then end up.

– One last thing. How do you think it is possible to change the system of supporting children in places of detention, because right now it is not effective?

– This system must change, but it is wrong to take the system of another country and implement it in our society, because situations and people are different. It is necessary to take our own methodology, which is based on generally understood principles and adequate guidelines. For example, how many children came out of places of detention and were able to settle in life, how the state influenced this. Following this, it is possible to reform the system further. Why is this necessary? Because sooner or later children come out of these places and enter our society. And mostly they start committing crimes. Is society willing to spend money to live next door to someone who has been abused, who has been in horrible conditions?

At the end of the voice chat Sergei Pernikoza underlined that public attention to the issue of children’s lives in places of detention reduces the level of lawlessness that goes on there. The team of the ICCI “Our House” works according to the same principle – that’s why they talk about children-328, children-political prisoners in Belarus. We all believe that no child has the right to be deprived of freedom, all the more illegally, with torture and violence, with violations of basic rights and freedoms. And this system must change.

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International Centre for Civil Initiatives “Our House” in cooperation and with technical support of Belarus FM has produced numerous podcasts with a special focus on women and children who easily become victims of human rights violations under repressive regimes.
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