Quarantines in Ukraine's Prisons: Interview With Deputy Justice Minister Olena Vysotska
26 March, 2020
The daily medical checkup for inmates and staff in prison. Denys Malyuska, presented to Hromadske

250 people have turned to medical help after presenting flu symptoms in Ukraine’s prisons, according to information given on March 20. They have all been isolated and are receiving treatment. The Ministry of Justice doesn’t see any risks in the current situation, and notes that over the 53,000 inmates in Ukraine’s prisons, 250 is an irrelevant amount. 

Hromadske spoke to the deputy Minister of Justice Olena Vysotska to find out how the quarantine has been affecting Ukraine’s prisons, jails, and penal colonies.

Have there been any restrictive measures added to prisons because of the quarantine?

We’ve issued a few orders about special measures to be taken in connection with the threat of coronavirus infection.

First of all, the measures taken are focused on preventing infection into these places. That is, we’ve restricted people’s access to these places. Lawyers can still visit, but everyone else – journalists, relatives – no. But we’re working on making communication with defense lawyers go through video calls. In a few places, we’ve already set up internet classes, though not in all. In any case, medical personnel are checking the temperatures of everyone who enter the prison.

People are banned from eating in the cafeteria all at once. This happens in groups by cells. Yard time is also not all together, but in groups. All prison transfers in Ukraine have been stopped, and people do not rotate between penal colonies.

The only threat now are pre–trial detention centers, in which we have new arrivals who have only recently been detained. For us, they’re a big problem in general, due to lack of space, but regardless we’ve allocated specialized places, in which the new arrivals can spend their two-week quarantine period.

Are there any people currently imprisoned with symptoms of the disease?

We’ve organized daily checkups of all prisoners and staff. At the beginning of the day, these are workers who could be allowed to work, and over the course of the day – convicts and inmates – either for isolation, or for treatment. 

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On today’s day, there are 250 people have turned to the doctors with flu symptoms. They’ve been isolated and are receiving treatment. They are not in a critical state, and this is usually normal for the spring season. That’s why there isn’t any panic. For 53,000 convicts and inmates – this is not a large statistical amount. There are currently no large threats.

Are there enough medical staff?

The doctors have their protocols, and our international partners are also providing us with methodological assistance – how to act. We’ve created an infection commission, which gathers daily to analyze the situation in a given prison, whether there’s enough room for isolation, the quarantine, or treatment of symptoms. 

When there’s a case of coronavirus symptoms, we have to conduct a laboratory investigation. In a confirmed situation, we will treat them in the usual centers of the Ministry of Health.

We currently have enough medical personnel for the functions we use them for – checkups and treatment of light conditions. People in worse conditions will be transferred, and there we’ll help and the Ministry of Health.

Disinfection of a prison (left) and informative work (right). Photo: Denys Malyuska, presented to hromadske

Is there enough medicine?

We have masks, gloves, but we’re using them quite intensively, as check-ups have been significantly increased and the equipment is very quickly spent. That’s why we’re asking for the Ministry of Economic Development and the Ministry of Health, as well as our partners and donors for assistance with equipping our medical staff.

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Are you conducting coronavirus tests for those with typical coronavirus symptoms?

We’re not testing. We’re gathering laboratory samples and sending them to the Ministry of Health. We haven’t had a single confirmed case of coronavirus infection.

Do you disinfect the cells?

As per protocol, we’ve started cross ventilation – more than usual, and additional cleaning with disinfectants.

Are you informing the inmates?

The cells are equipped with televisions, and we’re offering everyone methodological and consultative information – what symptoms you should pay attention to, what additional hygienic procedures you should do, how coronavirus spreads – all of this information and brochures are pasted to the walls.

But we understand that they spend a lot of time watching television, which is why the mass media is also important, what they explain.

Disinfection of a prison (left) and informative work (right). Photo: Denys Malyuska, presented to hromadske

Have there been any simulations, or maybe riots, because of these restrictive measures?

We were worried, we waited for dissatisfaction in connection to the ban on visits, but there hasn’t been any dissatisfaction, riots, or disorder.

The biggest burden is on the doctors. They're there as both medics and psychologists. They’re trying to explain it to everyone and talk to everyone.

Are there any court hearings or investigative actions going on with the prisoners?

Everything’s been rescheduled. We rescheduled a lot of procedural things. In every case we consider the objectiveness of this rescheduling and on what duration. The relatives of the inmates continue their support, and parcels are not banned.

How long will these measures last?

We’re creating these orders indefinitely, as we are not aware of how long and which measures will be redundant. That’s why we gradually already will be cancelling some or other points once we understand that the plan has to change or be added to.

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