Jenya, the Warden, sits at the head of the long, worn wooden table and recites the prison rules; the guards, like the room, sit in a clumsy array of extravagant regalia. Perched beneath a dusty, crooked picture of the country's President, Jenya loosens his tie; his face softens as he finishes his monologue, he corrects his hair by flattening it onto his forehead and suddenly switching to English asks us to follow him. We are visiting a penitentiary centre, in Prylucky, situated in the Chernihiv Oblast of Ukraine, to find out why so many juvenile prisoners go on to spend a life in-and-out of the prison system; a system where, in some areas, they are statistically more likely to contract HIV than not.
The guards lead the way, their large official hats sitting awkwardly on their heads. We walk in the uneven shadow of the old prison, a huge building deemed to unsafe to use, it’s dilapidated stone front slowly crumbling into the immaculately pruned courtyard below. Inside the main building, the corridors are lined with artwork, the standard is particularly high; later, whilst visiting the dorms, we see one piece done in pencil, that depicts a boy sitting, gazing through half worn-out prison bars onto a beautiful meadow; the boy who drew this had told the Warden what it means - “even if I am locked up here, in my mind, I can be free”. We enter a room where the inmates sit quietly around a circular table; they are wearing oversized bright blue jumpsuits and all have shaved heads. As our eyes begin to adjust to the generic prison uniform their features begin to become more pronounced. The psychologist starts his group session, he is full of life, animated and energetic; his eyes are kind and later he talks to me about the emotional attachment he forms to these kids. The smallest boy in the group is the only one to interact, he soon walks off to get a kettle for some tea and the boys sit in silence. The moment lingers uneasily and draws to our attention the vacant expressions that the boys wear; their eyes appear unfocused, betraying no emotion. They obediently do as they are told, but until they are left alone, they give little away.
The atmosphere is soporific; the guards yawn regularly, slouching on the cheap plastic chairs. The boys move on to attend a sermon held by a local church group. A collection of around 8 priests talk to the boys from a stage, singing and gesticulating whilst the boys stare blankly back. The boys are an obedient audience, they sing every hymn and recite every prayer; afterwards one of the boys claims that religion will form the rules for which he will lead his life by. The boys have committed a range of crimes from murder and rape to petty theft, but all of them will carry the stigma of having spent much of their youth in this institution, for the rest of their life. This makes it hard to find employment, and the church, is often, the only place where they can seek support - the only alternative to committing another crime and going back to prison where they will be given food and shelter.
The afternoon’s group session is on HIV; the psychologist is debunking some of the myths that the boys have picked up. He tells them that HIV cannot be transmitted by mosquito bites, shaking hands or through the air. These boys belong to an incredibly vulnerable group in society; many of the ex-juvenile prisoners have been exposed to intravenous drugs when they leave. You sense that behind the nods, the prayers, and the obedience lays their human side; a side they are too afraid to show. Perhaps that’s why their artwork is so impressive and why so many turn to drugs in the outside world – as a form of escapism.
Drug use is rife in prison and the government refuses to provide prisoners with substitution therapy, meaning it is almost impossible for prisoners to rid themselves of their addiction. The lack of clean syringes in prisons is one of the key drivers behind the countries HIV epidemic. As one ex-convict we met later in Dnipropetrovs’k said “it felt strange when I left prison; inside most of us seem to have HIV, but when I came out suddenly I felt like I was sick, like it was not normal”.