Experts gathered in Ukraine to discuss ways to ensure prisoners’ basic rights and needs are met during and after the war, as well as to ensure penal reform efforts continue as Ukraine rebuilds.
Kyiv, Ukraine, 21 June 2023 - While the war in Ukraine continues, leaving nearly 40 per cent of Ukraine’s population in need of humanitarian aid, it has also caused an estimated USD 1.4 billion loss to the justice and public administration sectors. In some parts of the country where there is relative stability, the difficult process of recovery, reconstruction and strengthening the rule of law has begun.
To meet the urgent need to provide safety and security to Ukraine’s prisons in the midst of war, the Ukrainian Ministry of Justice convened an International Penitentiary Forum in Kyiv on 21 June 2023 with the support of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Delegations from 18 member states, civil society, and experts gathered to discuss responses to the negative impact of the war on prison management, conditions, and the treatment of prisoners.
Challenges of prison security and safety in wartime
The damage to the country’s penitentiary and probation institutions became severe enough that Ukraine’s Minister of Justice, Denys Maliuska, highlighted prison security, safety and basic needs as one of the country’s greatest worries in November 2022.
Since the start of the war, many facilities have been badly damaged and some completely destroyed.
“Thousands of prisoners have been evacuated from affected areas, and this evacuation effort is ongoing,” said Denise Brown, United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Ukraine.
Severe shortages of energy, heating, water, generators, bedding, and medical supplies has made it difficult for Ukraine’s National Penitentiary Service to provide for prisoners’ basic needs.
Nor can the Service fully engage in crisis preparedness or its planned efforts at institutional reform to align its operations with European and international prison standards.
“The most immediate tasks for us all are to ensure the basic security of people and premises, meet prisoners’ basic needs, manage the evacuation of thousands of prisoners from conflict-affected regions, and reduce vulnerabilities to avoid further destabilization,” said Ms. Brown.
During the penitentiary forum in Kyiv, Minister Maliuska reiterated that past and future support from UNODC and other partners would be instrumental in accomplishing these tasks.
Supporting Ukraine’s justice system
In December 2022, UNODC undertook a technical mission to Kyiv, Ukraine to assess emergency needs in the country’s State Penitentiary and Probation Services and to investigate prospects for UNODC support.
As a result of the mission, UNODC proposed a new programme, Penitentiary Assistance in response to the Armed Conflict and Emergency Needs in Ukraine (PACE.UA).
The program aims to ensure that prison and offender management become part of the humanitarian and emergency response in Ukraine, thereby stabilizing the operations of the Penitentiary and Probation Services. It would further work to strengthen the crisis preparedness and response capacity of both Services, reducing the impact of future potential disruptions. Finally, it would strive to help continue institutional reform efforts in the Ministry of Justice, with an emphasis on supporting effectiveness, transparency, accountability and human rights compliance.
Ms. Olena Vysotska, Deputy Minister of Justice of Ukraine, underlined the importance of the programme. "Despite the extreme challenges facing us – martial law, the constant threat of rocket attacks and limited resources – we continue to work to reform the penitentiary system. The PACE project, developed in partnership with UNODC, provides an excellent opportunity for this."
The delegations from 18 countries expressed their solidarity and readiness to support the Prison and Probation Services, including through in-kind contributions, expertise in different aspects of prison management, crisis management and contingency planning as well as the exchange of experiences in pursuing prison and penal reform efforts.
The Minister of Japan, Ken Saitō, emphasized that he had “nothing but deep respect for the Government of Ukraine’s foresight of looking into the future of the penal institution system despite such difficult times.” He pointed to the forthcoming G7 Justice Ministers meeting as a forum that focussed on supporting Ukraine in the field of justice and the rule of law.
In his concluding remarks, Serhiii Hrechaniuk, the Head of the Department for the Execution of Criminal Sentences, stressed that “with the support of UNODC, we are building an international coalition of support for the penitentiary system of Ukraine. This coalition will work with us to provide urgent help where it is most needed: prison safety and security, the rehabilitation of prisoners as well as emergency response and recovery.”