On February 26, 2021, I met up with Yaroslav Malko, Founder and President of Global Christian Support, along with Vitaliy Smolin, a Police Chaplain (who is Ukrainian born, a Naturalized US Citizen and a missionary to Ukraine). We met at the Zhytomyr Institution of the Execution of Punishments (No. 8) (prison), Ukraine, on a bright Friday morning. Yaroslav had been building a relationship with the Warden and staff for a few months, and set up this meeting and interaction. This is all very new here, so there were many hoops to jump through, approvals to get, and red tape to work through.
Personally, I was really excited about the meeting as I’ve been trying to get into a Ukrainian prison for years! That sounds odd, but having worked for the US Federal Bureau of Prisons for almost two decades, you could see why I would be interested in Ukraine’s prisons. I have to admit that I was actually a little nervous because our cultures are so different. Would I be received well? Would they really want to hear about the Federal Bureau of Prisons and my experiences there? Would we connect, as being in the same profession?
Initially, we met with Warden Andriy Kvasny (Квасний Андрій Вікторович) and his head of Human Resources and spent about 2 hours getting to know each other and talking shop. I really enjoyed talking to Warden Kvasny and was impressed with his dedication and professionalism, but also at how open he was to meeting with me and sharing experiences. We covered a variety of topics like maintenance of the prison, staff morale, the type of prisoners housed at his prison, etc… I immediately felt a kinship with him as we are cut from the same cloth.
We left the Warden’s complex which was outside the prison and then went inside the prison where I gave a seminar lecture on the topic ′′The principles of operation of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP) in the United States of America ." Many different department heads within the prison came to the presentation. Since I worked for the US Federal Bureau of Prisons for over 17 years, I was able to give them a good overview of the security levels, some recent statistics, qualifications for hiring, re-entry into society, etc... all which gave them a good overview of the FBOP.
You don’t realize how different things can be until you get into a topic, and although I’ve lived in Ukraine over 14 years, I met up a with a few differences I didn’t really know or think about. For instance, since all of the prisons in Ukraine are Federal, one of the things I had to explain was how the US has different prisons and different jurisdictions . . . federal, state, county, etc... This included defining which crimes were federal or state.
After the presentation, I opened things up for questions. Some of the first questions were the typical questions I receive, like do I like Ukraine, do I miss the USA, etc… There was a moment or two of quiet and I wondered if they would truly feel comfortable asking questions, because often in the culture here people are reserved. But then things opened up and there was a lot of talk and interaction. As we got comfortable with each other in some preliminary corrections type questions, many other questions were asked. For example, what is the discipline procedure for an inmate who refuses an order. Or, what discipline measures are taken for staff when they don’t follow policy; even questions about gangs within the prison.
I was able to share a number of stories to illustrate procedures and polices within the FBOP and expand on my experience. We all laughed at some of the stories I told as they knew exactly what I was talking about, having encountered the same situation. Despite the language and cultural differences, we were all the same in our desires to do a good job, be professional, and to learn and expand our knowledge. I was very relieved that they enjoyed the presentation and asked a lot of questions.
Chaplain Vitaliy was an excellent translator during this process and was a huge part of my being able to fully communicate with the Warden and his staff. Because he has lived in the US, Vitaliy was able to catch many of the American cultural things, like idioms and phrases, and translate them effectively. But the thing I liked most about Vitaliy was his ability to take on my emotion and mannerisms as he translated for me. Excellent job!
Following the presentation, I was given a tour of the prison by Warden Kvasny. This was a huge honor as very few people get a tour of a prison here, especially foreigners. It took quite a bit of paperwork to get permission for Vitaliy and me to enter the prison as we are American citizens. We walked down the different worn down stone halls and went into different units, and my feet trod where hundreds of people have walked through the years. Some of the sights reminded me of Alcatraz, an old decommissioned prison in the US that is now a museum. What history these walls have seen!
On the books, Zhytomyr Institution of Execution of Punishments (No. 8) is 107 years old ! After being open for some time, it was officially named a prison in 1914 (when Russia invaded Ukraine and set up the USSR). The prison houses pre-trial inmates, a small cadre of sentenced inmates and a fairly large population of male prisoners doing life sentences. There was a small pre-trial unit for women and they had one (1) juvenile in pre-trial. When I was on the women’s unit, one of the ladies jokingly asked if I was there to take them to a US prison; prisoners are the same everywhere!
As we walked through the prison, Warden Kvasny, explained some of the maintenance and repairs that are required for such an old facility. I was really impressed at how he and his staff are able to keep things running and their ingenuity at getting things taken care of with their limited budget.
Finishing the inside tour, we exited the back of one of the buildings and took a look around the outside of the prison. I was shown the wall where executions took place up until WWII; it was a bit eerie to look at all the bullet holes on the wall and know that each one ended a life. And if you don’t know anything about WWII in Ukraine, Ukrainians were executed by both sides (German & Soviet) for many different reasons and Ukraine lost over 11 million people, the 2nd highest death rate of all the nations in WWII.
The prison has two (2) high thick brick fences around the prison with 2 metal fences in between them. If an inmate actually gets over the first brick wall and all the razor wire, then the towers can shoot to kill (AK-47 weapons). They also use patrols with dogs within those fences. I was also shown an armored Emergency Response Vehicle that staff train with and are prepared to use. Their Response Team handles situations at their institution but they are also back-up for other institutions.
My tour ended with Warden Kvasny and me stepping aside and sharing some last thoughts and ideas just between us. I tried to encourage him and share my appreciation for him taking the time out of his schedule to meet with me. We are both looking forward to future interactions and trainings.
I was told later as I drove home, that Warden Kvasny had reported to the Central Office in Kyiv about the visit and that they were very pleased with the events. The Central Office indicated that it wanted to meet with me in the future. Since I was just a few days away from a trip to the US, the meeting will be planned for May or June 2021.
The Department of Execution of Criminal Punishment (prisons) posted about this trip as well on Facebook and on their official page.
Warden Kvasny introducing Chaplain Vitaliy Smolinand myself, and two of me giving the presentation.