For the last 5 years, I have been a monitor of the National Preventive Mechanism, within the framework of which monitoring visits are carried out to places of captivity. There are about 5 thousand in Ukraine.
An unannounced monitoring visit is when you are not expected to be checked, when you surprise the bewildered staff of a psycho-neurological boarding school, a psychiatric hospital and other similar institutions, when they do not have time to cover up the marks of beatings on the faces of the wards, change dirty beds and colorful dressing gowns worn to holes with new ones, take the punished people out of the punishment cell and release the wards from the straitjackets. You can see the life of the boarding school in its everyday truthful naked form and reveal real violations of people’s rights. This is the prevention mechanism – one of the few that really works in Ukraine and protects human rights.
Sometimes, crossing the threshold of such an institution, you even think how they will surprise you with this time. And this time there was something surprising. The appearance of the monitoring group in the psycho-neurological boarding school of Dnepropetrovsk Region coincided with the time of distribution of food (breakfast): it is noisy in a long dark corridor, on the cold floor, already worn and peeled linoleum, patients lie in front of their wards and eat from the floor like dogs.
Holding an aluminum spoon, they bend down with difficulty and lap up soup from iron bowls resembling prison ones.
Passing by people who are greedily eating, rattling an iron spoon on a plate and scraping off the remnants of food, I see a man with paralysis of legs crawling, leaning on his elbows, his stump of the second leg and an empty trouser leg dragging behind him. His clothes are stained with excrement and the vomit smell of sewage joins the smell of dinner. The nurses rush about, resembling Brownian motion, not knowing what to grab onto.
Non-walking wards do not wait until they are transferred to wheelchairs, but crawl over worn-out linoleum along dirty walls. The one who can take care of himself helps to feed his neighbor, because only 2 nurses for 47 patients do not have time to feed everyone, often eating takes hours. Only 2 nurses should have time to wash and change the clothes of the wards, clean the room.
Looking into the eyes of the local residents of the boarding school, the thought involuntarily flashes that their appearance resembles desperate abandoned mongrels taught by fear.
They were taught to be humble and silent. Disobedience or complaints about living conditions, quality of food, complaints to inspectors or people from outside, conflicts with staff and other wards, refusal to eat or swallow pills – all this can be a reason for punishment, the worst of which is a punishment cell.
Despite the fact that there are few nurses here, they have almost unlimited power – it is they, and not the doctor, who decide for what, whom and for how long to tie or close in a cold punishment cell without water and food, with a slop bucket instead of a toilet. The number of bruises on the body of the ward depends on their mood and character. I was surprised at how many scars turn white on the short-cropped heads of the inhabitants of this boarding school.
I was beaten more than once – on the back, on the arms, on the head. And they beat me on my legs, even though I’m disabled and can’t feel them anymore, but it’s all the same. Do you see the scar on my head? – one of the wards in a wheelchair shows, – it was the nurse who hit him with something sharp, his whole face was covered with blood, it was very painful. – He puts his rough man’s hand in place of the former wound. “I was hit for asking to go to the toilet at night when everyone was sleeping.
We go into the TV room. This is what they call here a small room with one window, crammed full of wards – this is the place where walkers are rounded up every day, like cattle, so that they do not walk uncontrollably along the corridors and do not enter neatly cleaned rooms. So the wards are under the supervision of only one nurse and do not often have to be distracted by what they do in their free time, when the nurses have so much work. The walls of the room are up to half sheathed with plywood, a TV works on one wall, and along the perimeter there are wooden benches, on which the wards are forced to sit all day long.
The nurses threw two soiled Soviet blankets on the damp concrete floor, because not everyone here has enough space on the bench, they have to sit on this floor and watch the only entertainment here – the TV screen, and whoever is tired of it sleeps curled up under the bench.
Between the tightly seated men, a boy peeps timidly, he looks like a teenager, he is almost invisible. But what caught my eye was a boy tied up in a sheet and swaying on a bench. When asked on what grounds he was immobilized, the nurse immediately found something to answer:
– Oh, we tie him up so that it is more convenient to feed him. – And they quickly bring a plate of corn porridge to feed him defiantly.
– So we’ll feed him in a minute. And if you do not tie him up, then he interferes with his own hands, does not want to eat and runs away. We would not run after him.
It was absolutely clear that the boy was sitting so tied up all day long. For many years, straitjackets have been banned, but they are being replaced here with improvised means.
In another, much larger room, about 50 people are locked up for the whole day, some of them, who can no longer sit in front of the TV, lie on the floor covered with wooden pallets. They cannot leave not only the institution itself, but even to their room to lie down to rest, or to another floor. Think about it: a boarding school for these people is the only home for the rest of their lives, while having personal belongings here is an unaffordable luxury, and resting on a bed when you want is akin to a crime.
For nurses, such orders are perceived as something ordinary and quite acceptable, that these goons do not even have the right to count on human treatment. But in fact, this is a mockery, torture and humiliation of the dignity of people. The nurses do not understand that they owe these unfortunate people their work, which can hardly be found in remote villages. The paradox is that it is from the pension money of the residents of the boarding school that the salary of the staff is formed, with their pension, the wards pay for their accommodation and care.
In turn, those who do not agree with the order or are somehow trying to protect their rights are immediately pacified by threats or put in isolation.
Depersonalize, immobilize, silence and lie quietly so as not to cause unnecessary trouble – that’s what nurses strive to do. I look at them and understand that they have long become professionally deformed, soulless, immune to the suffering of people, exuding aggression and constant irritation, they are burned out and tired.
There is no need to talk about any socialization or rehabilitation, in this place they look like an unattainable fantasy. Even an elementary medical examination was carried out here 6 years ago, despite the fact that this is almost the most environmentally polluted region of Ukraine. According to the deputy director of the boarding school, half of the staff have oncology. There are no statistics on the wards, because no one has carried out diagnostics before.
The boarding system of captivity has several degrees of protection – hidden one in one: remoteness, then a high fence, security at the entrance, inside closed compartments or floors, and then the next degree of captivity – a punishment cell. Isolation is worse than in the places of detention, and prisoners are not as dependent on staff as residents of the psycho-neurological boarding school.
But the most shocking thing was that in this boarding school a group of wards established their control and constantly rapes other patients. The administration knows about it, but turns a blind eye. Patients are intimidated, closed in themselves.
Just imagine that you are beaten, periodically raped, and you cannot turn to anyone for help, no one will protect you. The local order is one to one, like in “black” and “red” prisons, where the “active” and the administration manage the entire institution.
It’s so easy to bully, intimidate, rape and beat defenseless sick people with impunity, those who cannot answer, stand up for themselves, who will not scream, run away, and sometimes do not even understand that their human dignity was violated.
Many wards are defenseless, like children. And although many cannot think sensibly, they have not lost the ability to feel, they are even more sensitive to pain. For the first time I see the boarding school where 17 out of 300 wards are fugitives, and this is quite understandable.
Until 2026, it is planned to close boarding schools and completely abandon them in Ukraine. A reasonable alternative to this unhealthy Soviet relic, worked out on the experience of developed countries, is the system of supportive living, family-type centers.
Family living is aimed at restoring the social and labor skills of people who have completely lost them in the residential system, as well as at relieving families who find it difficult to independently take care of a person with a mental or physical disability.
Without a supportive living system, reform is impossible, because boarding schools have no competitors, they are both customers and providers of social services at the same time, which creates a vicious circle of lack of rights for residents of boarding schools, the absence of external control.