Probation in Ukraine. Stories of convicts who got a chance to be rehabilitated in the community

Jul 17, 2020 | Justice, Probation
In European countries, imprisonment is an exceptional measure of punishment. After all, its negative impact on mentality and behavior of anyone who has ever been behind bars has long been proven. For the most part, people who have committed minor crimes and who do not endanger the lives and health of others are got back on track in a community where offenders serve non-custodial sentences.

Such a convict may be required to undergo rehabilitation to get rid of certain addictions, they may be assigned free work for the benefit of the community, may be barred from communicating with a certain group of persons, and conditions may be determined for violation of which they may be imprisoned.

Probation is an alternative to imprisonment. This is a chance for a person who has committed an offense not to become a criminal in the eyes of the community but to correct his mistake in the eyes of the community, to compensate for the material and moral damage. With the professional support of probation staff, social services and activists, a hostage of his fate serves the sentence imposed by the court, but does not lose socially useful ties, stays in the community and family, learns to see his mistakes and correct them and finds new friends and comes back to law-abiding life.

In Ukraine, this practice was introduced in February 2015 after the Law "On Probation" was adopted. Since 2017, after the decision of the Cabinet of Ministers under the leadership of the State Institution "Probation Center" in all cities and districts probation bodies are established that not only provide control over the enforcement of sentences without imprisonment (as once criminal executive inspections did), but also via using modern international practices and tools identify the reasons that motivated a person to commit a crime and help to provide comprehensive lifestyle change assistance to create an environment in which the offender will seek to live without committing new crimes. Authorities, non-governmental organizations and people concerned who become probation volunteers help in this endeavor.

In the joint special TSN.ua project with the Probation Center and EU Project Pravo-Justice we are telling success stories of socialization of convicts. Our journalists met such people in Kivertsi, Kharkiv, Bila Tserkva and Chernihiv to learn about the role of the Probation Center in their lives, personal achievements and plans for the future which not so long ago could have been nullified if they were imprisoned.

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The story of Olena who is building a happy childhood for her own children to protect them from her mistakes

Because of difficult living conditions Olena Tabenska was imprisoned, but the court released her from serving her sentence with a probation period. Several times the woman "stumbled" and almost found herself behind bars again. But now she is learning to be a good mother, is trying to get education and become a masseur.

Olena, a resident of Kivertsi that is in Volyn had committed more than one crime by the age of thirty, the most serious of which is the sale of her own child. Her story was actively written covered by the media and her actions were criticized on social networks for a valid reason. Now Olena wants to correct the mistakes of the past and exerts efforts to become a full-fledged part of a society in which myths "live" and there is a prejudice against those who have been through imprisonment.

Because of difficult living conditions and her antisocial behavior (as a challenge to the whole world) Olena found herself in prison. However, the court later released her from serving her sentence with a probation period until she her second child became five years of age, giving her a chance to be corrected in the Kivertsi community. Now the woman is registered in the local Kivertsi district sector of the State Institution "Probation Center" in the Volyn region, raising her own two children, is endeavoring to obtain education and become a masseur.

…We have a pretty woman in front of us: a blouse, ordinary jeans and a shiny engagement ring on her finger give no hint that she has been through a lot.

She hides her face behind a homemade mask because we talk during quarantine. She also hides it because she is worried about her two children - she does not want them to learn from passers-by about their mother's bad past. However, in a few minutes of honest conversation she will see herself in the photo, smile, say, "Is my neck so beautiful?" She will relax, trust and start telling her story.

… Her troubles started from the very childhood. She was found at the train station in the capital. She was screaming horribly and did not let men close to her. She looked four years old and she couldn't tell anything about herself except that her name was Olena. She ended up in an orphanage. Then she was brought up in a family-type orphanage where there were about two dozen children. This is where our story could end without beginning. However, this is where Olena's story began. Olena wanted the most attention and parental love, and, not getting what she wanted, tried to prove her independence.

"There was no way I could come and cry on her shoulder (mother's - ed.) or tell her something ... I did not understand my parents then and how difficult it was for them with us. I really believed that I would be better off without them,” says the heroine of our story with regret.

Social workers who frequently visited the family, in part because of Olena's misconduct, heard the "rebel's" wishes and insisted on a separate housing for Olena after she came of age. The room was allocated in the same house, but with a separate entrance and separate domestic routines still to be adjusted. She also had to think about food.

When she flew out of the "nest", she was on the breadline. The "official list" of various "jobs" even included selling in pornographic materials. Olena gives it a simple explanation, she says someone hacked her social network account and shared her photos from the club.

"I was called to the police and they told I was selling such photos. What can I say? If I sold such photos, I would at least have some money,” the girl explains sadly.

Alcohol and "drinking buddies" drove out of the girl's life people who for many years had tried to become a real family for her. But anyway, more problems were coming. Olena got pregnant.

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We danced in a company (her foster mother takes care of Zoretsvit dance theater and engages in it her foster children - ed.). We were treated after the performance. I felt sick, I turned white. I was very worried and the doctor said that I would become a mother.

The girl was named Yana. However, from the very beginning Olena's lifestyle prevented her from becoming a good mother for her first child. Unfortunately, the lack of trusting relationships with foster mother, the fact that she did not accept foster family as a role model and the desire to live without restrictions and excessive responsibility have led to irreparable.

News soon spread around Volyn that a young woman wanted to sell her three-year-old daughter. Olena assures that she was set up, that she was envied especially since she had no means to publish advertisement for the sale of a child when she had no phone or computer then. Anywhere, Olena and her roommate were caught red-handed selling a child for $ 20,000. Who knows what really prompted her to take such a step, perhaps a desire for her child to live a better life? All these horrible facts of her biography eventually led to court and prison.

Criminal case on the sale of a child was being heard… And Olena was already pregnant again. One house arrest was followed by another, one hearing by another. In the end - sentence and imprisonment.

"It was difficult at first. I was shocked. I went into a room in prison and really thought I would break down. I was utterly discouraged. And I also had to think about the child," adds Olena. She says that it was then that she realized that she did not want to be put behind the bars again and really wanted to return to normal life.

Olena was serving her sentence in Odesa, almost a thousand kilometers away from home. Therefore, there were no visitors who would bring her food and give her moral support. She says being imprisoned is not what is shown in films about prisons. The women are friendly, help each other, take care of the children together, they live together as if in a dormitory, although, according to her, there are younger girls in prison.

"There is no hair pulling or anything like that. But you get there, and you want to cry - not because of yourself. But you look at them, and you want to cry that they are so small, but already here,” says the woman.

"As soon as I was brought to Odesa, I got a letter that I was deprived of my parental rights. A week later, I learned that she (the eldest daughter - Ed.) was adopted. I didn't want to hurt her again, I didn't look for her. I hope she is fine,” said former prisoner.

There was not much time to regret about what had been done as her second child was born. Olena realized that she did not want her life to roll downhill and did not want her new child's life become like hers. A few months later, she was released from prison. The court set Olena a probation period until her younger daughter becomes five years old. During this period, the woman must prove that she has really changed so that she does not find herself behind bars again. So Olena was registered with the probation body where she is still registered.

Probation is a fairly new concept for Ukraine which appeared with the adoption in 2015 of the Law of Ukraine "On Probation". This is a new system of working with offenders enabling their rehabilitation and creating a balance between public safety and crime prevention.

The Probation Center staff "get acquainted" with a person when he/her is still at the stage of pre-trial investigation. The person is in the status of the accused. At this stage, the probation staff member is a neutral person, unlike an attorney, police officer or prosecutor, and must gather comprehensive information for the court about the circumstances of the defendant's life that affect the risk of misconduct and prepare a report on the possibility of setting things straight without imprisonment (probation).

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The main task of working with convicts registered with the probation authorities is to motivate people to make positive changes, help them understand themselves, their past, determine what they wants, and support them on the path of change. Probation is an opportunity for change.

Yet, a person changes his/her life on his own. There are cases when a person does not appreciate such an opportunity, and because of violation of the conditions of such punishment he is imprisoned.

"This practice is international, and we use the best practices of Canada, Great Britain, Norway, the Netherlands and other European countries," said Olha Zakharchuk, head of Kivertsi district sector of Probation Center in Volyn region.

Now, beside Olena, there are 89 other probation clients in the district with whom four employees of the local probation unit work. They know every story, they look for unique approach to everyone.

After Olena returned to the small town with a newborn baby, there were new hardships. After all, the story of this young woman was well-known in the community. Olena was in the hotspot of all possible agencies.

Staff of Kivertsi District State Administration, social services, religious organizations and Kivertsi District Probation Sector that joined efforts to prevent the girl from stumbling again played an important role in Olena and her daughter's lives. All possible agencies in the town started cooperating and together they sought an opportunity to motivate Olena to change her behavior. Various methods and techniques were used, from instructions about how to raise children, especially girls, to the rules of hygiene and the culture of behavior and communication. They supported her with clothes and other things.

Not everything turned out easily. Olena came unhinged, drank alcohol again… And it all started again… Friends with antisocial behavior, loud debauches in front of her little daughter - this contradicted the requirements of the court to be released. As a result, regular visits by probation officers in conjunction with social services and, ultimately, police officers. Such behavior led to another court hearing on cancelling of probation period. Only realizing that this is the edge, Olena remembered the recent horrors, remembered how she promised herself to protect her daughter from such a fate.

Tears… There were plenty of them. The court took into account all the circumstances of the case and the young woman's desire to become a real mother and gave another chance. Probably this moment was a turning point in Olena's life.

The joint tenacious work of local probation, social services and the police did not stop. Again conversations, visits to the place of residence and "educating" already grown-up Olena with new methods. This time, Olena stopped being scornful and began to fulfill the tasks set by the probation officers.

Olha Zakharchuk says that Olena's probation officers were looking for ways to motivate her to perform those actions not only via their individual approach, but also even having regard to her mood and desire to make contact one time or another. The patience and professionalism of the specialists gave positive results. Olena started a family and gave birth to a son. Dreams of a happy family became true for her.

Volodymyr Zhhutov, head of Kivertsy United Territorial Community says that the situation with Olena Tabenska is constantly under the control of the city council as the character of our story belongs to the category of socially vulnerable citizens. Traditionally, gifts are given to her and her children on various holidays, she is invited to events and master classes organized in the city. As she is temporarily living in a room that was previously transferred to a family-type orphanage, the woman is now in line for social housing. The City Council said that non-governmental organization "Station of Good" is also helping her via engaging a young woman in various events. Supervision by probation staff does not stop - they are the ones who make sure that the young mother "does not fail" under the burden of hardships but moves further - to make her dream come true.

"In Olena's case, it was a systemic job and everyone helped. We also constantly analyze each specific situation and try to eliminate risk factors, such as the negative environment so that a person does not re-offend. And we need to find our own approach to each person,” says Olha Zakharchuk.

The official also explains that the first negative factors in behavior are formed in childhood, in the family, much depends on the environment outside the family. The desire to get quick and easy money, family problems, lack of life skills and other risk factors often prompt young people to commit crimes.

Adding to the anxiety is the fact that the convicts are getting younger. If some time ago economic and property offenses were committed by older generation, now 80% of criminals are young people.

"It's scary because it's our youth, it's our future, our hope for tomorrow. You can't stand aside and be indifferent here, and that's why our service takes preventive action,” adds Olha Zakharchuk.

"Sometimes people need to be given time and opportunity to understand that their destiny is in their hands. Probation is a chance to correct the mistakes of the past by avoiding the prison routine. We are now taking preventive action. We work with social services, children's services, psychologists, various charitable, religious and community organizations that help people in need. The community itself to where a person will return also plays an important role. Is the community ready to support rather than condemn the one who stumbled? The safety of each community is a shared responsibility,” said the head of the probation department.

The Probation Center meets the person while he is still at the pre-trial stage. The person is in the status of the accused. From this stage, our staff member joins because in this case the person trusts us more than the police, court or prosecutor's office. We are interested in showing people more positive things.

The story of our heroine can be compared to that of Baron Munchausen who pulled himself by his pigtail out of the swamp. In her case, this rescue "pigtail" was local probation body and friendly agencies which all made it their mission to save Olena.

"If we make a decision to save a person, it will not work, because it will only be our decision. It is very important to bring a person to the point where he/she understands that his/her life must be saved and makes some steps to do so. That is why it is necessary to show people other, positive aspects of life, some good moments,” the interlocutor emphasizes.

Olena is grateful to herself for finding the strength to change the negative pattern, to her husband to be who helps and supports her in every possible way, to the relevant services which worked not to "tick" the work done, but to save human life.

"If there was no God, I would still be there (in the colony - Ed.). But God willing and I came back. I'm happy. And I want to say to other women: "Think!". Think about how the punishment for your actions will then affect your children. "Listen!" Listen to yourself, listen to relevant advice of caring people. Believe in God and everything will be fine,” Olena sums up this story.

The main character's unhappy childhood and unawareness of the consequences of "live for today" which later led to an attempt to sell her own child, imprisonment and help of the "Probation Center" led to the fact that Olena Tabenska wanted to live a normal life, came under the influence of organized probation of social services, public organizations and most importantly - was able to take the opportunity to set things straight and become a real mother to their children.

Currently, the young woman is on maternity leave raising two children. Her daughter is now four, and younger son is one year old. She does not mind becoming a mother again provided that the living conditions are appropriate. She studied to be a tailor at a vocational school, but her eyesight deteriorated. Now he wants to get a proper education and become a masseur.

Olena and her family have few means, she and her husband even use one mobile phone. However, together they rejoice every day. And the engagement ring on her finger is a sign that in summer the betrothed will get married after so many trials Olena has been through.