The story of Hryhorii who after 8 prison terms and drug addiction became probation volunteer and a successful entrepreneur

Jul 18, 2020 | Judiciary, 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. 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 Hryhorii who after 8 prison terms and drug addiction became probation volunteer and a successful entrepreneur

After treatment at the rehabilitation center, former prisoner Hryhorii Tonkyi put things right and opened his own construction company.

Hryhorii Tonkyi is a resident of Chernihiv who has a difficult fate. He was convicted several times. When he was young, he became a drug addict. Lack of money for another dose prompted him to commit crimes. Although the man tried to get rid of the addiction and start a new life, each time he was released from prison, he made his mistakes again. His crimes and drug addiction hurt his loved ones.

However, probation to which he was sentenced by the court became the point of no return for him. Hryhorii was sentenced to imprisonment for another crime, but was released from serving his sentence on parole with probation. For three years he worked on changes in his life together with the probation inspector (at that time the penitentiary inspection), where he got assistance to understand himself, his past and find the strength and people who supported him on the path of change.

Hryhorii is a somewhat unique person who, despite his past, started a new life and everything worked out for him. Having gone through a rather difficult and tragic path, he decided to help others.

Now Hryhorii has become a probation volunteer and conducts social and educational work with probation clients, by personal example motivates the same addicts as he used to be many years ago to internal change. He has a large family. The man became a private entrepreneur, has a construction business and is now working to buy his own home for his family.

Today he quickly opens the door of Novozavodsk probation department. Jumping over the stairs, he goes to the second floor. He walks quickly down the corridor. This path is familiar to him and he went through it many times: once as a convict, and now as a probation volunteer. He stops in front of the office of Yuliia Vasylenko, head of the Novozavodsk District Department of the Probation Center in Chernihiv region whose client he used to be, and now they work together to help others.

Where it all comes from: the prisoner's childhood

Hryhorii Tonkyi is the second child in a large family. Their parents had five kids. The youngest is a girl, and all the boys are troublemakers. Hryhorii was born in Kyiv. However, when he was very young, their family moved to Russia.

There he studied until the 5th grade in a Russian-language school. He studied well, “When we returned to Ukraine in 1994," Hryhorii Tonkyi recalls, we settled in my father's family home in Brovary. There was no Russian-language school nearby. I was sent to the 5th grade of a Ukrainian school. That's when my first problems started. I did not understand the teachers. Ukrainian seemed to me a rather complicated language. I was no longer interested in lessons. And I went to the streets. I skipped lessons."

"I was confused at that time - I felt sadness and relief at the same time. Although, I can't say that I had nothing common with my father. There were times when we had good relations with him, but so rare” the man recalls.

The parents did not notice their son's school problems at once. After moving to Ukraine, they could not find a well-payed job for a long time. My father started drinking. And the mother, who somehow tried to provide for the children, was too tired to bring children up.

That's when the unbearable years of my childhood began. I did not want to come home at all. When I was 12, I drank alcohol and smoked. I was in a bad company. The older boys were always encouraging. I was more interested in them than in home. When I came home, my father always tried to moralise me. Of course, it was unpleasant for me, especially when he was drunk. At that time I could already stand up for myself, but I didn't really want to worry my mother even more… It lasted for three years. And then my father died.

Another tragedy happened in their family within a year. Hryhorii's elder brother died in a car crash. His mother was very saddened by the loss of her son. Hryhorii drifted even farther sway, trying to brighten his life in another way - alcohol, entertainment.

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Criminal youth

Hryhorii was for the first time convicted in 1998: “At the age of 14, my friends and I committed grand theft. We robbed warehouses - state property," tells Hryhorii. "That's how I got the first term, although I was amnestied during the investigation. I did not stop there. That is why in less than a year, I was caught again. This time I was sent to a juvenile prison in Dubno, Rivne region.

"When he was released, he continued his wrongdoings. He started using drugs. "I immediately got addicted to hard drugs. I used heroin, methadone. When there was not enough money, methadone would do."

And in 2001 he found himself in Bila Tserkva high-security penal colony. There, in the colony, he finished 9th grade. He served his sentence there for almost four years. The desire to get "easy money" and the negative influence of friends who also did not know how to live according to the law outweighed common sense. Now Hryhorii admits that he did not know and could not do anything else then. This was a pattern of behavior he learned from childhood. He simply did not understand how to live without violating the law.

On and off, Hryhorii tried to go back to a healthy lifestyle. To do this, he even registered at a rehabilitation center near Chernihiv. He learned about it from his sister. Although she lived in another country, she did not lose hope of saving her elder brother. "During rehabilitation, I met my wife," smiles Hryhorii. "Olena lived in that village. It was love at first sight. We got married. Our daughter was born. And this happiness did not stop me. I still continued to use drugs. Now I am very sorry for that time. After all, in search of the next dose, I was unbearable. And I sold all our valuables."

Because of it Hryhorii's family was more and more "in tatters". His sister altogether stopped communicating with the troublesome brother. After an unsuccessful attempt at rehabilitation, she lost hope of salvation. Only Olena did not back down and hoped that everything would pass. All this time, his wife Olena hoped only for God. She went to church and whispered prayers every night so that Hryhorii would come to his senses.

"My wife knew I was a drug addict" continues Hryhorii Tonkyi. "Every day she lived like on a powder keg. Every time she returned from work, she did not know what to expect. Every time some valuables disappeared from our house, all money was spent at once. I wasted it all on drugs. I did not see how my family lived, how my daughter grew up. I lived from dose to dose. My family began to fall apart. Mom died. My wife always cried and was deeply unhappy. And my mother-in-law threatened to take the child and terminate my parental rights. I already thought that either I will have to continue to prick and die of it or to pull myself together, go to rehabilitation and to shape normal relations in a family".

But there was a long path of tests and rehabilitation to go from the right thoughts to the right actions.

Hryhorii was again convicted in 2013. "It was again a theft," the man remembers. "My crew and I did some construction work. We were not paid and we decided to "collect what is ours" from this attractive house." Once again Hryhorii and his crew did not think about the consequences. The feeling that they were right and masters of life was overwhelming. But for each offense you have to pay. Hryhorii was sentenced to 5 years in prison with a probation period of three years.

Parole and probation

The probation unit to where Hryhorii was sent by court decision became the starting point for a new life. After the reform of the penitentiary system in 2016-2017, the newly created probation units changed their approaches to working with such people as Hryhorii. Whereas in the past the work of the penitentiary inspectorate was mostly focused on the control of convicts, now the staff of the probation authorities is looking for reasons behind committing crimes and seeks to help clients eliminate these reasons and return to normal life in the community. To protect them from new crimes and from prison.

His inspector was Yuliia Vasylenko. It was she who tried to induce Hryhorii to think about his life and involve him in community life:

"The story of our communication with Hryhorii goes quite back. He came to us at the worst time of his life. He used drugs, was addicted," says Yuliia Vasylenko, head of the Novozavodsk department of State Institution "Probation Center" in the Chernihiv region. "Back then I was a senior inspector and my task was to show my clients that there is another life, to motivate them for change. To do this, I organized various events, trainings and invited members of civic and religious organizations involved in the psychological rehabilitation of drug addicts, among them were people who changed their own lives for the better and motivated others by their example. However, the situation with Hryhorii was difficult. After all, he was so condescending. He thought that he knew and could do more than he would be told in trainings. He reacted too emotionally to my suggestions. I have always been in touch with his wife. We talked to Olena very often. She told me in what condition and when Hryhorii comes back home."

The family really was and is important for Hryhorii. As he says, despite his inappropriate behavior, he always loved his family. Hryhorii has three children. The eldest (16-year-old) son is from a previous marriage, but he also lives with Hryhorii. Hryhorii and Olena have two daughters. Now Hryhorii is a caring and attentive father. But this was not always the case. He admits that he managed to save his family thanks in part to probation.

"When I first started going to the probation center, I was far from normal. I often quarreled and reacted aggressively to comments. Because I usually came there when I was either high or jonesing."

Once I agreed to attend one of the socio-psychological trainings. These were volunteers of NGO "Peremoha". They talked about their way of life, about faith, and I thought about it very seriously. Then there were other trainings and meetings."

In 2016, Hryhorii Tonkyi began psychological rehabilitation at Peremoha Center. Since then, Hryhorii has stopped using alcohol, drugs and smoking. And more importantly - he learned to earn a living without breaking the law. He began to respect the laws of God, goes to church.

Life brings happiness again

Now Hryhorii is proud that he managed to get rid of his bad habits and gave up criminal behavior. Now, as a probation volunteer, together with other members of NGO "Peremoha" he conducts trainings for drug addicts, by his example he helps to believe in themselves and their future for such people as he used to be many years ago.

"Nowadays I don't drink anything stronger than coffee," says Hryhorii. "My wife finally stopped being afraid. For the first year after my rehabilitation, she called me every hour. Everyone was afraid that I would fail. Now I pay a lot of attention to the family. We constantly go to the Christian church with the whole family. So far we live in a rented apartment. However, I believe that I will buy a house in the near future."

Hryhorii registered as a private entrepreneur, he does construction business, “I go to the probation center at the request of Yuliia Vasylenko when it is necessary to provide help and advice to people like I used to be. I gladly agreed to volunteer in probation because I am very grateful to the Probation Center and especially to Ms. Yuliia for her support, patience and help. Probation staff, in turn, also help our Peremoha Center and often counsel those undergoing rehabilitation.

"Now I work legally and do not break the law. I come to the probation center often. However, now not as a client, but as a volunteer.”

Hryhorii Tonkyi made amends with his mother-in-law and his younger sister. He did not lose his relationship with his brothers, although the way of life that Hryhorii chose was not to their liking, they forgave him everything.

After understanding his past, analyzing mistakes and knowing the high price of true happiness, Hryhorii is trying to protect his own children from this.

"I have a teenage son," says Hryhorii. "He needs parental attention now. However, I never use my father's methods because I understand well that at this age people want to do things "out of spite". I never blamed anyone for my fate. I chose this path myself. However, I remember well when I first tried a cigarette, my father punished me. And to his dismay, I continued to smoke. Although only I am responsible for my actions."

The life path of Hryhorii Tonkyi is the real story of a man who stumbled. 8 convictions, years of drug addiction, hopelessness. But with the help of qualified professionals and caring people, with the support of a loved one and an all-conquering love for children, he was able to set things straight in his life. His story is convincing: it is never too late to change your life. It is possible to provide a good future for yourself and your family. To recognize the taste of peace and home cosiness. To really live in freedom, free from addictions, drugs and crime. Have reliable and loyal friends nearby, not accomplices in crimes.