His hands carefully went through the earth, checking the quality and then cupping it in his hands to smell. It was clear it was not the first time he worked in a vegetable garden, but it sure was the first time this happened in prison. His face told it all. A second prisoner also stood by with wide-open eyes. I asked him what he thought of it and his answer was short and snappy: “Super!”

On June 7, 2024, a Dutch team of trainers worked for the fourth time in Drohobych prison, contributing to the development of a new prison mental health system in Ukraine. The group consists of a former prison director, a psychiatrist, a psychologist and a sports trainer, all with many years of experience in prison mental health and a long track record of working in the region.

The project is part of a reform plan that the Ministry of Justice agreed with the Federation Global Initiative on Psychiatry back in 2019. Then the prison mental health system was still very rudimentary and very Soviet, with a psychiatric department in the prison hospital where treatment was mainly limited to the provision of medication and days were spent in complete emptiness in bed. The reform plan was halted in March 2020 when COVID made implementation impossible, and when we planned to restart the process at the end of 2021 Ukraine was soon invaded and again it seems impossible to do something.

However, every crisis is an opportunity. When the central prison hospital in Vilniansk needed to be evacuated because of its proximity to the front line, new space for the psychiatric department was found in the prison in Drohobych. Dutch private funding allowed us to reconstruct the whole floor into a modern 45-bed unit, and a project financed by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs provided us with the possibility to develop two more units, in Vinnytsa and Zhitomyr, and to create a daytime activity program in Drohobych. Over time our group of Dutch experts conducted five trainings for prison personnel from the three facilities and also the central prison administration in Kyiv.


The Drohobych unit, by far the largest of the three, will specialize in veterans who wind up in prison because of crimes committed as a result of war-trauma. For that reason much effort has been put in developing a day time activity program. Already now patients are supported through art therapy and sports facilities, but in the coming months a kitchen will be added so that patients can cook themselves.

During a training of staff and patients in January the wish was voiced to start a vegetable garden. As the unit is on the third floor without an elevator, only indoor gardening is an option. The Dutch trainers surprised everyone by arriving in Drohobych with all the materials needed to start a garden – including tomato and bell pepper plants. The inmates did not need any stimulus: with great dedication and care the garden was established and it is clear much more is ahead. In spite of the war the Ukrainian prison system is implementing an amazing program of reform.

Robert van Voren is Chief Executive of Human Rights in Mental Health-FGIP (www.gip-global.org) and professor of political science and Director of the Andrei Sakharov Research Center for Democratic Development at Vytautas Magnus University (www.sakharovcenter-vdu.eu). He is also a Professor of political science at Ilia State University in Tbilisi (Georgia) and visiting professor at the University of Silesia in Katowice (Poland).


The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post. 

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