A planning session at People Plus. Tatiana Zhuravskaya is on the right.

A Belarusian NGO overcomes apathy and bureaucracy to help prisoners successfully reenter society. 

People Plus began working with HIV-positive people in the city of Svietlahorsk, in the southeastern Gomel region, three years ago. This remains its main activity. The need to expand its client base to prisoners and ex-convicts “emerged by itself,” a year or so later, People Plus director Tatiana Zhuravskaya says. “We simply couldn’t have ignored their problems,” she adds.

Belarus, despite having one of the highest incarceration rates in Europe, does little to prepare prisoners for their release. Official statistics relating to the penal system hardly exist.

“We have no idea how many people there are in our penal establishments and prisons, as there are no corresponding statistics available to the public in Belarus,” says Pavel Sapelko, a lawyer at the Vesna human rights organization. “We can only guess that about 10,000 people are released annually – and each of them needs a greater or lesser degree of social or other support.” 

A Grassroots Initiative

The initiative for including prisoners in People Plus’s work came from Alexander, a young man who had served several sentences and struggled with reentering society. He currently works with People Plus on refining his original proposal to provide more useful services to those fresh out of prison.

“One ex-convict had big problems with his documents, so I went with him to a notary public where we filled out different forms. He also had trouble with housing, so I put him up at my place,” says Alexander, who is now a salaried staff member. “Later on this young man joined us as a volunteer.”

Psychologist Olga Tulakina, a People Plus board member, says the group got $2,500 in seed money from AFEW International, a Dutch public health NGO, to fund some services and travel.

“The Department of Corrections [in the Gomel region] supported our activities, and we began working officially with people in custody and people released from prisons,” she says.

Winning the trust of local authorities has been vital to People Plus’s expanding both its HIV support programs and its prisoner resocialization initiative, the only one of its kind in Belarus.

It has been only just over a year since People Plus launched its resocialization program, and even less time since most of the project activities began. Yet they have already begun training prison personnel and holding bimonthly follow-up sessions.

People Plus begins working with prisoners six months in advance of their release dates. “These people often have problems with their relatives, housing, work, and documents. It is not uncommon for these people to be released literally to nowhere,” Zhuravskaya says.

The organization now has a staff of four plus two permanent volunteers. Volunteers may start out helping with training sessions or accompanying ex-convicts to public offices, Tulakina says. Those who demonstrate real commitment to the work can aspire to becoming paid employees after undergoing additional training.

So far, People Plus has run four training sessions for a total of 903 prisoners in two prisons, and held individual consultations with 86 prisoners. They are also providing long-term social support to 58 ex-convicts, helping them find housing and work and apply for new documents (prisoners are stripped of their passports and other identity documents and must apply to renew them after release, often a long process).

The group has so far received $15,000 in grants, again from AFEW International, to fund its work with people in prison and after release. Many, but not all these clients are HIV-positive (information about the prevalence of HIV in Belarusian prisons is not publically available).

Rare Permission to Operate

People Plus keeps in touch with all the former prisoners on its rolls, Zhuravskaya says. “There is a Viber chat and we are always signed in.” The chat room has already become something of a peer support group. “People talk to each other there, support each other, provide financial aid to our organization if they work abroad, send packages with delicacies for those still in penal establishments.”

People Plus staff also stays in contact with people in custody and communicate with their relatives. Altogether, the group has established relationships with about 1,400 people – a significant result for a half-year of operation.

Crucially, as noted above, they cooperate with the Department of Corrections in Gomel Region, as well as with the Social Service Center in Svietlahorsk, a public agency whose mission of helping vulnerable groups in society is hampered by chronic underfunding. 

People Plus holds a rarely issued permit to operate in prisons. Issued by the Interior Ministry, the permit allows the group to hold events behind bars, consult and train penal establishment personnel, and follow up on released prisoners.

All of this had to be learned on the fly, since People Plus is currently the only organization providing such services in Belarus.

“It was difficult for us to copy someone else’s experience, because this work demands constant monitoring of the needs of people in custody,” Zhuravskaya says. “Our organization is the only one permitted to conduct questionnaires in penal institutions. This material helps us to understand what we need to do this work, as this way we learn firsthand information about the needs of people in custody.

“At this stage, we have pretty limited possibilities to provide financial aid to these people: to rent accommodation, finance the restoration of their documents, or help them settle their debts. Nevertheless, we are in a constant active search. To date, we have established partnership links and cooperation with some rehabilitation centers.” Zhuravskaya says.

“Our work is unique for Belarus,” she adds.

When working with prisoners, it is important that former prisoners do or at least monitor the work, Zhuravskaya believes.

People Plus staff meet with prison officers.

“They understand all the nuances involved and can often predict different reactions. We even cannot imagine how [prisoners] would react to this or that action taken by us.”

Several staff and volunteers of People Plus are ex-convicts. As employee Kseniya Ivanova says, “I remember when I was in a high-security prison colony, an acquaintance of mine – we used to do drugs together back in the old days – came to us and gave a talk about the changes in her life with the help of People Plus. And how now she could teach and help others. I was very impressed. It is one thing when you hear about life without drugs from a person who has never tried them and quite another thing when you hear that from the person whose arm you used to bandage up in a kitchen.”

After her release, Ivanova came to work at People Plus. She and her colleagues sometimes meet people on their release from detention, sometimes with clothes provided by a local charity.

“There are situations where someone was sent to jail in the summer wearing shorts and flip-flops and released in winter in the same clothes. These people may have no relatives or friends. That is why we prepare winter clothes for them and meet them with these clothes,” she says.

Working Side-by Side With the Authorities

People Plus could not operate without the cooperation of the Department of Corrections and prison staff. It is also essential to get public agencies on their side.

“People Plus has a very professional approach to recruiting and personnel training and good material resources as well,” says Elena Anaprienko of the Svietlahorsk Social Service Center. She heads the department of social adaptation and rehabilitation, which works with prisoners and ex-prisoners.

“Thanks to this organization, we’ve achieved positive results: people get jobs, stop drinking and using drugs. They start from a clean slate, you could say. For us, the success of the program lies in the rehabilitation of people and in their adaptation on the outside. Our cooperation helps people to get to a new level,” Anaprienko says.

The success of People Plus, on the other hand, also highlights the limited role of the state in assisting ex-convicts, prominent human rights lawyer Sapelko comments.

“NGOs do their best and provide their help wherever possible – and we would like to express our appreciation and gratitude for this – but why should NGOs do anything instead of the state?” he wonders.

Although there is no official information on recidivism in Belarus, research conducted in Russia, where the prison system is similar, estimated that recidivism is very high, with between 70 and 90 percent of convicts winding up in jail again, a third of them within a year of release.

The high recidivism rate is unlikely to fall until the approach of the Corrections Department and other government bodies changes, Sapelko believes.

“I agree that people receiving high-quality assistance are not likely to return to prison, but they are just a drop in the ocean. We need a well-run, government-wide system to prepare prisoners for release and do post-release follow-up,” he says. “Unless the state takes concrete and targeted steps to improve the situation, we will see no noticeable reduction of the rate of repeat offending.”

What Next After COVID?

The COVID-19 pandemic erected serious barriers for an organization whose work relies on face-to-face contacts. People Plus is now functioning online, but it hopes to resume work in prisons as soon as lockdown restrictions ease.

Even before the pandemic, holding meetings and training sessions in prisons was not always straightforward. Larger rooms in prisons may not be heated in winter, for instance. Flexibility is the byword. If a large room is too cold, the participants can be split up into smaller groups, and the trainers hold several sessions instead of one.

The biggest single problem for People Plus, like many other NGOs in Belarus, is underfunding and lack of staff. But this has not dampened its enthusiasm. Soon the group plans to start digital competence training in prisons, at first only online. People in custody will learn how to use smartphones and cash machines, buy tickets, and pay for utilities online. Many prisoners can’t keep up with the rapid pace of digital change and emerge into normal life unprepared to use new gadgets.

People Plus is already running digital competence training at its Svietlahorsk office, where ex-convicts are welcome to come and learn how to work with computers. Similar classes in Minsk and other cities are on the wish list. They also plan to hold financial awareness sessions for incarcerated people.

To serve more people, the organization sees training more social workers as the most likely route, rather than opening branch offices. They have proposed to the authorities that these personnel will work under government agencies in different cities, such as the Svietlahorsk Social Service Center, while formally being employed by People Plus.

In another significant advance through the efforts of People Plus and other partners, the health of a group of HIV-positive prisoners will be prioritized in the current four-year, state health program, which runs until 2025, thanks to a successful application to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria. The same charity is co-funding People Plus’s work alongside the Svietlahorsk Social Service Center to provide additional services to help the reintegration of newly released prisoners. 

Similar partnerships are planned with social service agencies in other parts of the country.

Tanya Hеndel is an independent journalist from Belarus, specializing in environmental and social topics.

Photos courtesy of People Plus.