Posted by Kent Klindera June, 25, 2013
I’m just returning to New York after my site visit tour in Eastern Europe. For my final stop, I visited Nikoleav, Ukraine to check in on grantee-network partner The Penitentiary Initiative. For the past four years, the GMT Initiative has supported this project to work with GMT individuals living in Ukrainian prisons. I visited two different prisons (Colony 47 and 53), spending time with some of the men involved in the program.
The Penitentiary Initiative works with three types of prisoners: General prisoners who are involved in an HIV prevention program, those living openly with HIV, and those deemed as “outcasts” based on their real or perceived GMT sexual orientation. For decades, these “outcast” prisoners have represented the lowest rank of the prison hierarchy in the Ukranian prison system. They are often the targets of violence (both physical and sexual) and are forced to continuously perform menial jobs that other prisoners would never do (such as cleaning the bathrooms).
An “outcast” prisoner support group meets in a prison near Nikoleav, Ukraine.
The Penitentiary Initiative works in seven different prisons, visiting each twice a month to conduct three hour sessions with the three different groups of prisoners. amfAR has been supporting the “outcast” group, and has helped the Penitentiary Initiative develop a manual based on the best practices of the program. The initiative is now using the manual to train Ministry of Justice employees to implement a similar program for “outcasts” in other prisons.
The guys were so appreciative of the Penitentiary Initiative visits. They spent time learning more about HIV, as well as time having a support group meeting during which they discussed various issues of prison life. The Penitentiary Initiative staff also helps the men provide peer support for each other and provides toiletries that these “outcasts” can trade to avoid some of the abuse they suffer from other prisoners. The program also raises their self-esteem, which empowers them to defend themselves. The prison guards allow the Penitentiary Initiative staff to offer all the prisoners they work with condoms and lubricant—the only source of either in the prisons— to protect themselves and other prisoners from the spread of HIV.
Talk about a humbling experience. amfAR is truly providing support to some of the most marginalized human beings out there—vital support that not only effectively prevents the spread of HIV, but also provides some humanity to vulnerable individuals truly in need. I leave with a greater sense of resolve that what we are doing—supporting community-led programming for GMT—is truly making a difference.