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Fellow Seminar

29 March 2018

Dr. Anton Symkovych will present his research proposal on the topic: "Rejecting, Replicating, and Assisting the State: The Genesis, Functionality, and Evolution of Prisoner Self-governance in Ukraine" on 29 March 2018 (Thursday) at 16:30h at CAS Conference Hall.


All men's prisons generate a form of prisoner self-organisation: from loose aggregates with a barely palpable ‘inmate subculture' to rigid prisoner hierarchies with an attendant elaborate informal normative system. Whilst this self-organisation often serves as an extension (in some jurisdictions as a primordium) of gangs and other forms of the criminal underworld, informal prisoner organisation serves important internal governance role. Without governance prisons descend into a Hobbesian state of nature. Legal governance by formal authorities faces serious obstacles - from a resource scarcity to a legitimacy deficit. The under-resourced and, more importantly, understaffed, prisons around the globe often engender elaborate prisoner organisations, with minute informal rules, harshly imposed sanctions, and rigidly stratified populations. This extralegal governance mitigates prison-engendered deprivations, notably the ever-present physical insecurity, whilst simultaneously being brutal and institutionalising inequality. In effect, informal prisoner organisations supplement, and in some jurisdictions replace, the state in shaping social life in prisons by regimenting violence, regulating illicit trade, and fostering predictability. These prisoner extralegal governance fixtures constantly evolve, responding to changes in and outside prisons.

Although the political and economic bankruptcy of the erstwhile Leninist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe has triggered radical societal transformations, the effect on daily prison life remains largely uncharted. Building on a semi-ethnographic study, I will discuss a prisoner hierarchal ‘society' in post-Soviet Ukraine. Originating in the slums and prisons of the Russian Empire and solidifying in communist gaols and labour camps, the Ukrainian prison underworld continues to evolve. I argue that the post-independence shifts in penal policies and prison practices, combined with changes in prisoner demographics, have been altering the Ukrainian prisoner power structure. I contend that while functional and deeply institutionalized, the prisoner hierarchy is facing serious challenges, not least a legitimacy deficit, and I discuss the potential repercussions for internal power dynamics and prison order. Even so, I will argue that extralegal governance endures, its metamorphoses notwithstanding, for as long as the state fails to meet the demand for security and mediation. Most of my research participants recognised the functionality of the informal hierarchy and extralegal justice system and complied for both normative and prudential reasons, especially the fear of swift and stern informal enforcement.

My findings highlight the cost of any governance model. The described overreliance of the under-resourced administration on prisoner self-rule came at a high human and moral price: toleration of violence, albeit in a regimented form, along with discrimination and dehumanisation of some prisoners for the alleged benefit of the majority (and the administration). The prison administration, its disapproving rhetoric notwithstanding, depended on and accommodated the informal prisoner hierarchy and its normative system, recognising that the under-resourced and understaffed prison would struggle to operate smoothly without prisoner self-rule.

As the formal system fails to produce prisoner normative compliance, mediate most inter-prisoner disputes, and police prisoners closely, the disintegration of the informal prisoner organisation threatens the collapse of the established integrated order in general. Neither prisoners nor the administration has resources to monopolise the provision of safety and arbitration. I maintain that devoting adequate resources and otherwise altering the demand for extralegal governance is not on the agenda for Ukrainian authorities, thus extending their complicity in the institutionalised discrimination. Furthermore, the country is at war and suffers from immense corruption. Its resources are already stretched to accommodate other, more pressing, priorities, rendering a pursuit of a different governance model in its prisons unlikely. Thus, I will conclude that for the foreseeable future the authorities will continue to compete against and cooperate with the underworld.




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