I first visited Ukrainian prisons in 2009, while working on a project for Doctors Without Borders. I remember seeing the conjugal rooms and being struck by how no two rooms were alike.
I wondered whether we could learn something about a country by observing the places where the incarcerated live.
I returned to Ukraine nine years later after securing wide-ranging access to photograph the country’s penal system.
I visited 17 prisons all over the country: maximum security, pretrial, men’s and women’s, and one juvenile.
Prisoners decorate their own rooms. There’s no budget, no guidelines or any kind of code that dictates what rooms should look like. The rooms are reflective not only of their taste but also of an impoverished institution. Perhaps a wall is painted green because the warden was able to procure a few cans from the local paint shop, as a barter for some pickled cabbage made in the prison’s kitchen.
Three of the prisons I visited had only recently closed. I could still feel the essence of the people who had inhabited these spaces.
I studied these landscapes and looked for little touches — clues of who the people were and what it might have felt like to be there.