“The family most often motivates a convict’s desire to return to society” – Interview on prison education in Belarus

Up to ten public organisations in the Gomel region are conducting programmes in correctional facilities. Not all NGOs are willing to work with this target group. Having said that, and whilst it was practically impossible only ten years ago for NGOs in Belarus to initiate educational activities in correctional facilities, the situation is gradually changing today.

There are roughly 58 different types of correctional facility in Belarus, and the country has a prison population numbering more than 30,000. This figure is quite high compared to other European countries, and this makes the topic of the education of convicts and ex-convicts crucial. It affects not only the convicts themselves and their immediate environment (families, relatives and acquaintances), but it also impacts on society as a whole.

Up to ten public organisations in the Gomel region are conducting programmes in correctional facilities. Not all NGOs are willing to work with this target group. Having said that, and whilst it was practically impossible only ten years ago for NGOs in Belarus to initiate educational activities in correctional facilities, the situation is gradually changing today.

DVV International Belarus talked to Nina Kekuh, head of the Gomel regional public association entitled “Social Projects”. The organisation works to strengthen civil society through social, medical, preventive and educational work with the most vulnerable groups and individuals in the Gomel region: parent communities, including Roma adults, rural and educational communities, prison inmates, and prison staff.

Why and when did you start working on the topic of prison education?
Nina Kekuh: We started working on this topic ten years ago. I am a member of the public monitoring commission at the Gomel regional executive committee, the functions of which include assisting correctional institutions in the process of re-socialising convicts.

The idea for the first project entitled “Adult education for re-socialisation and professionalisation in correctional institutions” was born through visiting the institutions and having an opportunity to talk to both staff and convicts about their problems and needs. The project was implemented with the support of DVV International in Belarus.

It was this project that became the first link in the chain of subsequent ideas and their implementation. Moreover, the idea of lifelong learning has always been close to our organisation, and almost all our work and project activities are aimed at non-formal and additional education for vulnerable groups.

What is the biggest challenge in the work of your organisation?
Nina Kekuh: One of the biggest challenges in my opinion is that our society is not always tolerant towards the problems faced by people returning from prison, and is not willing to accept them. The fact is that the efforts made by ourselves and other organisations to re-socialise convicts (educational courses, acquisition of professional skills, personal growth programmes, conflict-free behaviour) will have zero effect if society does not accept these people.

There is therefore a need to conduct more information work with people, including the media, in order to develop more initiatives, as well as charity projects for the public care of released convicts. This will facilitate their return to society. 
What was your team’s greatest achievement?
Nina Kekuh: It was almost impossible ten years ago to initiate any activity within the prison walls. The system was closed to community organisations. But gradually, step by step, by initiating programmes in correctional institutions, and achieving certain positive results, we began to be treated with greater trust. Today I can say that we have helped open the doors for NGOs and continue to do so.

How important is work with convicts and ex-convicts in our society?
Nina Kekuh: Issues related to convict re-socialisation and social adaptation add up to a serious social problem, and have a direct impact on your safety and mine. There are a number of reasons why ex-convicts are not always able to follow the laws of society after serving their sentence, and often commit a new crime and go back to jail.

Each time they relapse, there is less chance and less hope of them returning to a normal life. It is therefore only by consolidating state and public efforts and taking a comprehensive approach towards the process of re-socialising citizens who are released from places of detention that such problems can be solved in terms of a successful return to society and ensuring public security in the state. 

The first group of female convicts serving sentence who attended the “Happy family school” course (2019). The programme was launched in 2019. A group of 15 female inmates were attending the course at that time. Several trainers were trained from among these women. They in turn took part in training the second group of women serving sentences. 35 women were trained in the course of the project (2019). 60 women took the course outside the project in 2020.

Could you highlight the most important aspects of prison education and re-socialisation that should be further worked on?
Nina Kekuh: All aspects are important. It is very difficult to build a hierarchy of more or less important aspects. But based on the experience of our most recent project on responsible parenthood, I can say that there is an enormous need to work with convicts’ families.

The family plays the most important role in the process of successfully re-socialising former convicts. It is the family that most often motivates convicts’ desire to return to society. If the family does not perform this function, the activity of other institutions may be in vain.

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