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Tuberculosis, misery spread for eastern Ukraine prisoners

At a prison in Zhdanivka, Ukraine, medicine has been in short supply, placing 400 inmates at risk who need treatment for drug-resistant forms of tuberculosis.
At a prison in Zhdanivka, Ukraine, medicine has been in short supply, placing 400 inmates at risk who need treatment for drug-resistant forms of tuberculosis. (Mstyslav Chernov/associated press)

ZHDANIVKA, Ukraine — The colony of cats living on the grounds of the Zhdanivka penitentiary disappeared when battles in east Ukraine peaked. Talk in the prison is that inmates ate them when food deliveries stopped.

Medical supplies have also been in short supply, threatening the lives of nearly 400 prisoners who need treatment. The principal scourge: tuberculosis. The disease spreads prodigiously in jails and develops into hard-to-treat forms unless properly addressed.

‘‘TB is so common within the penitentiary system that many inmates don’t see it as a deadly disease — they see catching TB as a normal part of life in prison,’’ Doctors Without Borders said in a recent report. ‘‘Some even tell us they don’t care if they die or not.’’

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The gray, squat, three-story building stands inside a perimeter lined with barbed wire and towers. Zhdanivka has since last year been under the control of Russian-backed separatists who set up the would-be breakaway state of the Donetsk People’s Republic. Supplies from the Ukrainian government have ground to a halt.

Prison authorities allowed Associated Press journalists to visit the hospital at the Zhdanivka prison recently, albeit under close supervision.

The deputy prison director, dressed in a military-style uniform and seated under a black-blue-and-red Donetsk People’s Republic flag, coldly explained the rules: No walking without an escort. No contact with prisoners. No filming of prison walls or towers. After being handed sanitary masks and passes, visitors entered detention wings while being followed closely by a prison employee.

The prison worker frequently restricted AP movements: ‘‘You cannot film there’’ . . . ‘‘Don’t go there, repair work going on’’ . . . ‘‘That employee is off-limits.’’ Most prisoners were friendly and happy to talk, but were prevented from doing so by wardens. ‘‘My folks probably think I’m dead by now,’’ says one prisoner, before the conversation is cut short by a minder.

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The only prisoners unwilling to speak were in Block 3 — a group of about 70 who rejected medical treatment in protest who said they are afraid doctors are testing unregistered drugs on them.

Responsibility for treating inmates in the underfunded prison shifted as early as 2011 to organizations like Doctors Without Borders, known by its French acronym MSF. But the group’s role — and its burden — has grown sharply since war erupted last year.

MSF says 170 patients under treatment at five predetention centers and jails in areas surrounding the conflict zone have developed drug-resistant TB.

Janette Olson, field coordinator of the MSF multidrug-resistant TB program, said inmates are refusing to take drugs with side effects, making long-term treatment complicated. MSF says that while the official death rate from tuberculosis in Ukraine is 15 per 100,000 people, the number is 10 times higher among prisoners.

A church built by imates sits behind the walls of the jail. Sick inmates go there daily to pray.