KHERSON, Ukraine -- After three years in pretrial detention in Kherson, Pavlo, a man who is accused of rape, was suddenly free one day last November: The Russians overseeing the jail where he was held “ran away,” he said, leaving the cell keys behind.
As the Russian forces that had occupied the large southern city since March withdrew, in a major setback for Moscow in its war to subjugate Ukraine, the Russians administering the facility opted to release the hundreds of detainees being held there.
The jail employee who came to open the door of Pavlo’s cell told the inmates, “Go wherever you want,” he said.
After over eight months of frequent threats, violence, and abuse under Russian supervision, most of them did.
“We all left,” Pavlo said, adding that most of them went home, in part because that’s where their identification documents were.
When Kyiv-loyal prison staff returned to the detention center shortly after Ukraine regained control of Kherson on November 11, just 11 inmates remained. Before the invasion, there had been 350.
Of those who left, some have been recaptured and some have turned themselves in to Ukrainian authorities. But with prosecutors’ cases against them stymied by the war and the continued Russian occupation of swaths of the south, some of those prisoners have been released again.
Schemes, the investigative unit of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, spoke with several of these prisoners a week after their surprise release.
Their stories illustrate both the struggle to reimpose rule of law in Kherson, whose population has shrunk by 80 percent to some 60,000 people , and the harsh living conditions in a prison under Russian occupation.
As of early February, 76 inmates from the Kherson detention center remained at large, including individuals facing charges of murder and robbery, according to a high-ranking source at the facility who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release such information publicly.
Pavlo’s time as a fugitive was brief. Ukrainian police soon returned him and a fellow prisoner, Yuriy, who faces charges of intent to commit murder and robbery, when they failed to show their passports at a checkpoint.
“Everyone was quickly caught and brought back,” Pavlo said.
Within four days of the Russian troops withdrawal, Ukrainian law enforcement returned 166 released inmates to the detention center, according to the then-chief of the National Police, Ihor Klymenko.
Some surrendered at roadblocks, Kherson regional prosecutor Pavlo Mashkovskiy claimed. One such prisoner, who did not want to be filmed, told Schemes that he wanted to avoid fresh charges since he already was nearing the end of his sentence.
But even back in custody, Pavlo and Yuriy’s legal statuses remained in limbo. Their cases have been unable to proceed because the courthouse that contains the related documents is in Nova Kakhovka, a nearby Dnieper River port city that remains under Russian control.
Without a court authorization for the two men’s continued detention, prison officials simply set Pavlo and Yuriy free, pending court rulings on their cases. They left the jail on November 22.
Both men maintain they are innocent. They asked to be identified only by their first names to protect their privacy.
Pavlo claimed that law enforcement cautioned the pair upon their release to avoid looting, not to roam around, and to “find an opportunity to spend this time” productively since, once “something works out” with the courts, they would be back in jail.
The two men did not receive “even a single hryvnya” to tide them over, Yuriy alleged, though Ukrainian law stipulates financial assistance.
But Pavlo does not fear the future.
“We are all peasants. We are from a village. We will find and help old people, and there will be something to eat," he said.
Senior Ukrainian officials did not order the evacuation of prison and jail administrators or detainees before Russian forces took over Kherson on March 1, 2022. In an interview with German state broadcaster DW, Deputy Justice Minister Olena Vysotska attributed that decision to difficulties coordinating with other government bodies and a lack of safe locations for the evacuees.
Consequently, during Russia’s more than eight-month occupation of Kherson, the detention center’s population swelled from 350 to 435 inmates, its maximum capacity, according to the high-ranking source at the facility.
A separate facility that the Russian occupiers used as a detention center came to be known as a “torture chamber.”
Former captives there have described brutal beatings and the use of stun guns during interrogations. One elderly local woman claimed that she and others had heard screams and, at night, bursts of machine-gun fire when walking past the detention center.
The Kherson regional prosecutor’s office is investigating the alleged death of a prisoner at the center where Pavlo, Yuriy, and others were held during the Russian occupation. The inmate’s name has not been released.
Both Pavlo and another former inmate mentioned a fatal shooting.
“We heard that they shot one person,” said Pavlo. “Everyone heard” it, he added.
“One guy was shot, I know for sure,” the other former inmate, a woman, told Schemes.
"The guys, I know, were beaten very badly,” she said, adding that she had heard this from multiple inmates and kitchen staff in the cafeteria at the facility.
The woman, who was convicted of a drug-related offense and had been transferred to the Kherson pretrial detention center from a prison by the Russians, is due for release in 2025 and says her sentence should be shortened because of the hardships she endured under the Russian administration of the detention facility. She would not give her name for fear of repercussions.
Russian jail guards “severely humiliated” the Ukrainian detainees for whom they were responsible, Pavlo said. Sometimes the guards threatened the prisoners with hand grenades or fired their guns at the prison itself, he claimed.
The Russian guards reportedly brooked no discussion or questioning.
"If an officer came in, everyone had to turn to the window, hands behind their backs,” the female former prisoner said. “No moving, no turning. Some were forced to kneel."
Female inmates were allowed just a few minutes “once every two weeks” to call their families, she said, “but only if you worked hard and earned it.”
As a result, she continued, prisoners repeatedly painted or whitewashed the same thing “just to do something” and be able to call home. She said that she herself often worked until 11 p.m. for permission to phone her 7-year-old child.
Communications with male inmates were no better.
“The Russian [guard] used to come in, open the door with his foot, and was, like, ‘Everybody get up!’ or, ‘Lie down with your face to the floor!’” recounted Yuriy. “In short, it was better under Ukraine.”
Prison employees who were loyal to Kyiv “immediately left” after the occupation began, the woman said. Those who remained simply “changed their shoes” -- collaborated -- she claimed.
They “felt their power, began to show their arrogance,” she continued. “How? Mostly by abusing the people here.”
To date, five prison employees have been detained on suspicion of treason, sources within the Kherson Regional Prosecutor’s Office told Schemes.
The regional prosecutor, Mashkovskiy, stated that his office is searching for documents and evidence about other potential cases of collaboration at the detention center.
For now, the facility is no longer used. On December 2, 2022, Russian gunfire damaged some of its buildings. The remaining inmates were transferred to other Ukrainian jails.