Amy B. Smoyer, PhD

Incarcerated Lives, Health & Social Work

Lithuania: The prisons

Philip Johnson's Glass House, New Canaan, CT
Before reflecting upon the Lithuanian prisons that I visited last month, a preamble...

First of all, when people invite you into their world and really take the time to show you around, including the dark corners and the not-so-nice parts, and you are there and smiling and nodding your head, it seems disingenuous and rude to leave that world and start blogging about all its imperfections.  I wish I could go get a coffee with the prison officer who gave us the prison tour and share my reflections directly with him.  I wish there were some Lithuanians reading my blog.  But, there aren't.  Still, for the record, these thoughts are in conversation with them, even if they aren't here.

Second, I resist the notion that the things that have gone on, and continue to occur, in Lithuanian prisons are somehow unique to a particular place, people or time.  Unfortunately, prison, torture and, more generally, people being mean to each other, seem to be universal phenomena.  While lots of people are nice to each other, often for days, years and generations at at time, we all carry an evil seed inside that, if nurtured, can grow.  Walking through the prison hallways, peering into the dark, cold cells, it's easy to think, "Evil, evil Soviets," or, "Sick, sick Nazis."  Oh, were it so simple!  Tule Lake, Troy Davis, Guantanamo.  Let's be clear, I write from a glass house.

So, onto the prisons...

I visited two prisons while attending the European Society of Criminology Conference in Vilnius, Lithuania.  On the morning of the first day, I went with a small group of people from the conference to visit Lukiskes Prison, a 100+ year old facility that currently houses about 1,000 people, including men, women and juveniles.  The facility is old and somewhat disheveled at this point, but the original design and ambition of the place still shines through.  When the prison was built in 1904, it was a state-of-the-art piece of architecture.  The main building has a domed rotunda at the center from which three housing wings extend.  The rotunda resembles the entrance to a museum or other artistic landmark with small painted tiles on the floors and decorative moldings.  The rest of the campus includes a full church, with stained glass, several rectangular buildings and lots of tall walls.  Standing there, I could imagine the architect sitting around a table with the Russian Emperor's staff enthusiastically discussing the monument that they would build to inspire desistance and illustrate the Czar's power.  A building to solve social problems.

Like so many well-laid plans, this one went a bit awry.  The design, that was at first so celebrated, no longer reflects modern notions of prison rehabilitation.  Back in the day, prisons were called penitentiaries.  The idea was that the bad guy, or girl, would spend some time alone in a dark cell, praying, thinking about what s/he did wrong, repent, and come out ready to start anew.  Long story short, folks started to realize that lots of time in a dark cell wasn't always productive and there was a move to create opportunities in prison for work, school and socialization in order to facilitate reintegration.  The debate about what works is not over but the point is that things have not changed much at Lukiskes.  Overcrowed and constrained by its architecture - lots of little cells along a dark hallway - there isn't a lot of new programming going on at Lukiskes.  Most of the prisoners are there for short stays, pre-trial, before being sentenced and sent off to one of the state's "correctional houses," but for the couple of hundred people who are serving time in Lukiskes, there is little opportunity for movement, for getting outside or, for that matter, even seeing outside.  It's bleak, it's cold and it's smelly.

But it wasn't just the bleak, cold and smelly that got to me.  I've been to those places before.  It was the history of the place, a lot has gone on there in the last 100 years.  It was knowing that these walls had been used by the Gestapo to hold thousands of Jews before taking them to the edge of the city and killing them.  It was knowing that until 2004, when Lithuanian dropped the death penalty in order to join the EU, people were shot dead in these walls.  It was knowing all the stuff I don't know.  That's a whole other level of bleak, cold and smelly.

Which brings me to the KGB prison in the basement of the Museum of Genocide Victims on the main street, at a charming plaza, in downtown Vilnius, which Jaime and I went to visit on our last day in the city.  During the 50 year Soviet occupation of Lithuania, this grand building was the headquarters of the KGB.  The building, which was primarily office space for KGB officers, now contains two floors of displays that describe the occupation of Lithuania by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, including the resistance, the deportation, the murders, and eventual freedoms.  In just the month of June 1941, over 18,000 Lithuanians were deported, or worse, by the Soviet forces.  It's a long story that I am not in a position to tell, but one I would encourage you to seek out.

As you can tell by the museum's name, the Lithuanians aren't trying to gloss this one over.  Like the potato pancakes for sale from the street vendors, there are no special sauces here, no elaborate presentation.  It's a fried potato.  It's the systematic and deliberate destruction an entire country and when you go inside this museum they lay it all out there for you to consider. 

Descending the stairs from the ground floor of this museum, into the basement where the prisoners were held, tortured and killed is still a scary experience.  Of course, I know I am a tourist, "Just Visiting," as they say in Monopoly, but that doesn't change the ugliness that seeps out of every crevice.  I'm not going to get into the details about what is down there, honestly I couldn't look at any of it too closely, but here are the take away points:  People can be very brave.  People can be very mean.  Try your best to keep that evil seed from growing.