RIGA - Alarm bells sounded across Latvia after four escaped convicts managed to cross the Lithuanian border last week, prompting Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis to summon National Border Guard chief Gunars Dabolins for an explanation. On Aug. 11, two days after four criminals escaped from the Riga Central Prison, border guards apprehended the convicts at the Lithuanian-Polish border.
The fact that the escapees, convicted of murder, theft and rape, had made it so far raised immediate alarm among officials and the public.
In an effort to quell public concern, Kalvitis promised to get to the bottom of the issue and immediately scheduled a meeting with the head of the Border Guard.
"The prime minister wants to clear up why the escaped criminals were not detained on the Latvian-Lithuanian border," Kalvitis' aide in interior affairs, Raimonds Lazdins, told the Baltic News Service.
Dabolins, however, said the problem is not with Latvia's border control but the country's poor prison system.
"The Latvian-Lithuanian border is no Berlin Wall," he told The Baltic Times. "The person driving the prisoners had all the legal documents to cross, and our border guards should not be blamed. If you want to look for responsibility, then turn to the Riga Central Prison 's why did they escape in the first place?"
Dabolins added that it was also easier for the criminals to cross Latvia's border because there were so few authorities stationed. While preparing to join the Schengen Treaty, he explained, Latvia has focused more on the EU's external borders, moving staff from the Lithuanian and Estonian borders to stations along the Russian border.
Border guards first received information about the escaped convicts on Aug. 10 from local residents who said they had seen the prisoners, whose mug shots were published in leading dailies, heading toward southern Latvia.
The fleers were finally detained on Aug. 11, after Lithuanian authorities spotted the men attempting to climb a 2.5 meter barbed wire fence on the Lithuanian-Polish border near the town of Lazdynai.
After identifying the convicts as Eriks Atkacovs, 33, Viktors Atamanovs, 21, Aleksejs Ivanovs, 27, and Ricards Pravecs, 26, authorities convoyed the four to Latvia, where they were handed over to the Prison Administration.
"The problem was solved very quickly with our Lithuanian colleagues," Dabolins said, voicing satisfaction over Latvia's successful cooperation with its neighbor.
Still, many feel there is much to worry about.
The escape has highlighted serious deficiencies in Latvia's border control and prison system. Indeed, the convicts escaped from the Riga Central Prison in an almost comical 1930s criminal fashion.
During the night, the four inmates sawed a hole in the plaster wall of their third floor cell, which was not heard due to the building's loud ventilation system nor seen since the hallway's CTV camera was inoperative.
Continuing their ingenious escape, the prisoners used a rope made of bed sheets and towels to climb down the third story window. They then made a dash for the prison walls, passing one empty guard tower 's again because of staff shortage 's and climbing over two barbed wire walls, both around three meters in height. A security guard noticed the escapees before they reached the prison's final wall and sounded an alarm. The guard subsequently fired at the convicts, injuring one.
In the final leg of their escape, the criminals pulled a shenanigan worthy of the Three Stooges: The inmates dashed across the railroad tracks outside the prison just seconds before an oncoming train arrived, trapping the ensuing prison guards on the other side. While the guards waited helplessly for the long cargo train to pass, the escapees fled in a BMW that had been waiting for them on the other side.
According to the prison's administration, there were no guards manning the third floor, as low wages have led to a critical shortage of staff. Prison Administration spokesman Karlis Serzants aptly described the situation: "It's more beneficial to pick strawberries in Ireland for 400 lats (576 euros) a month than to watch inmates for 150 lats a month," he was quoted by the daily Diena as saying.
In the words of Aigars Berzins, press secretary for the Latvian State Police, "We now know that the criminals had outside help escapingâ€¦ All I can reveal is that the car waiting for them was driven by one of the convict's relatives. This relative drove the four criminals to Skaistkalne on the Latvian-Lithuanian border, where they successfully crossed and dropped them off halfway into Lithuania."
On a positive note, the incident has brought much deserved attention to the poor state of Latvia's prisons.
"The situation is very bad 's mostly because there's no money," said Jana Saulite, press secretary for the Ministry of Justice. "This jailbreak has made the government realize that action must be taken now. We can't wait any longer."
In a few weeks, the Ministry of Justice will meet with the government and discuss what amount of the state budget will go toward improving the prison system.
According to Saulite, the ministry is planning to ask for some 1 million lats, which will go toward prison remodelling, new security technology, and staff wages.
"I can't say exactly how much we expect to get," the Ministry of Justice press secretary said, "But the immediate necessity for upgrading our prisons has been made clear. We can't let something like this happen again."