RIGA - Everyone has heard of Karosta Prison, but few have gone. Paying good money to get beaten up and thrown in jail seems masochistic to some, but it also happens to be an excellent way to find out what it was really like to be incarcerated in a Soviet prison.
I had just walked up to the gate at the Karosta Prison in Liepaja when a Soviet soldier suddenly appeared. Having been a U.S. naval officer, this was very disconcerting.
I was invited into the prison grounds to join a group of students just starting their orientation. One of the boys stepped out of rank and got kicked by the guard.
The "prisoners" are offered four different tour levels, based on the amount of discomfort they want. Level one is the least realistic. Level-four prisoners spend the night inside the prison and are given more realistic treatment, i.e. being kicked, yelled at, or worse. It's no wonder everyone on the tour has to sign a waiver before proceeding.
The prison staff have set aside special cells for those prisoners who happen to be on an increasingly popular stag do, and who dare spend the night incarcerated.
Karosta Prison's function was to hold and brutalize Soviet military personnel who had not met the approval of the Soviet military. Civilians who had collaborated with the guilty soldier were also incarcerated in the prison, including women.
No one ever escaped or tried to escape from the prison. They would have had no place to go once outside the prison walls, since the military complex surrounded the prison.
After a brief history of Karosta, our group was marched into and the door slammed shut behind us. Our group of 20 was suddenly in total darkness. To get my bearings, I turned on my camera, flashing on some poor student whose eyes were wide in fear. The walls were damp and clammy. The group of 20 almost filled up the cell. Normally 32 people would have been housed in each cell.
If someone in a group misbehaved, 72 people would be put into one cell. If one prisoner misbehaved, all cell members were punished.
The cells had no beds, but at times had boards for the prisoners to sleep on. Twice a day, the prisoners were fed a mixture of 80 percent sawdust and 20 percent ground-up grain. Once a day, the guards escorted an entire cell at a time to the single toilet room. This room is still quite odoriferous.
Most prisoners did not survive more than three days. In addition to confinement in pitch-dark, unheated cells and the lack of food and sleep, the prisoners were forced to do vigorous exercises outside. The exercise yard still has the original fencing and barbed wire surrounding it. Prisoners were required to run in place at 170 steps per minute.
About 150 executed prisoners' bodies were buried across the street from the prison. Apartment buildings were built over the burial sites.
The prison has a small museum with German and Soviet pistols, rifles and other war items, including a gas mask for a baby. And yes, it has a picture of Lenin.
Karosta was constructed by the Russian Empire and was a separate entity from Liepaja. Karosta was the largest military territory in the Baltics during Czarist Russia. When the Soviets gained control of Latvia, they continued to use this area as a military territory and it was totally off-limits to civilians.
Locals are as fascinated by this tour as the tourists are, and you'll find moderate crowds here throughout the year. Most find it hard to believe a tour like this exists and are in a state of quiet awe most of the time, adding to the eerie, ghostly experience.
Karosta Prison is located at Invalidu iela 4, Liepaja. For more info visit www.karosta.lv