Lukiskes Prison, a reminder of blood-soaked history, is to shake off the fame with relocation

  • 2011-07-13
  • By Linas Jegelevicius

Inmates don’t enjoy an Internet connection in the bleak accommodation.

KLAIPEDA - Tomas Navickas, a 32-year-old Lithuanian emigrant in the United Kingdom who was sentenced in March by a UK court to life in prison for murdering his concubine, is one of a handful of vicious Lithuanians who will likely spend the rest of their days behind bars.

The murderer prays he will be held in an English penitentiary, promising Western-like hotel-type prison amenities, rather than facing the prospect of being extradited back to Lithuania, as serving the sentence in the notorious Lukiskes Remand Prison makes him shiver. For Tomas, as well as most Lithuanian convicts abroad, extradition to Lithuania’s correctional facilities, undoubtedly, would be the severest punishment they could receive. With the rates of crimes by Lithuanians abroad swelling, Western countries opt to put the question of extradition on the table of various-rank Lithuanian authorities more and more often. Luckily for the 32-year-old Tomas, no agreement on the issue has been reached so far.

If you happened to walk down Gediminas Avenue to the Parliament, in Vilnius, you would, I bet, never guess that one of the oldest, yet Russian czar-conceived, prisons in the Baltics lies right in the heart of the city. Literally a 5-minute walk from the Parliament, if you, instead of making a loop, through a narrow vaulted backstreet from Gediminas Avenue, pass a glossy state-of-the-art building, you will be at the foot of the architectural splendor of the very beginning of the 20th century – Lukiskes Prison, conceived by Russian Emperor Nicholas II. Opened in 1904, the prison building initially consisted of two wing-type structures, with the emphasis on the prison church of five bronze-shining domes. Czarist Russia imprisoned in the fortress not only criminals, but also political figures, such as the Russian Bolshevik movement leader Felix Dzerzhinskis.

As I walk along an extended three-meter high yellowish crumbling-brick wall with dense barb wire atop, I feel, I have to admit, quite uneasy. I had been in the prison before, a long time ago, as a rookie journalist, but I had never felt good inside. “Is it because of my karma?” I wonder. To fight off my gloomy mood, I try to scrutinize the never-ending graffiti drawings on the prison wall. At the entrance, as I try to spot a buzzer in the wall, my hands fumble. Failing, I peek through a dark thick bar-crossed little window in the heavy handle-less door. I hear a buzz go off, then the door clicks, forcing itself slightly ajar.

I grab its edge, pull it heavily forward and am in, just finding myself in the front of another heavy bar-crossed metal door. Two penitentiary officers behind a shadowy and metal bar criss-crossed window in the check-in desk ask for my ID, and I meekly hand it over. “Both your IDs, personal identification card and your press card, are expired. You should renew them,” a pale skinny officer in a greenish outfit declares behind the thick-glassed window. As I frantically search for an excuse, another officer, also wearing a greenish uniform with pronounced insignia, appears at the bar-crossed and massive bolt-studded door, opens it up, grins feebly and invites me in. He asks me to lock up my cell phone and keys in a safety locker. As I hear a few polite words regarding the purpose of my visit, setting into a matter-of-fact composure, he warns me: “Please, do not take pictures of convicts above their waists.”

“Do you want to see anything in particular?”- he asks. I do not, only “regular” places of “regular” journalistic interests.  I do not feel I want to be, in any way, extraordinary with my wishes in the most heavily guarded Vilnius building which, as of July 1, 2011, houses 1,020 prisoners and employs around 250 prison guards. Most prisoners are there under temporary arrest awaiting court decisions or transfers to other detention facilities, but there is also a permanent prison with about 150 inmates, 87 of whom are serving for life.

“Before, we had more inmates in all sections of the prison, sometimes up to 1,200 in total. However, recently, due to the large emigration and, presumably, lesser charges in court, the numbers have gone down,” the Lukiskes Remand Prison deputy director said to The Baltic Times. I learned of the man’s capacity by sneaking a quick glance at his badge – he had warned me not to mention his name in the story on Lukiskes.
The 1,000-something inmates in Lukiskes Remand Prison are only the cream of the crop, as, according to Prison Department data, as of July 8, 2011,  as many as 9,514 persons are incarcerated in Lithuania – 8,383 of them are already sentenced and the rest, 1,131, still awaiting court trial.

“Statistically, 250 persons are sentenced per 100,000 people in Lithuania, which is one the highest indicators in the entire European Union,” Audre Miseikiene, the spokeswoman for Lithuania’s Prison Department, informed The Baltic Times.
Upon my approval, the deputy director takes me first to see the prison compartment where inmates serve life sentences. It takes up three floors in one part of the fortress. He stops by a first cell door in the dimly lit, high-ceiling corridor, albeit I see many cell doors down the corridor. As similar-looking warders pass by us, recognizing their superior in a matter-of-fact terse word exchange, the Lukiskes Remand Prison deputy director peeks through a small bar peek-window in the green-painted cell door and opens it up. “All cells in the prison are of no less than eight square meters. The inmate is currently working in our production shop. He has been awarded this right for his impeccable behavior. Only a few dozen inmates work in the prison.

Work is extremely valued in it, a sort of privilege as, this way, the inmates make some money and, more importantly, it helps time pass faster,” the high-ranking prison official says. The convicts, mostly, labor in the jail kitchen, while a handful are involved in the production shop, assembling various trifles, like bird nest-boxes, rabbit-nests and bee hives. “The inmates get paid a minimum, and working a few hours a day, they receive a few hundred litas per month. Sure, we make bank transfers, no cash is involved in penitentiaries,” the deputy director explains.

Inside the cell, I look around. I have to admit it is rather dim, however, tidy and clean, painted in the same dark greenish color, breathing a mildew-soaked coolness, as the only source of light, a roughly one-square-meter heavy bar-crossed window in the wall across the door, emanates, seemingly, excessively bright light from the sun-lit prison yard. I get closer to the window and I peek through it, noticing several plain-dressed loitering convicts outside. They are chatting, but I hear no sound. As I draw back, a picture of a Saint, put on a bookshelf full of books, among which I discern shiny letters saying Bible, catches my attention first. Among the books I notice some legal stuff as well. There is also a TV set and even a computer in the cell.

“There is no Internet in the cells. As for TV sets, they air only basic Lithuanian channels,” the prison official suggests. I am curious to find out whose cell we are in, and, as I proceed with the blunt question, I receive a straight-forward answer: “Justinas Buta. Besides work, he is also engaged in studies of Social Sciences in Vilnius Pedagogical University. He is one of a few students in the prison. Sure, he studies by corresponding.”  The young man has been incarcerated for the rest of his life for a bank robbery and murder of its security guard in 1995. The killer had been sentenced to death first, but after Lithuania joined the EU, the penalty was commuted to life in prison.

For toilet purposes, a single open hole in the corner of the eight-square meter cell serves. Though the cell accommodates two bunks, only one is occupied. “If an inmate serving a life sentence wants another inmate in his cell, we always try to satisfy the request. However, often, the inmates prefer staying alone in their cells, like the one whose cell we are in,” the prison superior says, emphasizing that most cells of other inmates house three or four men. All cells can provide the inmates no more than two square meters per person, while the EU recommendation is three square meters.

Among inmates serving life sentences, there is the only woman, Alma Bruzaite-Jonaitiene, incarcerated for life for killing her two small sons, a tragedy that had shaken all of Lithuania a few years ago. The woman works as a seamstress during daytime, and fondles a cat in her single-person cell at night. The prison’s administration has made an exception, allowing the child killer to keep a feline in the cell.

After more than a century of continuous service, the prison suffers from overcrowding and is in need of thorough improvements, which might partly patch up the blood-soaked prison’s history. The last execution in Lukiskes Remand Prison dates back to 1995, when the then-Vilnius mafia head, Borisas Dekanidze, was, presumably, shot in the prison’s chambers for organizing the murder of Vitas Lingys, a prominent journalist.

Throughout the 107-year history, the prison chambers have witnessed the most heinous tortures and murders, most of them going back to the early 1940s. In June 1941, during the German invasion, the NKVD - Russia’s secret militia - simply shot the prisoners. The prison became even more notorious during the Nazi occupation of Lithuania, when it was used by the Gestapo and Lithuanian Saugumas (Security) to hold thousands of Vilnius’ Jews. The majority of them were taken to the outskirts of Vilnius and executed in a cold-blooded manner.
The prison store, a dim-lit, mildew-smelling premise, reminds me more of a storage room in an old house - many goods are packed in large batches.

“Sure, the inmates do not possess any cash, and the prison regime does not allow them to leave their cells. Only the employed inmates, a group of 38 men, in the production shop, can come into the store after their shift is over. Usually, an inmate writes a request first, then we check if he possesses funds in his bank account. If he does, wardens go to the store and pick up for him what he needs. Sure, as you see, there is no Maxima-like choice in the prison store,” the deputy director emphasizes. “Cigarettes and tea are the most sought-after commodities in the store,” a saleswoman, a plain-faced woman in her forties, adds.

The prison, in conjunction with several universities, as a part of the inmates’ correctional program, offers several state-funded programs aimed to facilitate the convicts’ return to life outside the prison and nurture positive alterations in personality.  “Some attend the programs eagerly, some disdain any attempt to bring more positiveness into their life,” the prison official acknowledged.

The prison houses a modest, however, cozy Catholic Chapel, where a priest celebrates Sunday masses. A dozen inmates attend them, finding solace and taking advantage of cheering up their otherwise tedious life. “However, even in the chapel, two present wardens have to monitor closely mass attendees, as they often run into heated skirmishes,” another head of a prison’s sub-division admitted, having taken me to the chapel.

Upon my request, he also took me to the prison library. High-ceilinged, and with books strewn all over, with the shelves full of dusty antique-looking books, climbing four meters up, it reminds of a medieval library in a monastery. “Most inmates find reading to be their only amusement, so I have to turn head over heels to satisfy their needs,” the librarian, Katarina Jurkeniene, admitted to The Baltic Times. She says that most inmates are interested in detective stories, as well as legal literature. Oh, there is a small section of foreign literature, which also has its readership, a handful of convicted or trial-awaiting foreigners.

One of the foreign inmates, Michael Cambell,  who was arrested in Lithuania in 2008 for allegedly attempting to purchase arms for Oglaigh na hEireann (commonly known as the IRA, the Irish Republican Army, responsible for a number of bloody military acts), although he maintains he traveled to Lithuania to purchase counterfeit cigarettes and is the victim of a “set-up” by Lithuanian and British authorities, is a The Baltic Times subscriber and an ardent reader. I wanted to talk briefly to him, but the Lukiskes Remand Prison deputy director frowned disapprovingly. Hey, buddy, regardless of your guilt or non-guilt, do not let it bring you down!

Lithuanian correctional facilities have long been notorious for their Soviet-time castes, ranging from the lowest rung, punks, to the highest one, vierchs.
“Over twenty years of independence, they have been nearly rooted out. Many convicts eligible for easier-regime correctional facilities beg us to let them serve their sentence in Lukiskes Remand Prison, as they feel much safer here,” the deputy director asserted.

The statement may sound as a stark contrast to the numerous human rights watchdogs’ reprimands over the unsatisfactory prison conditions, far from the EU recommendations in EU correctional facilities. However, the Lukiskes Remand Prison history-hallmark decision by the Lithuanian government has been here - the prison is due to be moved out from the center of Vilnius by 2014.