MARIJAMPOLE - The Soviet-era open-air cages may have been phased out, but living conditions in Lithuania's dilapidated and overcrowded Marijampole prison fall far short of the standards expected of a country about to join the European Union on May 1.
"It is a big problem, but it's not going to be solved any time soon because we don't have enough money," prison director Markas Tokarevas told a visiting reporter after showing him a 30-square-meter-large cell where 26 inmates huddled.
Eight of the 10 countries about to enter the EU were under communist dictatorship for half a century, and one of their legacies is an outdated prison system where AIDS and tuberculosis flourish.
In Central Europe, between 160 and 200 people are serving time in prison for every 100,000 of the national population, a ratio up to twice as high as the average in the 15 current EU member states.
The proportion is even higher in the three Baltic states, which were part of the Soviet Union itself until late 1991. In Lithuania there are 226 inmates for every 100,000, 352 in Latvia and 361 in Estonia.
The statistics put these three among the 30 countries with the highest rates of incarceration, according to the London-based International Center for Prison Studies.
The Marijampole prison, which houses recidivists, has an official limit of 1,216 inmates, but until recently contained almost twice as many, and even today is 25 percent over capacity.
Hard drugs circulate freely, just as they do in Western Europe, and in Marijampole prisoners are given disinfectants to clean hypodermic needles in an effort to curb the spread of AIDS.
Two years ago in Alytus, in the south of the country, 220 of the penitentiary's 1,900 inmates were found to be carrying the HIV virus.
The World Health Organiza-tion has warned that overcrowding also encourages the spread of tuberculosis, and in particular the highly resistant strain that has developed with the spread of the AIDS pandemic and is prevalent in jails in Russia and the Baltic states.
The condition of prisoners in Central and Eastern Europe has nevertheless improved since the collapse of communism in 1989, with the abolition of the death penalty and a reduction in physical abuse.
"Poland is a very good example of a country that has managed to go quickly from a Soviet system to one close to that which exists in Western Europe," said Anton Shelupanov, a researcher at the ICPS.
One of the most important steps taken in Poland was to replace about two-fifths of its prison staff, weeding out brutal, corrupt or drunken guards and holding courses in how to treat detainees humanely.
At the same time, it took steps to improve the health of inmates. Between 1994 and 2002, the proportion of the prison population suffering from tuberculosis dropped from 0.5 percent of the total to 0.2 percent, said Mazena Ksel, a senior Polish medical prison officer.
Prison directors fear, however, that they will be first in line as the incoming EU member states embark on the vast budget cuts necessary to bring their economies in line with those of the euro zone.
"Looking after jailbirds is not a priority in a democracy," said Michael Hunault, a French member of the European Parliament who hopes to see a European penal convention in place.
"It is not easy for politicians to lobby for money for prison reform in Lithuania, where some families are crowded into tiny apartments," said Mika Simkunaite, a Lithuanian Interior Ministry official.