The infamous Lukiškės Prison in Vilnius is run-down and will be closed 2017.

Features Criminal corrections in the Baltic countries: The Soviet legacy persists

The Baltic countries have a larger percentage of people in prison than any other EU member state. The reason? A persistent Soviet legacy that decress criminals should be locked up.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2: 2013, pages 9-12
Published on on October 29, 2013

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That so many Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians are imprisoned is not due to extremely high criminality; several other European countries report more per capita crimes. No, the prisons are so crowded mainly because the Baltic countries, to an unusually great degree, resort to custodial sentences instead of fines or probation. Another reason is that people sent to prison are still being given unusually long sentences, albeit slightly shorter than those given in the 1990s.

A number of problems arise when this culture of the administration of justice is combined with stingy allocation of resources to the corrections system including overcrowded prisons, severely neglected upkeep, and inadequately trained personnel, all of which contribute to a high rate of recidivism.

Across much of Europe, countries have begun successfully reducing recidivism in recent years, but that is not the case in Lithuania and Latvia, where the figures remain relatively high. This is costly for the countries in both human and economic terms. International studies have shown that repeat offenders may cost society about one million euros, on average, over their lifetime. Reducing recidivism is thus more than a humanitarian goal: it can also yield large economic gains.

But this is no easy task. Even though a great many methods have been tried over the years, it is difficult to say which are the most effective: local conditions vary tremendously. It is easier to identify the conditions that are not conducive to reducing recidivism. One such condition is crowded and outmoded prisons, which are still the norm across much of the corrections systems in Latvia and Lithuania. The situation is somewhat better in Estonia.

In this article, I will concentrate mainly on Lithuania, where a new law took effect earlier this year that makes it much easier for courts to impose probationary sentences. Tauras Rutkunas, an expert at the Ministry of Justice in Vilnius, sighs when I mention the new law. “Very few prosecutors and courts have thus far taken advantage of this law, even though we know probationary sentences lead to fewer repeat offenses. Unfortunately, a lot of people in the justice system are still laboring under the notion that prison sentences must be imposed in almost all situations.

“Politicians and courts do realize of course that the costs of the corrections system would be reduced if we had fewer people in prison. But many are reluctant to fly in the face of public opinion, which demands long prison sentences.”

Antanas Laurine˙nas, an adviser to the Director General of the Prison Department, concurs. “When inmates are released early for good behavior, people are outraged. They want ‘criminals to stay in prison, period!’ But we cannot have so many people imprisoned!”

Professor of social sciences Dmitri Usik at Mykolas Romeris University in Vilnius relates that this opinion, that all criminals should be kept locked up, is commonly held within all social strata:

“I hear the same opinion from highly educated people here at the university. This Soviet legacy is deeply embedded in our psyche and it is probably going to take a long time to change. I recently read about a prosecutor who was seeking a five-year sentence for illegal possession of a firearm. It was simply a hunting rifle. Utterly absurd! The person had not committed a crime with the weapon. Luckily, the court saw fit to impose a custodial sentence of only 20 hours.”

Dmitri Usik was one of the advisers when the new law concerning more lenient sentencing was drafted. He is unhappy with how the politicians justified the changes in the law.

“The minister of justice and other high-level politicians have done too little to convince prosecutors and courts of the importance of reducing the number of imprisoned citizens. They have not gone out and defended the new law and presented arguments for how it should be applied.”

The prosecutor general, on the other hand, seems to have understood the scope of the problem: last spring, he made a public appeal for more lenient sentencing. He also spoke in favor of yet another change of the penal code in order to reduce the prison population. Previous measures of that kind have also produced results: the Lithuanian authorities had reduced the prison population from 15,000 in the 1990s to below 8,000 by 2008. The effect of the law was that sentences for minor crimes were reduced and increasing numbers of inmates were granted early release. But toward the end of 2008, the financial crisis struck and the job market nosedived. It became difficult even for people without a criminal record to get a job and nigh on impossible for ex-convicts. This was a causal factor that led many of them to reoffend. The prison population rose again and now stands at approximately 10,000.

The Lithuanian corrections system is thus facing huge challenges. Most of the country’s ten prisons still have cells that may house up to 20 inmates. Since 150—200 prisoners share toilets in the corridors, they can easily access each other’s cells, which gives rise to conflicts. Lithuanian prisoners have an average of three square meters of living space, which is below the minimum recommended by the Council of Europe. Women and youth have slightly more space. Tauras Rutkunas at the Ministry of Justice says, “We know it is far too crowded. If we do not reduce the number of custodial sentences, we will never fix the problem. We cannot afford to build new prisons or carry out renovations to the extent needed to reduce the overcrowding.”

Antanas Laurine˙nas of the Prison Department adds, “With the current prison population, we would need to build twice as many prisons to eliminate all the cells in which 16—20 prisoners are now crowded. And that is impossible, of course. Accordingly, we must reduce the total number of prisoners.”

A life sentence in Lithuania means precisely that: the convict remains in prison for the rest of his or her natural life. Since the abolition of the death penalty in the mid-1990s — a decision a large percentage of Lithuanians opposed — a life sentence is the harshest possible punishment. It is likely to be some time before public opinion becomes favorable towards early release of the 100 or so individuals who are serving life sentences in Lithuanian prisons.

The high recidivism rate is another cause of overcrowded prisons. There are numerous reasons why so many people reoffend, including inadequate rehabilitation prior to release and the absence of close ties with family and friends outside the prison walls. One measure that has shown good results in other countries is the establishment of open prisons, institutions where inmates are allowed to leave on day release but must return at night. When release is imminent, the transition to freedom is not as drastic as if the inmate had been confined for the entire sentence. Lithuania has one such open prison and hopes to be able to establish more. In the Nordic countries, prisoners who have exhibited good behavior may be transferred from closed to open institutions, an approach that is not yet permitted in Lithuania. Taurus Rutkunas believes increasing the number of open prisons is one of the solutions: “But is public opinion ready for more convicts to be free during the day and only be locked up at night? Not yet, I fear — but hopefully in the future.”

The public is also skeptical of electronic monitoring for conditionally released convicts, a sanction that recently became possible in Lithuania. The Latvians are also considering introducing electronic monitoring and are well aware that criticism is to be expected. In Lithuania only about 30 people so far have been fitted with electronic ankle tags, considerably fewer than proponents had hoped: again, this is a consequence of powerful forces in the justice system that want to see most offenders behind bars.

The historical background of crowding so many prisoners into small spaces in the Baltic countries is a deliberate strategy dating from the Soviet era. Prisons were meant to resemble the labor camps established in Siberia, where people lived in large, common spaces and work was the sole focus. There were no plans for helping people prepare for life on the outside.

Conditions in the country’s prisons thus deteriorated during the Soviet occupation. Just a few blocks away from Tauras Rutkunas’s office at the Ministry of Justice in central Vilnius lies the Lukiške˙s Prison, which was built during the Tsarist era — and is still in use. “For a long time, it was one of our better prisons, since it had cells for 3—4 inmates. But it is now extremely run-down and is expected to be closed within the next few years,” Rutkunas says.

One effect of the substandard Soviet corrections system is thus that a hundred-year-old prison with almost a thousand inmates, including several murderers serving life sentences, is still in operation only a hop, skip, and jump away from Gediminas Avenue, Vilnius’s answer to the Champs-Élysées. Walking around the city, I met a young woman who was about to enter a building diagonally across the street from the barb-wired walls of the prison. “A prison is a perfect neighbor. It is nice and quiet here even though I live in the center of town! A prison is much better than a hotel or bar,” she says with a smile.

One can only imagine what a losing proposition it is for the city and the state to have a prison at this lucrative address. It was ultramodern when it was built in 1904, with central heating and the latest technology for water and sewage systems. Today, everything is outmoded and the ventilation is substandard. A journalist colleague who was recently shown around the prison was there when the Internet connection suddenly went down — whereupon the warden burst out, “Oh no, the rats have chewed through the wires again!”

Like most prisons in the country, Lukiške˙s also lacks a modern alarm system, which means an unusually high percentage of the staff are occupied with direct monitoring of the prisoners. “Most of our prisons have eight watchtowers with five people assigned to them who take turns doing guard duty around the clock,” says Antanas Laurine˙nas of the Prison Department. “That means 40 people per prison who could be working with social rehabilitation instead, if only we could afford new alarms!”

There were essentially no personnel with medical or social qualifications during the Soviet era. Things are better now, but on average there is still only one person working with social rehabilitation for every 50—60 prisoners — compared to one such staff member for every 5—10 prisoners in neighboring countries like Sweden and Norway. The shortage of psychologists is particularly severe in Lithuanian prisons.

In addition, there is a crying need for training initiatives for existing personnel. Development assistance from Norway and the EU has funded additional training for many employees, both on site in Lithuania and on study trips to neighboring countries. Taurus Rutkunas explains:

“It is a matter of changing the employees’ point of view. This is not a huge problem among young and new employees. But the Soviet perspective persists among middle-aged and older employees: the disparaging attitudes towards the inmates, the refusal to see them as individuals, but only as a herd of prisoners who are there to serve their time and nothing more. Yes, attitudes are changing — but slowly.”

I went to the youth prison in Kaunas, where development assistance from Scandinavia has provided both new premises and further training for employees. Corrections officer Ina Dikcˇiene is one of those who has attended a course in Sweden:

“We learned a lot about attitudes towards the inmates. Here, we have been bad at seeing them as individuals with unique needs and circumstances. We used to treat everyone the same way and we just gave them orders, no two ways about it. I’ve started to think differently and I see the whole person, listen more to each and every one. They are citizens who are hopefully only here temporarily, not hopeless cases. This new perspective has also made my job much more interesting and rewarding.”

With more employees who have learned the latest methods of social rehabilitation, opportunities are increasing for these young people, ages 14—21, to reintegrate successfully in society after they serve their time. The conditions for this were also improved by extensive renovation of the prison buildings. “The young people behave better in the new premises; they demonstrate greater respect for one another,” says prison warden Markas Tokarevas. “Environments can shape people and we have seen absolute proof of that here.”

It was the Norwegian government that stepped in  — within the framework of the country’s EES Grants awarded to 15 different EU member states — and paid 85 percent of the roughly 1.8 million euros that the renovations cost during the period of 2007—2010. The people in charge of the prison had been begging for these renovations for many years, but the Lithuanian government had determined that there was no room in the budget.

I am shown shocking pictures from 2007 of cells where young people had been forced to spend several years of their lives — bare walls with peeling paint, bunk beds on the verge of collapse, broken furniture, and toilets so filthy and worn out that the inmates must have been reluctant to use them. Back then, 20—30 young people lived in the same dormitory where bullying and harassment were rife. The warden related how the young inmates subjected each other to various punishments. One common prank was “the bicycle”, when matches were put between the toes of a sleeping inmate and then lit. The victim, of course, began violently pumping his or her legs. “We haven’t had any incidents of ‘the bicycle’ since 2010,” says the warden proudly.

The Norwegian money has also been spent to improve medical care. Many of the young offenders come from dysfunctional environments of neglect and abuse. They may arrive in prison with any number of health problems: tuberculosis, serious rashes, severe toothache, or other painful conditions. “In the past, we doled out the same kind of pain medicine for all conditions. They are now given good medical care instead.”

I am offered a tour of the prison and shown the neat and clean corridors and the nicely furnished rooms, each housing 2—4 inmates. One 19-year-old inmate, let’s call him Mantas, comes sauntering along in a tracksuit. He is among the teenage convicts who also experienced the olden days, before the renovations. “My room was so cold,” Mantas says. “The wind came straight through and ice formed on the inside of the window. It was never quiet at night and it was awful when you had to go to the toilet. It stank so bad.”

How did that make you feel?

“I was angry. I was angry pretty much all the time. I didn’t understand how they could lock me up in an environment like that.”

And how do you feel now?

“It doesn’t feel okay to be here now either. It sucks to be locked up. But now they treat me with respect, they didn’t before.”

At age 16, Mantas, extremely drunk, got into a fight with an acquaintance of the same age. The fight got out of control and ended with the death of his friend. Mantas was sentenced to nine years, the first five to be spent in the youth prison. “If he were to leave us full of bitterness and hatred, there is every indication that he would reoffend once he had served the final years of his sentence,” says the warden. “His chances of returning to a law-abiding life are now improving.”

In response to a direct question, the warden concedes that without the Norwegian money, the situation would have been the same today as in 2007. The major initiative was carried out at the same time the national economy collapsed as a consequence of the financial crisis; if not for the Norwegian grant, things might even have been worse today than in 2007. The abysmal conditions before the renovations were also hard on the employees. The roof leaked and indoor temperatures dropped as low as 11 degrees in the winter. And everywhere, the premises were in terrible condition. “Obviously, the dreadful work environment did nothing to improve treatment of the inmates.”

Funds from Norway and the EU have also been used to finance something they call a “social integration facility”, which is a separate building across the street where young offenders with a history of good behavior can move when their release date approaches. We walk through the premises where bedrooms, the gym, work premises, and the kitchen all have a pleasant, homelike feel. The young people learn how to live ordinary lives here and they go on field trips to farms and factories to learn more about the job market. “It is fantastic to see how the young people develop for the better when they are allowed to stay here,” says social worker Edita Simonavicˇiu¯te. “We need many more institutions of this kind here in Lithuania.”

Norwegian money has also been used to renovate a couple of other prisons. Further initiatives are now being planned for additional Norwegian grants in the next few years. Why has the Norwegian government chosen to focus on the corrections systems in Lithuania and Latvia? “After several fact-finding trips, we understood that the needs were vast and that relatively little EU funding had been allocated to the corrections systems in these countries,” says Harald Føsker at the Norwegian Ministry of Justice.

Several countries that have acceded to the Schengen agreement have observed a marked increase in the number of crimes committed by foreign nationals. Under the principle of free movement, it is not only jobseekers who are moving across borders — criminals are moving too. Norway is among the most severely impacted countries in Western Europe: in the spring of 2013, 34 percent of all prisoners in the country were foreign nationals, an increase from 13 percent in 2000. The government hopes that increasing numbers will be able to serve their sentences in their home countries. Norway has transferred 13—14 prisoners per year to Lithuania in recent years. “Now that we are in a position to help improve conditions, we are also prepared to send more people back,” says Harald Føsker. “But this is not only a matter of what we want to do; it also involves a legal process on the Lithuanian and Latvian sides that tends to take a long time.”

Although only a few years have gone by since the major Norwegian initiative to improve the youth prison in Kaunas, a reduction in the recidivism rate has already been observed among youth who have been confined in the renovated premises. Unfortunately, no such positive development has yet been seen at the Vilnius Correctional House, where about 600 adults are serving their sentences. This prison as well — which is located just outside the old city center — was able to say goodbye to a worn-out building a few years ago, only to move into a former mental hospital, whose premises could not be adapted to the needs of the prison. As many as 12 prisoners still have to share a single cell. Warden Cˇeslovas Jocius throws his hands up in despair at the question of how many repeat offenders are found in the prison population. “Every one of the inmates in one of our blocks of 494 prisoners has previous convictions, eight convictions on average. In our other block, which holds 121 convicted local and state officials, half are first-time offenders.”

He admits that it can sometimes feel hopeless when they just come back, over and over again.

“We tell them we don’t want to see them here again. And most of them answer by telling our guards they are absolutely not going to return, they are sure they will be able to manage life outside the walls. But once they are out there, if they are lucky enough to find a job at all, they soon realize the minimum wage of a thousand litas (a little over 300 euros) a month won’t take them very far. And so they start thieving again after a few weeks.

“But we have had inmates who have not returned, of course. We have asked a few of them to come back and tell the other prisoners how they can organize their lives so they don’t reoffend. I believe these discussions have been very meaningful.”

There are also organizations that help ex-convicts start a new life, organizations that even come to the prison and meet with the inmates. But these organizations have relatively few active members, since Lithuania essentially lacks a tradition of voluntary work, and they have also had to work for a long time with zero support from the government. However, since the new probation law took effect last year, a law whose main purpose is to reduce the number of custodial sentences, these organizations have begun to receive a certain measure of state aid.

The prison has among other things an art studio and a woodworking shop. When I am being shown around, an inmate approaches me of his own accord in the prison yard and proudly shows off a beautiful oil painting. The prison has a need for many more activities of that kind to keep the prisoners occupied and prepare them for life after prison. Other prisons may have bakeries and various kinds of workshops, but there are no such facilities here. “Only 120 out of 600 prisoners work while they are in prison. We cannot afford to help any more than that.”

The situation is not much better at other prisons. The researcher Dmitri Usik states that one third of all prisoners are not in work or study. “If we cannot offer them any meaningful occupation, we should not put them in prison! People who have nothing to do while they are in prison are much more likely to reoffend.”

There are glowing exceptions at Vilnius Correction House, stories about ex-convicts who have not reoffended and prisoners who put the work experience gained in prison to good use: a couple of the guys who learned joinery have started their own business which has been going beautifully for five or six years now. And the company has already hired other ex-convicts. But it is still difficult for ex-cons to get jobs, even though the Lithuanian economy has recovered since the financial crisis. “People who have been in prison have a very hard time getting a job. It is a huge challenge to persuade employers to change how they look at these people,” says Antanas Laurine˙nas at the Prison Department.

Laurine˙nas also worked with the Lithuanian prison system during the Soviet era. When liberation came some 20 years ago, he hoped for rapid changes for the better in all social sectors, including the corrections system. But such was not to be. Like so many of his countrymen, he has been forced to admit that his hopes for the future were too grand: that there was far too little money to implement all of the urgently needed reforms in society. Budget appropriations to the prisons were cut by 20 percent during the 2008—2010 financial crisis and are only now beginning to approach the 2007 level.

“We have absolutely taken a number of steps forward since 1991. Remember that Russia for example has almost twice as many prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants. But progress is still depressingly slow. The corrections system has proved to be one of the social institutions that has been the most difficult to change since the fall of the Soviet Union. Law-abiding people say that criminals must take personal responsibility for changing their lifestyles, that they must change their attitudes toward society. And I agree. But the law-abiding must also change their own attitudes and stop looking down on offenders. And give them a second chance.”

  • by Påhl Ruin

    Freelance writer, based in Stockholm. He has previously worked and lived in Vilnius. He has earlier reported for Swedish publications from Tokyo and Vienna and worked for several years in Stockholm. Frequently published in Baltic Worlds.

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