A Day in Prison – Rakowiecka

Sorry for not writing anything yesterday! Nothing much happened except class and I didn’t want to bore you all with the details of my not-so-interesting day (to sum it up: learned about the Warsaw Uprising, ate way too much food, took a nap and got sunburned while doing homework outside).

So on to today – what did we do during this absolutely jam-packed day? In order to save you from having to read the blog post that never ends, I’m going to cut today in half and post the first stop of the day in this post and the afternoon stop sometime tomorrow.

Our day started off at the Rakowiecka Prison in Warsaw. This is a currently active prison, servicing some 900 prisoners at any given time. However, what makes this prison special is that it was built during the time of the Polish Partitions (basically when Poland was not a state and its territory had been partitioned out to Russia, Prussia and Austria) and was used as a KGB prison during Communist times. Many political prisoners were kept here and between 1945 and 1956, over 1,000 prisoners were executed by the Soviets, many of whom still remain unidentified.

When we were first told that we would be touring a prison, I immediately thought how cool it would be. I’ve never toured a prison or jail in the United States before, but I’ve done a lot of research on the criminal justice system and I thought it would be interesting to compare the two. However, the more I thought about it and the more I learned about this particular prison, known for it’s torture during Soviet control, the more worried I became. We were told to dress accordingly because there was a chance for contact with current inmates. We weren’t allowed to bring in any cell phones, cameras or bags. And finally, we were granted last-minute access to the area of the prison where the most dangerous criminals were kept, those serving life sentences and never allowed outside.

But you know what? Here I am in Poland, I’m going to go see as much of this prison as they’ll let me see. Because of the no camera rule, the only pictures I have of the prison are from the outside. We did see a van for the prison guards pull up and drive into the prison while we were waiting to go in.

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Once inside, we sat in a very fancy room with wood floors, a small stage and portraits of who I would assume were famous generals or leaders in Poland as we got an introduction from the prison director. He explained to us the history of the prison, including it’s period of torture and Soviet control. He detailed how the room we were sitting in used to be the Communist prison courtroom and directly below us was where they would execute people. The thought of that alone makes you a little queasy, let alone actually setting foot on the mark where the executions took place, but we’ll get to that later.

The prison director gave us some background on how the Polish prison system works. The Polish system, like the American system, is overcrowded, so even though presently the Rakowiecka prison is meant to only hold men pre-trial, because of it’s nice facilities and large number of beds, many prisoners stay there to serve out their sentence after trial as well. On site there is classes the inmates can take, therapy sessions (especially for alcohol abuse and addiction) and a hospital. Inmates are also allowed to leave the facility to attend classes at a local university should the judge rule that it is okay. Rehabilitation is a big thing in the Polish system. The facilitators at the prison all believe that after they serve their sentence, the men will be able to fully function in society.

I found that pretty interesting since while it is always the goal for prisoners to be released and be able to integrated into society, in America that is hardly ever the case. Prisoners get very little extra services, like higher level education, while serving time and society treats them so poorly once released. In the United States the level of recidivism is quite high. In Poland, probably due to the services provided in prison, that level is lower.

After hearing about the history of the prison, it was time for a tour. We got to see an actual cell, one where five men all lived. It was about the size of my single-bed dorm room at Northeastern. These men, even though they had small, uncomfortable looking beds, were also allowed to have a computer, playstation, potted plants, a rug and pictures everywhere. It was way more homey looking than I expected.

We were led down a staircase into a hallway with a very low ceiling. The temperature immediately got about 15-20 degrees warmer and you could feel the air all around you. The floors were still the original concrete (the rest of the prison was tiled) with cracks and chunks missing every few steps. Where were we? Then it became clear. This is where the torture used to occur. No windows, a few doors leading into smaller, more claustrophobic rooms. You could almost hear the screams as the type of methods used were described.

We were led through this hallway even farther still until we got to three small steps leading into a very small, very smelly sunken down room. Directly in front of us was a concrete wall. To our left, a small alcove with a hole in the floor, a faucet and a window under which were two wreaths with Polish inscriptions on them. Only now do I understand that these inscriptions must be some sort of memorial to those who passed through this place. This was the executioner’s room.

The queasy feeling we all felt earlier when we sat in the courtroom doubled now that we were all sweating, breathing in foul smelling air and standing in the exact spot hundreds, if not thousands, of people had been shot dead and then dragged into the alcove and out the window to dispense of their bodies. The prisoners knew they were receiving the death penalty, but were never told the exact day on which they were to be killed. One day a guard came to transport them and as they walked down those very steps, the guard would pull out his gun and shoot them. As you looked down at the cracks in the floor in front of those stairs, the feeling to get out was intense. Finally breathing fresh air once outside again was such a relief.

Our next stop was the building kept specially for the extremely dangerous criminals. These are men who have committed such terrible crimes they have been sentenced to 25 years to life. There is no longer a death penalty in Poland.

Normally, this is not a stop on the tour. But somehow, due to string pulling and puppy dog eyes, we would up walking through the security inside this high level security facility. On the monitors at the front security desk, we could see the prisoners pacing around inside their cells. What were these men up to? Why were they here? Were they really that dangerous? So many questions, no answers.

The level of security in this building was vastly different than the security in the rest of the prison. What had been a simple knock or buzz to open a door was now a buzz, knock, ring, two locks and the guard at a desk somewhere still had to electronically unlock a door for us to go through. The front and back doors to one room were never allowed to be open at the same time. The doors to the cells had two levels to them, in order to maximize security.

After feeling somewhat unsafe the entire time we were in that section, we moved to the section where regular security level prisoners receive therapy. We met with one of the psychologists who explained to us how their 12-week program works. It was all very interesting, but the entire time he was talking I was replaying in my head the scene that had just took place before we entered this classroom.

Let me explain — due to privacy rights, foreigners are allowed no contact with prisoners. We were supposed to see no real prisoners up close. However, in order to get to the therapy classroom, we had to walk through the row of cells where some of the inmates live. They were all out and about as we did this. While they all looked nice (or as nice as you can imagine a prisoner looking) and there was never a time any of them tried to come too close to us, the fact that we were a group of mostly young women walking through rows and rows of male inmates with only a few guards present was a bit unsettling, to say the least. By the time we were all done being called out to and had successfully made it to the classroom, therapy sessions were the last thing from my mind.

That was the last stop on our prison tour and we exited just as easily as we had entered. All of a sudden we were back on the streets of Warsaw without a single picture to prove the experiences we just had. I hope you’ll all believe I spent the morning in prison,, if not, hope you enjoyed the story!

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Coming up: Warsaw Uprising Museum and adventures in a shut down train station with zero Polish skills.

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