The best birthday in prison
This article originally appeared in “Meanwhile in the Baltics…“, a collection of articles written by the graduates of 2016 Solidarity Academy – Baltic Sea Youth Dialogue, organised by the European Solidarity Centre in partnership with the Council of the Baltic Sea States.
Home is one of the topics that will never lose its actuality, because it could appear in a million different physical or metaphorical forms that everyone has something to say about. Home is not only the place you grew up or live at the moment, but also involves just trying to understand which of all your locations would be worth this title. Sometimes it can also be something that someone is looking for, has just lost or is forced to accept as this magical place. During my visit to my hometown in the eastern part of Latvia I met Valdis. He, I believe, has experienced one of these forced home forms – prison. I tried to find out what kind of life he had there and how could it change his perception of the term home.
The twenty year old man is a father of two children already. The famous Latvian character Spriditis’ conclusion that the best place in the world is at home next to loved ones, became clear to Valdis during his half-year stay in prison for twenty two thefts committed over several years. Now, just after getting out, he appreciates each moment he can spend with people he loves, lives in his small hometown, fixes cars and is about to change his life – make the right decisions, so that he never has to go back behind bars.
How did you end up in prison?
Police were searching for me. They thought I was trying to escape from the court. In truth, I was working abroad. When I came back, I was driving with my friends and police stopped us, checked my documents and arrested me. After that they questioned me for six days, held in a small, narrow room where I had to sit with one prisoner that was taken to the court. In some ways I was lucky, because he told me what awaited me in prison and how to behave there.
There are two ways you can be welcomed in prison – they can peacefully greet you, ask who are you and why you are there, or they can just ask nothing and beat you up. Thank God – everything went well for me.
I was put in a cell with people who were also in prison for the first time – no matter for what. Only the rapists have to sit separated from others, because everyone hates them. It also turned out that one of my cellmates was an old friend of mine, and this was one of the reasons I had good relations with my other cell mate. There is an unwritten rule in prison – to drink tea and smoke cigarettes with others after familiarisation. It is an important foundation for good relationships if you are a normal person and are going to stay there for a while.
What was your daily schedule?
There is an alarm and light turned on at six in the morning. The guard takes a look in each cell to check everything is all right. After that we were allowed to turn on the television to watch the news. There are approximately eight channels, mostly in Latvian and Russian, with sports, music and so on. We were also allowed to play games on the PlayStation. Breakfast is served before seven – mostly it is disgusting porridges that always taste the same. If it is not eaten in an hour, it gets so hard and dry that it is impossible to get out of the bowl.
Quarter past eleven is lunchtime. Usually it is soup and a second dish that almost always is cooked with cabbages. Over half a year, only several times was a meal served without it. After lunch it is possible to take an hour long walk in a 25-square-meter concrete room with a barred ceiling. You can walk there around the circle and just breathe some fresh air.
Dinner is served at five o’clock in the evening. Sometimes it is just plain potatoes or potatoes with cabbage. Every day there is a cell check every three hours. At 10pm there is an alarm again, and the day lights are switched to night lights. Then we just sat, watched TV and went to sleep.
What kind of people did you meet there?
I met mostly very friendly and understanding people. In spite some of them being killers, I would like to see them out of the prison as well and wish them all the best so they don’t need to suffer more.
Some of them really regret the damage they caused, some of them do not. I met a guy who had been there for thirty three years. At first he had only ten years for a murder, but shortly before release he killed another person in prison and got ten more. After this term, he committed another murder and got ten extra years, and did it again after that as well so he could stay in prison longer. He told me that there is no one waiting for him outside – his parents are dead, no wife and children, no other relatives. All his life is based in prison and he wouldn’t even know how to survive and live outside of it.
Weren’t you scared to get in contact with him?
No, because I knew what kind of people he used to kill – rapists. There are harsh rules in prison. It is not allowed to put rapists in a cell with others, because it is clear – the next stop for them will be prison hospital. Guards still sometimes do that, so these rapists can suffer more. That was also an opportunity for this killer to commit these murders.
How was your way home?
I packed all my stuff and just said goodbye to my cellmates. They were people with whom I spent all my time there and they were like my family. Those people were really good people even though they were in prison. When I was leaving, I almost cried after goodbyes. At the same time I enjoyed each step that took me closer to freedom. I remember that the first breath of air out the prison building was very special and pleasant for me.
Can you name three things you missed the most in prison?
I missed my family, emotional and physical freedom. I was dreaming about walking just straight outside for ten or more kilometers. I wanted to meet my mom, dad, grandmother, girlfriend, kids, friends and even my dog.
How would you define “home”?
Home is a place where you always love to return, and where there is someone who is waiting for you. Even if you live alone, you can know that there is someone who would love to visit and be around you. In my home everything is always calm, easy and without stress.
Do you think that prison could be home for someone?
I think that yes, but mostly it would be against their will. I met a guy in prison that can really admit that it is his home. When he was out of prison, he lived in an old garage and dumpster dived. Now he has a roof over his head, better food, a shower and cigarettes that he can get if he works for them. For the next two years prison will be his home and it is better than his previous living conditions.
The first things that popped into my eyes about “prison” were gloomy, grey walls, bad lighting, bars and people with shaved heads. After only two weeks I started to get used to these conditions and dealt with it being my home for some time. I started to fit into this world and after some time it got a bit easier, but the thought about real home still didn’t leave me. To be honest, every evening I tried to go to sleep early and every morning I tried to not open my eyes as long as possible, so I could just think it was a bad dream. Each time I had to realise it was reality, my mood became bad immediately and it was hard to smile for a long time.
Do you think you have changed during your time in the prison?
It is a world where a person can change. I even started to read books, which I never did previously. Before I got there, I was quite frivolous and without a concrete plan for life. Now I want to get more serious and reach something. I want people to remember something good about me; I want for my family and me to be happy; everything would be all right. I don’t need to return there.
How about something positive you experienced in prison?
There were lots of different kinds of jokes in everyday life. One of them I will remember for a long time – once my cellmates made a small ball out of foil and during the night put it in my cigarette. While I was smoking it in the next day, the small ball got heated and exploded, and I burned my nose. Next two weeks everyone was laughing about me and called me reindeer Rudolph.
I also celebrated my twenty-first birthday there. To be honest it was one of the best birthdays in my life. As I was used to, I went for a sleep very early the day before, but two minutes past midnight mates woke me up and scared me a bit. I got off of my bed and everyone started to congratulate me. During my sleep they had made drawings for me, and people from other cells were congratulating me. They sent me presents – of course in prison it was very simple – tea, sugar, coffee. It was very nice that so many people remembered me. It is not a secret that there are mobile phones available in prison as well, so I got phone calls and messages from home. It was very nice. Actually that time there were more people that remembered me than my last birthday.
This interview was first published in Veto magazine in Latvian
Monta Gāgane is a Latvian new culture and art journalist and movie director. She holds an MA in Movie Directing and Producing from the Latvian Academy of Culture and a BA in Philosophy from the University of Latvia.