Three hundred. Or thereabouts. That is how many women are locked up behind the high walls of Panevėžys Correctional Facility. The inmate population is diverse: there are women, teenagers, even mothers with children.
The female population in the country is significantly smaller than the male. There are currently about 8-9 thousand inmates in Lithuania’s prisons. Only 300 of which are women. The figure of the female convict is still pretty much an unknown quantity in Lithuanian Society.
This is just one of the reasons why it is harder for women to rehabilitate themselves into society and why employment is thin on the ground for female ex-convicts.
Culturally speaking, delinquency in men is far more accepted. Rehabilitation for them is not easy but it is possible. There are jobs available. Society is more inclined to be forgiving. But for women, all doors are closed. There is a prescribed model that women are expected to follow: the responsible mother, the infallible wife, the obedient daughter, the dutiful worker or the content housewife. The convicted female, falling very wide of those expectations, can find herself ostracized at every turn. And her future is likely to be bleak.
This Nanook multimedia story aims to acquaint you with the female prisoners and their stories.
“When I found out that my sentence was going to be two years, I couldn’t believe what was written on that white sheet of paper. Everything on the page seemed to merge into one. I had a brilliant life; my parents took very good care of me. I had everything. If someone had told me that someday I would end up in prison, I would have spat in their face. Prisons and convicts were pretty alien to me,“ – Kristina (her name has been changed upon her request) recalls the beginning of her journey to Panevėžys correctional facility.
Kristina severely injured someone. It was a split second that changed her life. The hardest thing she has ever had to do was admitting this to her family. „Everyone had huge hopes, huge desires and wanted the best for me. I could not look my mother in the eye. How do you break that news to someone who has given you everything? I really disappointed her, though I was never a bad kid.“
Kristina, who has dreamed of being an actress since childhood, recounts her story as if it were a movie – she speaks expressively, never hiding her emotions, embellishing her memories with laughter and tears.
Justina’s story couldn’t be more different: as a child she was witness to a lot of violence. She had her first taste of legal institutions at ten years old. When Justina was four, her grandfather died. Soon after, her mother and grandmother took to drink. Her alcoholic father, meanwhile, found himself behind bars when she was eight.
„Because of this my mother started to drink more, and constantly shout at and beat me and my younger sister. She beat me so much that afterwards I could not sit down. As a result she lost her maternity rights, and when I was ten, my sister and I were sent to the orphanage for the first time. We were bullied there so I started running away,” – Justina.
The young girl’s troubles truly began when at the age of thirteen she met with a gang who were friends of her father. She ran away with them: she wanted to be cool, to have everything, to party.
Justina was thirteen when she tried drugs for the first time. At first weed, then amphetamine… “And I liked it,” – she recalls.
A year later, she was enrolled in a special school: a measure intended to put her on the straight and narrow. She had, however, become accustomed to a far more exciting lifestyle and was unable to calmly sit and do what she was told: „I was locked in there. If you behaved well, they let you out, but only for four hours. How can you deal with that? I wanted freedom. I saw myself as a free bird that could fly wherever it wanted. I wanted to do what I wanted!“ Justina recounts how during one eventful New Year’s Eve she and her friends tied up their supervisors and escaped through a window. Such misadventures often landed her in trouble with the police. In a strong voice, she bravely shares the details of her troubled life, sometimes even surprising herself by the turns taken by her own stories. The black-haired girl speaks Lithuanian with a clear Slavic accent.
Justina and Kristina turn up for our meeting in makeup – both wishing to share their stories in detail. Kristina – of her “pink” childhood, her great family, and her privileged existence. Also of crime. And punishment.
Justina’s story couldn’t be more different – a life on the street, problems at home, a history of petty crime and drug addiction which began in adolescence.
The girls, who became friends inside, admit with a smile that they probably would never have ran across each other had it not been for the shared walls of the correctional facility.
“When I realized that I was going to Panevėžys, I calmed myself and began to prepare simple things: I went to the store with my mother, packed a suitcase. I didn’t know if I would be able to get shampoo here or other things,” – sitting in the bright library, Kristina recalls her first days inside. There are a few computers in the room, unconnected to the internet, and piles of magazines stacked on the tables.
The normalcy of Kristina’s life took a sharp turn into nightmare: „You could say I found myself on the threshold of the abyss. I was alone and no one could help me. It was in this state that I first entered here. Those metal beds… Everything looked so bad. But I drove away those terrible thoughts and then … just sat down and started to read a book. The first morning I woke up I was in shock. I hoped that I would wake up from this terrible dream and opening my eyes, find myself home. But when I opened eyes I was still here – it was the dripping tap and the very unpleasant smell that I remember most.“
At fifteen, Justina began selling drugs. The money she received allowed her to live in luxury: she was able to rent an apartment and take care of her younger sister: „the only important thing for me was to help my little sister.”
She was sixteen when she first found herself in Lukiškės prison – she was drunk and stole a car with a friend. „I spent a month there. And when I was released I was still on probation, but I went back to the same drug gang. Then I started to use drugs again – a lot of amphetamine,“ – since then Justina has found herself incarcerated with increasing frequency, the seriousness of her crimes worsening each time.
On the outside, Justina found herself a boyfriend. He was working as a taxi driver, even though he had just returned from Alytus prison.
„I never thought that he would use heroin,“ – this fact continues to surprise her, and she admits that she was tempted to try the drug herself.
Justina continued to distribute drugs and use them herself. Concealing this fact from her relatives was easy as she was very rarely in contact with them: „I only phoned them to ask if my little sister was fine. I didn’t want to see my parents. Of course, I missed love and warmth. When I broke up with my boyfriend, I fell back in with the same group of drug addicts. It seemed that they loved and understood me. Back then it didn’t occur to me that as soon as I ended up back in the penitentiary house, everyone would quickly forget me.”
She soon found herself in Lukiškės prison again. “I was behaving very badly. I was stealing from homes: some people showed me houses that were easy to break into and rob. My relationship with my parents completely broke down at that point – they disowned me. I wrote letters and asked my mother not to judge me, to believe that I could change,“ – recounts Justina.
According to the psychologist Andra Kiškytė, crime does not distinguish social class. „Here you can find women from all backgrounds: from drug addicts living on the street to women with college or university degrees who once had prestigious jobs, even CEO’s.”
It is the latter that struggles most: “Once incarcerated, it is the higher status group of women that lose their self-esteem and confidence. Most of them never thought of being imprisoned, of being amongst different, more aggressive, less well educated people. Once released we often find that these women have become more tolerant, more accepting of difference and class. Women in prison share quite a small space, so they have to learn to live together and co-operate whether they like it or not.”
According to 2015 records, 3% of convicted women have a higher education degree, 4% – have pre-higher education, 39% finished high school, 29% – secondary education,16% – primary education, and 9% of women have no formal education.
The correctional facility is divided into four sectors: light, standard, enhanced security, and another for women with young children. The set-up is similar to that of a dormitory and built up of a number of communal spaces: shared bedrooms, recreation rooms, kitchens (which are located on every floor – allowing the female inmates to prepare their own food).
On arrival, all female inmates are housed in the standard section. It is only if an inmate becomes unruly or breaks regulation that she is sent to enhanced security.
The accommodation is divided into sections. Kristina currently shares her space with nineteen other women.
The huge open spaces of these sections are divided into “micro-homes”, with each woman personalizing her own area through, for example, the hanging of embroideries, or by covering her bunk bed with colorful blankets and soft toys. The single most important element of this micro world is the custom made altars that the inmates create in their cupboards. These very personal tiny environments of escape and contemplation are festooned with family photographs, love letters, children’s drawings, mirrors etc.
When an inmate first arrives at the correctional facility, she is held in the quarantine zone. This stage is one of the most important for the psychologists working here.
“When they arrive, I meet with the convicts right away. At the interview, we try to determine if they are a danger to themselves in any way. We find out if they have any health related issues, and decide on which section is best suited for the individual. Besides this, we also take note of any requests they make,“ – A. Kiškytė.
Adapting to a profound loss of personal freedom is always difficult, especially in the beginning. It is in this stage that the individual first loses their status and is forced to adjust to a new more restricted rhythm of living. It’s hard to accept their punishment, the prison like surroundings, to look in the mirror and acknowledge that this is not simply some figment of a terrible fever dream.
“Women find it most difficult to pull away from their families, their children, husband, parents. The biggest pain comes not from the loss of physical freedom but from being separated from their families.” says the psychologist. “Support from family and children plays a really important role in a prisoner’s rehabilitation, especially if she is looking to get her life back on track. It’s much easier to deal with prison life when you have letters from loved ones to look forward to.”
According to A. Kiškytė there are many reasons why people commit crimes: such acts are, however, invariably un-premeditated and occur in the heat of the moment. For women, this manifests itself most often in the form of violent actions against spouses – a response to the woman feeling physically threatened, and, of course, the addition of alcohol to the mix does little to de-escalate such situations. “Usually it’s self-defense, or as a result of verbal abuse,” – the psychologist says. She explains that if you want to trace the roots of these crimes, you need to look back into the inmate’s personal history: their childhood, their relationships with their parents – the time when their worldview was first formed.
The hope is that the correctional facility will provide the inmate with a complete social and psychological rehabilitation. With this in mind, formal and informal education is given to the inmates. There are also various social or educational activities on offer, all of which have been designed to prepare the inmates for a successful life on the outside.
Convicts are split into two groups: those who are first time offenders and those who are repeat offenders (40% of convicted women go on to re-offend).
During her case, Justina was regularly bussed by armored van to Vilnius to attend hearings. On one occasion while at Lukiškės prison, one of the convicts attempted to start a conversation with her through a cell window. At first she ignored him, but soon gave in. This first exchange soon evolved into regular letters, and later she married him.
On the 20th February 2014 Justina became a prisoner’s wife. Her new husband was a convicted murderer, and prior to the wedding, she had never set eyes on him.
When we first met her at the Panevežys Correctional Facility, Justina was due to meet him for a conjugal visit. Strangely though, there was no photo of him on the shelf next to her bed: “I thought that this man would really love me, share everything with me. I guess this was a test. I learned from it. I am young, so curiousness pushed me to marry him,” – Justina says.
Four hours are allotted for each conjugal: “There was a bed and a table in a small room. At first it was scary, because this man was a murderer. He was convicted for 18 years. Yes, it was really scary, but later I thought to myself: what happens, happens.”
Her husband said to her, “if you are happy, I will make you cry.” This stuck in her head, and convinced her finally that divorce was the only option.
“I was very disappointed,” – she says and sighs, – “he thinks that I will go back to Lukiškės. That is not going to happen – I have already filed an application for divorce, and I’m waiting for a year to pass for it to be official. There is no common property, no kids, so it should be quick.”
Justina’s section friend Kristina also got married while inside.
“We wanted to have right to conjugal visits, marriage was just a formality – we just signed the papers. The most important thing for us after signing the documents was that we now had the opportunity to have conjugal visits, to share pillows like we used to, to turn on the TV and sit together, share food, memories, laugh while watching a movie,” – Kristina recalls.
This was not how she expected her marriage to be, of course. Like most girls she dreamt of a white dress, and a wedding by the sea. “We joke that our marriage was kind of exotic: we got married in prison, ours isn’t just a usual boring traditional marriage,” – Kristina laughs.
In 2014, 23 convicted women got married. Three of these women married men from the outside, the rest married inmates.
In 2015, 10 convicted women got married. This time nine were inmates.
A woman is working in a small garden, nearby her two children sit on a red swing. She is berating them as a prison officer looks on, disinterested. There are toys scattered on the lawn. Close to this group hangs some laundry – drying in front of a razor wire fence. And emblazoned on that fence, a sign: “Prohibited Area”.
This part of the prison is different from the others: only around ten women are currently serving their sentence here. What makes this group unique is that they are here with their small children. To all intents and purposes, we could call this the family section. Pregnant women or women with children up to three years are housed here. They are given shared private rooms: two families to each room. There is a communal kitchen, two playrooms, and a backyard with a small playground.
But what does it mean to be forced to live together in such a cramped space with your child for the first three year of its life, and how terrible must be the moment, when at three that child is wrenched from you and placed into care?
The prison psychiatrist empathizes that such “family incarceration” does have its advantages: it is, as she points out, essential that a strong maternal bond is created in the first three years of a child’s life. There is, however, always on the horizon the real and devastating threat of separation.
“I think that the time spent with her child does have a positive impact on the mother. The child is the most important thing in the mother’s life. However, when the child turns three and is separated from the mother, this experience is traumatic. A three-year-old is intelligent enough to understand that they are being taken away and will not come back. This process is easier if another family member becomes the carer, for example, a father or a grandmother. But if there is no–one, then that child I sent to an orphanage. It is extremely hard for both the mother and child,” – A. Kiškytė explains.
The children spend most of their days in playrooms. From this arises a rather novel situation – the subject of a running joke amongst the mothers – where the children start to mix up who their real mother actually is.
As Irina, the mother of one little girl Deimante, explains: “I was attending manicure classes, and when I was away Deimante would call these other two women “mom”. At first I was quite jealous, and I would say, “Deimante, I’m your mom.” But I soon realized that that happens often here. Everyone takes care of everyone.”
These days Irina gives all her love to Deimante and tries not dwell on the fact that she is unable to see her other two daughters. ”I tell myself that there is no need to cry or fret, because I have these amazing daughters. It is worth living and trying even harder just because of them.”
When she’s asked if it’s easier to serve the sentence when you have your daughter with you, Irina admits that she sometimes feels guilty: “what kind of mother am I that my child needs to spend her life in here with me?”
The majority of the women interviewed admit that it is easier to bear the monotony of prison life when you have a child to take care of. All of them still, however, echo Irina’s shame that their children are forced to spend the first years of their lives behind the walls of the facility.
Audronė also lives in the family section. During one of our conversations we learn that she speaks English, Polish, Russian, Spanish, and also remembers Latin from her university days. Despite her education, it is her fourth time in the Panevėžys Correctional Facility. She blames herself, her character and her addictions.
“It is extremely hard. I am alone, my parents passed away a long time ago. Sisters… We are no longer in contact. I have no one. When I got here for the first time, the whole family disowned me. I am, how to put it… like a black spot. And I am completely alone,” – Audronė admits to camera, as her son Dovydas fidgets on her lap.
Her mom passed away when Audronė was 7. She lost her father at the age of 13. After spending some time in an orphanage, she was adopted and began school. Audronė thrived there. The result: she was accepted to study medicine at university.
“Everything was going really well. I just had a fear of dead bodies and during second year at the university we needed to do an internship in a mortuary. I was so afraid that I took a year off. And I never went back,” – she recalls. Audronė often wonders what her life would have been like had she continued her studies.
Looking down at her little son as he entertains himself, oblivious to the difficult adult world around him, Audronė imagines freedom and mourns the years she has wasted in institutions.
“Once I came here in summer, and was released two years later again in summer. Walking around the streets of Kaunas, it felt I had only been gone for two weeks. Where had the time gone? Those two years that I would never get back. Erased. All the days are monotone here.”
Even though she is still officially married, Audronė is not planning to get back together with her husband.
“Everything was fine until he started doing crazy things. Of course, I was stupid myself. I am not blaming him. I could have gone somewhere, I could have tried to find some help but I was always trying to do everything on my own. And I failed. I was keeping everything to myself and it’s hard to do it all alone.” After her time in the correctional facility, Audronė wants to move abroad, find a job and cut all relation with her past.
She admits that it was easier to serve time when it was only her. Now it is different: “It’s because of Dovydas. I want to change my life; I don’t want to continue coming back here, because later on it will only be harder for both me and him.”
For Vilma and her son Arijus, this section is also “home”. “Hyperactive, naughty and very attached to me,” is how Vilma describes her son. She thinks that a child is the best thing that can happen to woman, even in a place like this.
Vilma also has two daughters, who now live with their grandmother. They are the people she misses most. “I don’t have anyone else. Only them. You only realize what you have lost after you get here.”
Prison visits offer the inmates an essential lifeline to their families and the world outside. All inmates have the right to see their families and friends either for a short (up to 4 hours) or a long meeting (up to 2 days).
Short meetings are held under the supervision of a prison representative. Long meetings are permitted only with a spouse or a close relative and take place in private.
“Each and every meeting is very precious but those 2 days pass very quickly.” Hugs and long conversations are the main ingredients of Vilma’s visits.
She has not discussed living in the prison with her son yet, but she is sure that in the future he will have abiding memories of his first three years here in Panevėžys.
Vilma feels that distance and the walls of the institution have come between her and her daughters, and their relationship is not what it was. “My oldest daughter is a teenager now and she blames everyone and everything that crosses her path. We are not as close and, of course, it breaks my heart. That is why, as soon as I get out, I will try to win back her love and trust.”
“My middle daughter is very sensitive. She is waiting for me to get back. It is very hard for her but there is nothing I can do now. The hardest part is not being able to help your own daughters when they have problems,” – Vilma adds.
The first prison in Panevėžys was established in 1566, and for most of its life it lay empty as there were few prison convictions at that time. The present building, built to house 400 prisoners, was consecrated and opened in 1893.
It was in 1960 that the institution was repurposed to house female inmates. Today 133 officers and state employees work there. Edvardas Norvaišas is the head of the institution.
He cuts an interesting figure in the relatively staid atmosphere of the prison service. In his past he participated in a television dance project, and there is a terrarium of python warming itself in the sun in his office.
“I once wanted to become a doctor. I wanted to become someone who treats people,” – the director says with a smile, adding that his dream partly came true – he helps the women prisoners here.
“If you want you can find an explanation for everything. The women who spend their days here committed their crimes for different reasons.” In his opinion Lithuanian society is very intolerant and this makes life doubly difficult for people who have made mistakes in their lives. “We need to be more tolerant and respectful, and grumble less,” – he remarks.
When asked if “correctional home” (direct translation from Lithuanian) is the correct term to use, Mr. Norvaišas says he prefers just ‘home’. “A home that you shouldn’t need to return to. But if a person finds themselves here we should try to keep this place free of pain and retribution. We simply need to give the person some time to think and then return to normal life,” – he explains.
In the director’s opinion removing a person’s freedom is not the best and only way to punish them. On visits to similar institutions in foreign countries he learned that there are a number of ways available to help people assess what they have done wrong.
“People used birches, torture and other cruel methods in the old days as retribution or revenge for what the criminal had done wrong. Today we use custodial punishment. We should view punishment as a consequence of bad behavior. We shouldn’t necessarily always just put a person behind bars, removing them from their life while at the same placing the financial burden for their imprisonment on the state. Let them live and work, maybe for a smaller salary, but there should be a positive alternative. Now it is not only the guilty person, but also the state that suffers.”
The attorney and criminologist Dr. Gintautas SakalauskasStraipsnis „Įkalinimas Lietuvoje: praktika ir prasmė“, Sociologija. Mintis ir veiksmas 2007/2 (20), ISSN 1392-3358 has questioned why those who experienced cruel repressions in the Soviet Union still advocate their use. The frequency of custodial punishment under the Soviet system created a situation where a large part of society actually experienced incarceration. “The image of custodial punishment (the longer the better), as the only one “true” form of punishment is still alive in former Soviet countries, all of this despite the fact that the historical experience arising from its practice is extremely painful and raw. If we are to believe that a person is a priori bad, and that they need to be punished, condemned and after that rehabilitated, then there is an obvious pedagogic and psychological deadlock.”
For E. Norvaišas, education and upbringing are key to the creation of a good and just society. “If we lay good foundations in the family, kindergarten, and school, it will be easier for a person who has made a mistake to change and return to those foundations. The policy now in the “correction house” is just to try to correct the mistakes that were made during the individual’s development – poor parenting, unhealthy or criminal lifestyle, or a badly formed character. Here we just try to teach the inmates how to suppress their aggression and addictions,” – he explains.
A 2009 study conducted in the USA and Italy discovered that there was compelling evidence of abnormal neuron behavior in the brains of convicted criminals.
The GEO author Christian Schwägerl has been researching this subject for more than 10 years. His scientific article “Bad Brain”Christian Schwägerl, „Blogos smegenys“, GEO Lietuva, 2014 03 examines in detail how science has come to challenge received ideas about justness and punishment. He analyses various examples of how brain anomalies might influence an individual’s actions.
“A few years ago the brain was considered one of the most unstudied organs. But now it is being studied to help answer such important questions as: what kinds of processes influence our psyche and determine behavior? There is no doubt that this is very important for medicine. But what about justice?” the author asks.
In his opinion it may be possible that in the future the examination of a person’s brain will be used to determine how society judges different offences – a shop robbery or a murder. A brain which weighs 1.4 kg and has more than 100 billion nerve system cells could be used as the basis of argumentation in court.
“We can control ourselves far less than we think,” – David Eagleman, the head of the “Neurology and Law” project in Houston, explains – “Until now justice has been based on the illusion that everybody is equal under the eyes of the law. But the brain, as well as the way it acts is a very individual thing. It’s like a fingerprint that has been formed by genes and environment. Judges have to take this into consideration.”
Of course, no-one is advocating the end of punishment and the release of all prisoners. But the situation could be different in the future. In the words of Joshua Greene from Princeton University, “Punishment should be made less severe because behavior is the result of a power that is not necessarily connected to one’s responsibility for one’s actions.” In the opinion of C. Schwägerl, the concept of guilt would suddenly disappear if we were to dive into the river of never ending impulses.
“I am very afraid of getting out,” – says Justina, who is nervously awaiting the day when the grey door of the Panevėžys correctional facility will swing open for her, and she’ll be faced with the stark reality of the outside world.
After long years of imprisonment, released women often find themselves completely lost – how they will survive, how are they going to make a living, will society and their families accept them?
A. Kiškyte says that this is the basis of the female convict’s greatest fear: “Convicted women are stigmatized. When they are released, they feel enormous pressure from society to act as perfect citizens and because of this pressure they are more vulnerable. Convicted women find it much harder to gain acceptance from society than men, and this is without taking into consideration the severity or mitigating circumstances of their crime,” – the psychiatrist says. “People expect more from a woman: she has to be a good mother, a good wife and daughter. And if she is not, it’s not acceptable.”
“Every human being makes mistakes and does things they’re not proud of. They can be everyday, or they can be catastrophic. And the unfortunate truth of being human is that we all have moments of indifference to other people’s suffering. To me, that’s the central thing that allows crime to happen: indifference to other people’s suffering. If you’re stealing from someone, if you’re hurting them physically, if you’re selling them a product that you know will hurt them—the thing that allows a person to do that is that they somehow convince themselves that that’s not relevant to them. We all do things that we’re not proud of, even though they might not have as terrible consequences.” ― Piper Kerman, Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison