Diving into a “living Hell”: the Lukiškės Prison
If you ever travel to the Baltic region of Europe, you should definitely choose to visit Vilnius, the beautiful capital of Lithuania. A magnificent gem, hidden in plain sight, the city is famous for its picturesque Old Town, the breathtaking churches and bell towers, and its plethora of green parks. However, if you seek a unique adventure, an experience different from eating cepelinai and walking through the streets of Uzupis, you should visit the “Taurakalnis” neighborhood.
Located above the Old Town and down from the Neris river, the neighborhood is full of beautiful brick houses and small local shops. But under this quiet and peaceful landscape lurks a dark secret… For the neighborhood is home to a terrible prison, a living hell that was once a place of endless terrors and living nightmares. A prison, whose infamy in Eastern Europe matched this of Alcatraz, a prison surpassing the horrors of Azkaban.
Welcome to the Lukiškės Prison and its dark story…
It was 1904 and Lithuania was part of the Russian Empire. Under a set of reformed laws regarding the treatment of criminals, the government of Vilnius decided to build a modern prison, one which would house notorious criminals, political opponents of the Tsar, and common thieves. Despite its later infamy, it was designed originally as a modern and innovative facility, which in no way resembled the cruel katorga (forced-labor camps), which were the most common form of punishment in the empire.
The Lukiškės complex covered the entire block. It included a penal prison with cells for 421 inmates, a detention center for 278 inmates, as well as several other buildings. These included an office building, kitchen, bakery, baths, ice cellar, and laundry. In addition, there were family apartments for the warden, his four deputies, and 37 officers, and 24 smaller flats for single officers. One of the most distinctive buildings in the complex was the Orthodox St. Nicholas Church, one of the finest Orthodox churches in Vilnius.
The “Golden Years”
The first prisoners were transferred to Lukiškės prison on June 26, 1904. Since then, the prison never ceased to function — it held prisoners during both World Wars, the Soviet period, and after Lithuania regained independence. Criminals, political prisoners, and exiles were detained in prison for more than a century.
From the beginning, Lukiškės became known to the people of Vilnius as a harsh and cruel place. One could hear the screams of those being mentally and physically tortured inside… But, the prison became more notorious during the Nazi occupation of Lithuania, when it was used by the Gestapo and Lithuanian Saugumas as a holding cell for thousands of Jews from the Vilna Ghetto and Poles, picked up in łapankas (roundups) in reprisals for actions by the Polish resistance. The majority were taken to the outskirts of Vilnius and executed.
However, atrocities such as these were committed by both the Nazis and the Soviets who occupied Lithuania before and after the war. In June 1941, during the German invasion, the NKVD shot prisoners at Lukiškės Prison. This cruel act was repeated in prisons throughout the western Soviet Union and became known as the “NKVD Massacres”, a terrible war crime and human rights violation.
When the Soviets reoccupied the territory in 1944, the prison was returned to the NKVD. From then, until the dissolution of the Soviet Union, it housed common thieves, criminals, and political prisoners, of both sexes and every age group, including teenager minors! During this time Lukiškės became known throughout eastern Europe as a cruel place, where being sentenced to it was worse than death itself!
Daily Life Inside Lukiškės*
Let’s now see how prisoners lived inside this living hell…
First of all, being sentenced to Lukiškės meant that you had a high chance of committing suicide or getting mad. According to statistics, throughout the prison’s history, 40% of the inmates committed suicide, being unable to handle the endless tortures and overall 50% tried at least once to harm themselves! It did not matter if you spent 15 days (the lowest form of punishment reserved for mild crimes), or your whole life locked in there. If you ever walked passed its iron gates, you would be scared forever…
The prisoners were transferred inside small trucks. Once inside they were taken into the detention centers, where they were forced to stay in tiny rooms for up to six hours, while the prison officers examined their cases. These rooms were called “shoeboxes” and were about 4 square feet in size. Up to four people were cornered inside with the purpose of making them feel as much uncomfortable as possible.
Then, they were taken to a room where they were searched for hidden illegal objects such as phones, drugs, or weapons. One common way of humiliation in order to break their spirits was to make them stand in front of the officers completely naked, while the latter were searching their belongings and their bodies. It was not uncommon for a prisoner to hide in their anus things like drugs, pens, and even tiny phones, which were known by the nickname “ass-phones”.
Once inspected the prisoners were divided into categories. Men and women were kept in separate cells. The ones who committed minor crimes were usually kept in common cells for 15 to 90 days. Do not let the short-term punishment fool you. These cells had nothing to envy from the ones “Squid Game” had. They were small rooms, with up to 40 bunk beds. There the inmates lived with zero privacy and little to no care. Murders and rape were pretty common.
For its worse criminals, Lukiškės was truly unforgivable. They were locked in tiny, dark cells for 23 of the 24 hours of the day. Each day for one hour they were taken to “outdoor cells” which had their ceiling removed, so they could enjoy watching the blue sky above. There were also showers inside the cells, but the inmates were allowed to take one hot shower only once per week. Meals were dull and flavorless with the most common one being the “prisoner’s soup”, a dish made from salty water and pieces of potato and carrots.
If the prisoners were well-behaved, they could enjoy some privileges such as playing basketball every Sunday in the main yard, smoking cigarettes, or watching TV. The ones with troubling behavior were locked up in isolation rooms for up to six months. These cells had no windows, no light, and even basic things like pillows were absent! The worst fate was held for the death-sentenced inmates. Lithuania abolished the death penalty only in 1998! Until the 70s prisoners were hanged in the yard. In the next decades, they were executed next to their cells with one shot at the heart and one at the head. The inmates in the next cells could hear the shootings and the screams of the victims since there were not any measures taken to humanize the procedure.
Even though the living conditions were horrible, Lukiškės was not feared for its inhumane environment. It was the psychological torment that drove the inmates mad and desperate enough to end their lives. Even today, the prison is “proud of” its score of zero breakouts! No one ever managed to escape from its iron grip!
Behind the high barbed walls there was a yard, filled with electrical fences and guard dogs, which made escape a hopeless dream. The inmates were doomed to wake up every day and stare at the empty walls of their cells without doing anything all day. No exercise, no visits from their loved ones, no contract with the outer world. They were already dead, but still living, trapped in an inescapable world without hope, or love.
That was the purpose of Lukiškės. To wreck the inmates and turn their bodies into lifeless vases by letting them do absolutely nothing, but remembering their former life as a distant dream, something which they would never get back…
Lukiškės Prison Today
While a couple of years ago you wouldn’t have wanted to enter the prison building, today the territory has reinvented itself into “Lukiškės prison 2.0” and become a place filled with art and creativity. The last prisoners were evicted only in 2019, so this place is relatively new to Vilnius.
Formerly a place of torture and misery, Lukiškės now offers spaces and studios for 250 artists, musicians, and creators. But it has also become an inviting place for the public. You can unwind at a bar with a refreshing drink in your hand, listen to one of the many concerts happening on an open-air stage, or enjoy light installations when the sun sets.
The prison has kept its original design elements, tiles, and decorations to this day. Many of its former guards now organize tours inside the building, retelling the grim stories of its previous function. Even some former inmates have participated in the project by painting the outdoor cells with vibrant images.
If you ever visit Vilnius do not miss a visit to Lukiškės. Have a drink, chat with the friendly people in the yard, and enjoy some good music. Be mindful, however, and keep your alert. Some cold nights, if you listen closely underneath the yard, now filled with Lithuanian rock music, you can still hear the screams of the prisoners and the shot of rifles…
Former Prison Becomes a Space for Creative I... | Go Vilnius
The 117-year-old Lukiškės prison turned a new page in 2019 when the last inmates were moved and the historic empty…
The former Lukiskes prison in Vilnius city center invites investors to contribute to a unique…
Turto bankas, the manager of Lithuanian state-owned real estate, is preparing for the regeneration and implementation…
historical information regarding the daily life of the prisoners was taken directly from the prison tours.