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A letter from Eric Hinderliter in Lithuania

July 2011

A day in the prison

A large concrete memorial cross standing outside of Pravieniskes II, with a bright blue sky in the background.

This memorial cross outside Pravieniskes II commemorates the murder by the Soviets of 500 Lithuanian guards and inmates on June 26, 1941, in fear of the advancing Nazi armies at the start of the invasion of the Soviet Union.

We have written before about our visits to the large men’s prison where we have students.  We’ve been going regularly now for six years.  On the face of it the prison at first appears tolerable.  In the facility we visit the men wear civilian clothes; they live dormitory style, not in cells.  You see visitors waiting at the gate with gifts and supplies of food.  But then the reality becomes apparent.  Showers are restricted; laundry has to be done by hand and only on a biweekly basis.  Inmates are now allowed only 30 kilos of personal belongings.  Most of all the complaint is simple boredom.

Lithuania is still a relatively poor country.  The economic crisis has hit hard, especially in government budgets.  There is little money for prisons.  The daily budget for food, we are told, is something like 5 litas (about $2.00). Only a third of the prisoners have jobs.  The prison was recently reorganized due to state budget cuts. 

While waiting to clear the prison security checkpoint, we witnessed the release of prisoners. Prisoners must state their crime and their time served to the guards. Then the gate clicks, the door is pushed ajar, and they are released.  But what lies ahead?  One man was greeted by his mother; another walked through the gate but had no one to meet him.  The big fear of the prisoners we know is that no one will be there to meet them when they are released.

We teach students about democracy and democratic values. A principal democratic value is that people have rights, including prisoners. We have noticed over the years much effort on the part of Lithuanian justice authorities to meet modern standards, especially those set by the European Union.   The goal now is reintegration into society and the workplace.  But much remains to be done. The prisons are overcrowded and the prison population is proportionally large.  According to Prison Department data, 9,514 persons are incarcerated in Lithuania—8,383 of them are already sentenced and the rest, 1,131, are awaiting court trial.  Transparency is important.  The prison maintains a website; one can see and read about the place — there is even a small section in English.

What is the reason for these visits?  One of our goals has been to involve as many LCC International University faculty as possible in this ministry.  So far we have taken 10 colleagues with us to the prison.  For North Americans the prison is depressing and raises a lot of questions.  For our European colleagues the experience is often very different.  It evokes earlier times and painful family memories.  The family of a teacher of Russian heritage was concerned about her safety and questioned why she would want to visit.  Prisoners are to be sent away; they are to be isolated and cut off.  Another colleague from Albania related the remarkable story of her grandfather, who was imprisoned in communist Albania for translating the "wrong book."  Her visit evoked the family story of her grandfather in prison.  Her mother told her not to go.  The politics of past repressive regimes casts a long shadow.

Front view of a Lithuanian men's prison.

The entrance to a large men's prison where our students await us.

History looms large here.  Matters from “Soviet times” are unresolved and very near the surface.  Injustices live in the collective memory.  A newspaper recently carried this headline about another Lithuanian prison: “Lukiškes Prison, a reminder of blood-soaked history, is to shake off the fame with relocation.”  The story related a journalist’s visit to “one of the oldest, yet Russian czar–conceived, prisons in the Baltics.”  It was conceived by Russian Tsar Nicholas II and opened in 1904. The story continues: “Throughout the 107-year history, the prison chambers have witnessed the most heinous tortures and murders, most of them going back to the early 1940s. In June 1941, during the German invasion, the NKVD—Russia’s secret militia—simply shot the prisoners. The prison became even more notorious during the Nazi occupation of Lithuania, when it was used by the Gestapo and Lithuanian Saugumas (Security) to hold thousands of Vilnius’ Jews. The majority of them were taken to the outskirts of Vilnius and executed in a cold-blooded manner” (The Baltic Times, July 13, 2011). The prison is to be closed in 2014.  The prison we visit has a similar history.  It was opened in 1863 to punish Lithuanian nationalist rebels who fought Tsarist Russian occupation.  In fact the name—Pravieniškės—is a corruption of the Russian word meaning “those who were blamed.” In the 1940s the prison was alternately a concentration camp under the Nazis and part of the gulag under the Soviets.  On more than one occasion both inmates and guards were murdered to hide evidence.  So the question looms large: How does a prison facility make the transition to be part of a democratic correctional system?

One student we visit has seven more years to serve on his sentence.  We hope to see him through to earning his bachelor's degree from LCC.  And we hope that something comes of the witness of concern for justice and compassion among our students, the prison administration, and our colleagues at LCC.  Beyond teaching democratic values we want to model Christian values—justice, compassion, forgiveness.  Prison visits have raised many questions with our partner, LCC International University, with our colleagues, and most of all with our students.  And for us as well.  We learn lessons; we are being transformed as well, little by little with each trip. The Christian life is a journey—of change, of witness, and of growth.

When we leave the prison, we hear a heavy metal click as the last gate closes behind us.  This gives new meaning to the Biblical injunction, “release to the captives” (Luke 4:18).  The men we see have probably been given just sentences—in many ways they are ordinary criminals.  But our task is not to judge.  Our call is to be present.  Jesus put it simply, “I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25:36).

Grace and peace to all of you,

Becky & Eric Hinderliter

The 2011 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 204

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