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SPENDING ONE NIGHT IN A SOVIET PRISON IN LATVIA

I could think of many different ways to land myself in prison. But then, all those things I had in mind were more likely to get me sentenced for life than just one night in prison. All I wanted was to experience it for one night. So, I had to figure out another way.

Karosta Prison

While preparing for my Euro trip in October 2018, I did some online research on places to visit in Latvia, and stumbled upon a gem: located about 200 kilometers from Riga, facing the Baltic Sea, is a military port called Karosta that used to serve as a secret naval base for the Russian empire and the Soviet Union.

One of the main highlights of this place is its prison. Built in 1905, it still retains its original architecture but is now a museum by day and a ‘hotel’ by night. It is the only military prison in Europe that is open to tourists.

Credit: Uniq Hotels

Online reviewers write of their “full-prisoner experience” in this prison hotel, which involves prisoner garb, physical punishments, verbal abuse, death threats, and warning gunshots. Actors are hired to act as prison guards and execute these punishments. Also, rumor has it that the prison is haunted. All guests have to sign a waiver form to acknowledge that they know what they are getting themselves into.

Well, they seem to have a very dark sense of humor. I could barely contain my excitement. I guess I do have a masochistic streak in me after all.

KAROSTA PRISON

 

Opening Hours

June, July & August: Daily, 9:00 – 19:00

May & September: Daily, 10:00 – 18:00

October & April: Daily, 11:00 – 17:00

1st November – 31st March: Fridays, Saturdays & Sundays, 12:00 – 16:00

 

Services & Activities

– Tourism information about Karosta and Liepaja

– Tour guide services for Karosta and Liepaja

– Bicycle rental and cycling tours around Karosta

– Prison tour

– “Buffetchitza” (Soviet-style buffet meal)

– Souvenir shop

– Night’s lodging

– “Escape from the USSR” Spy Game

– Escape room

– “Behind Bars: The Show” (a historical interactive reality show involving audience)

– Airsoft (a military simulation game in Karosta prison and fortress)

How to Book

The overnight stay in Karosta Prison is available by reservation only. However, it is not currently listed on Booking.com or any other online booking platforms. You can only make a reservation for your stay by contacting them directly via email, phone call, or Facebook page. The current rate is EUR15 per person.

Website: http://karostascietums.lv/en/

Email: info@karostascietums.lv

Phone: +371 26369470

Facebook: @karostascietums

How to Get There

Karosta Prison is located at Invalīdu iela 4, Karosta, Liepāja. From Riga International Bus Terminal, take a bus to Liepaja, and from Liepaja, take bus #3 or #4 to Karosta. Tell the bus driver that you’re going to Karosta Prison and he’d know where to drop you. From the bus stop on the main street, it’s only a 15-minute walk to the prison.

Creepy Karosta

The first thing that struck me about the place was how dreary it was. Mist hovered all around me despite the wind. Gray clouds hung low. Cars were few, and there was scarcely anyone around. The ones that I did encounter all walked in a hurry, with hands in their pockets, faces half hidden in their scarves, heads bent down or looking gloomily ahead. I was starting to doubt my decision of coming here. I felt like I had stepped into a post-apocalyptic world.

Image result for liepaja
Source: Flickr
 

The check-in time was at 9 p.m., but since I had nowhere else to go, I thought I might as well wait in the lobby or something. Surely prisons have lobbies too?

On both sides of the roads were forests. Occasionally, I would come across a building or two, which I assumed were apartments, but they looked cold and deserted. As I reached the prison at 5 p.m., a stocky old lady was locking the gate from outside. A sign on the gate clearly stated that it was only open till 4 p.m. in October.

I asked the lady if they would be open again that night. She shook her head. I told her I had already made a reservation and proceeded to show her the confirmation email. Shaking her head again, she told me in broken English to call the number on the gate. And then she left me standing there, alone and bewildered.

The day was getting dark. There was a bench by the roadside, but I didn’t want to sit there all alone in the dark, and in front of a haunted prison, no less. So, I walked back towards the main road where there were streetlights. My offline map showed there were a few cafes nearby, but upon finding them, I discovered they were all closed.

I did, however, find a grocery store. It would stay open till 10. That eased my worry a little, because if the prison didn’t re-open by 9, at least I knew I had someone to go to for help. In a worst-case scenario — if I couldn’t get a bus or a taxi back to Liepaja — I was hoping that the storekeeper might take pity on me and invite me to her house. Apart from that, I didn’t have any other backup plan.

I bought a bag of chips at the grocer, which was to be my dinner. Then, I sat at a bus stop and with the help of the streetlight, I read a book to pass the time. The bus stop was covered, so it provided me with some shelter and privacy.
 
On the road opposite where I was sitting was a forest of pine trees, looming ominously in the dark. Their leaves rustled as the wind blew. The night was cold, and it was starting to drizzle. I couldn’t help but be reminded of that time in Kashmir when I encountered a bear.
 
Image result for karosta forest
Credit: Travelsewhere

Checking In

The hours moved really slowly, but at long last, it was 8.45 p.m. — time for me to go and check if the prison was open. I was praying that I would see some lights coming from it, but was disappointed to find that it was just as dark as when I had left it several hours ago.

However, when I walked a little closer, my heart filled with relief to see that the gate was unlocked. I pushed it open and peered inside. Sitting on a bench was a teenage boy who promptly stood up to greet me. He introduced himself as William. It seemed a little strange to see a young boy in such a place, but that didn’t matter to me in the least. I was really just glad to see another human being (I checked that his feet were touching the ground), especially one that spoke my language.

William, as it turned out, could speak English very fluently. He told me his mother worked in the prison and he occasionally helped out when he wasn’t busy with school.

 
William led me to the first floor ofthe prison, which was a long, dark hallway with wooden doors on both sides. At the end of it were the toilets, and in another dark corner with no functioning lights was a place to charge our phones.
 
The cells on that floor had been repainted to accommodate visitors. They were clean, but bare. The light switch for every cell was on the wall outside it, and it was very high up the wall that we had to use a long stick to turn it on or off.
 
I was asked to choose whether to sleep on a proper bed or on a wooden plank on the floor topped with a mattress. Only one room had proper beds. Of course I chose the one without, to get a more authentic Soviet experience.
 
 
I helped William carry the plank and mattress into my empty cell. He also gave me clean sheets, a blanket, a pillow and a pillowcase.
 
There was no food or drinking water provided in the prison. I was glad I still had some drinks and snacks with me to last through the night. William left me to get some rest while we waited for another two guests who were due to arrive soon.
 
The wooden-plank bed

The Prison Tour

An hour later, the pair — Alberto and Alessia — arrived. They were a young Italian couple who had been hitchhiking from Estonia. They too, chose the planks (great minds think alike). After they had both prepared their beds, William took us on a tour to the second floor of the prison.

Unlike the first floor, the interior of the second floor had remained unchanged since the soviet era. We could see wall carvings and doodles left by the prisoners of an era long gone. 

William showed us the prisoners’ bathroom (only two squat toilets to be shared among the hundreds of prisoners), and the solitary confinement cell.

The prison guard’s room had been transformed into a gallery to display their uniforms, books, guns and other memorabilia from WWII.

William, Alberto, Alessia and I were the only 4 people in the whole prison complex that night. Unfortunately, there were no fake prison guards to give us punishments. I assumed that maybe they only did that during the summer when there were more visitors. Nevertheless, I was thankful enough that I had someplace warm(ish) to spend the night.
 
The prisoners’ toilets

The "White Lady"

Karosta Prison’s claim to fame is that during its time, it was a prison that nobody ever escaped from. In present days, it has been dubbed one of the most haunted places in the world.

Before we went to bed, William decided that that was the perfect time to tell us the story about the “White Lady”. In 1944-1945, he said, hundreds of prisoners were executed within the prison walls, mostly over trivial crimes.

One of the victims was a young man who was going to get married real soon. On the day of their supposed wedding, his bride went looking for him, and upon finding out that he had been shot to death, she killed herself in the prison. And her spirit had stayed there ever since. Some people had claimed to see her lurking around the cells. 

When asked if he had seen anything strange in there, William said he hadn’t. But he did experience something weird with his phone once. When he slept in the prison one night, he had left his phone battery almost full. But the next morning, he woke up late because his alarm didn’t go off. It turned out his phone was dead. The battery had never drained that fast before. It remained a mystery.
 
His friend’s experience was somewhat different. Instead of draining, his phone battery actually increased throughout the night. William said his friend might be bluffing, but we may never find out for sure. We joked that at least we could save electricity if the ghosts kept doing that.
 
I slept with the lights on in my cell.

A Miserable Ending

The next morning, I woke up at 8 so that I could catch a 9 a.m. bus back to Riga. After taking a few pictures with William in front of the prison, I said goodbye to him, paid him the 15 euros and went on my way. It was a beautiful morning. Much lovelier weather than the day before.

Image result for karosta
Source: Flickr

As I was walking away, my jacket had somehow gotten tangled with my bag strap and I struggled a little to fix it. Then I slipped my hand into one of its pockets to retrieve my phone so that I could open the map. It wasn’t there. My phone wasn’t in my pocket. And I was pretty sure I had put it in there after taking the photos earlier. 

I quickly turned around. There was a man walking behind me, but he was at least 20 meters away, so he couldn’t have possibly taken it out of my pocket. I retraced my steps back to the prison, looking on the pavement and on the grass but couldn’t see any sign of it. I hoped I had dropped it in the prison yard.
 
Image result for grass and dead leaves on sidewalkAs I reached the gate, William was still there, still fumbling with the lock. I told him I had lost my phone and asked him to look around the yard to see if I had dropped it there. My phone, unfortunately, was on flight mode, so we couldn’t call it.
 
We spent an hour searching, in the prison yard and outside, going through the route that I had taken, kicking the dead leaves on the grass, in case the phone had gotten buried in there somehow, but no luck.
 
It felt as though somebody was playing a magic trick on me. The amount of time that had lapsed from the moment I last held the phone in my hand to realizing it was gone couldn’t have been more than 60 seconds. I didn’t feel it slip out of my pocket, or hear the sound of it hitting the tarmac. It simply vanished.
 
My best guess was that I had dropped it while I was struggling with my backpack (the sound of it hitting the ground was probably muffled by its leather case), and the man walking behind me had bent down and pocketed it before I even realized it was gone.
 
That was really the only plausible guess. But in my initial shock, I couldn’t help entertaining this crazy thought that maybe, just maybe, I had taken a photo that I wasn’t supposed to take and it had angered the White Lady who then took the phone away from me.
 
Fortunately I had brought along another camera. I can’t imagine what I would have done without it. But that didn’t make me feel any better about all the pictures and videos I lost, particularly videos of the prison tour and pictures of me on the plank bed in my prison cell. I was too distraught to go around the prison all over again to take new pictures.
 
So, some of the pictures and videos in this post were actually taken from the prison website while the rest were sent to me by my fellow inmate, Alessia.
 
With my fellow inmates — Alberto and Alessia
 
With William, on the way to the bus stop, to get a bus back to Liepaja.

Posted in Latvia

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