Monotone Days

Life inside a Lithuanian women's prison.

"All the days are monotone here. You can't get them back, they seem to be erased from life."


Three hundred. Or thereabouts. That is how many women are locked up behind the high walls of Panevėžys Correctional Facility in Lithuania. The inmate population is diverse: there are women, teenagers, even mothers with children.

There are currently about 8,000 to 9,000 inmates in Lithuania's prisons. Only 300 of them are women. The female convict is, therefore, a bit of an unknown quantity in Lithuanian society.

That is one of the reasons why it is harder for women to be rehabilitated back into society and why employment is thin on the ground for female ex-convicts.

There is greater cultural acceptance of delinquency in men and while rehabilitation may not be easy for them, it is possible. There are jobs available. Society is more inclined to forgive them. But for women, all doors are closed. There is a prescribed model they 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 these expectations, can find herself ostracised at every turn. Her future is likely to be bleak.

The road to the penitentiary

"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," says Kristina (her name has been changed upon her request), recalling the beginning of her journey to Panevėžys Correctional Facility.

It was a split second that changed her life. She severely injured someone. The hardest thing she has ever had to do, she says, was admit 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.

Vienodos Dienos - Kristina 01


Justina's story couldn't be more different. As a child she witnessed much violence. When she was four, her grandfather died. Soon after, her mother and grandmother took to drink. By the time she was eight, her alcoholic father was behind bars.

"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 recalls.

But her troubles truly began when, at the age of 13, she met a gang who were friends of her father's. She ran away with them.

That was when she tried drugs for the first time. At first weed, then amphetamines ... "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. But, by then, she had already become accustomed to a far more exciting lifestyle and struggled to sit calmly and do as 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!" She 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 shares the details of her troubled life, sometimes seeming to surprise herself with the turns taken by her stories.

Kristina and Justina have become friends on the inside, although they both admit with a smile that the girl with the privileged upbringing and the one with the troubled childhood would probably have never encountered each other had it not been for the shared walls of the correctional facility.

"When I realised 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," says Kristina, sitting in the prison library, where there are a few computers, without an internet connection, and piles of magazines stacked on the tables.

Kristina's life took a sharp turn for the worse. "You could say I found myself on the threshold of the abyss," she says.

"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 my eyes I was still here – it was the dripping tap and the very unpleasant smell that I remember most."

Vienodos Dienos - Justina 06


The crime doesn't choose the woman

At 15, 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 says.

She was 16 when she first found herself in Lukiškės prison – after getting drunk and stealing 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 amphetamines."

Since then Justina has been incarcerated with increasing frequency, the seriousness of her crimes worsening each time. On the outside, she found a boyfriend. He had just got out of Alytus prison and was working as a taxi driver.

"I never thought that he would use heroin," she says.

Justina continued to sell and use drugs. Concealing this from her relatives was easy as she was 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," she recounts.

Vienodos Dienos - Kristina ir Justina 06

Kristina and Justina

According to psychologist Andra Kiškytė, crime does not distinguish between social classes. "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% completed secondary education, 16% have primary education, and 9% have no formal education.

Education level among convicted women

The correctional facility is divided into four sectors: light, standard, enhanced security and one for women with young children. The set-up is similar to that of a dormitory with 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 rules 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 personalising her own by, for example, covering her bunk bed with colourful blankets and soft toys. The most important part of this micro world is the custom made altars the inmates create in their cupboards. These tiny environments of escape and contemplation are festooned with family photographs, love letters and children's drawings.

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,” explains Andra Kiškytė.

Adapting to a profound loss of personal freedom is always difficult, especially at 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, their surroundings, to look in the mirror and acknowledge that this is not simply some figment of a terrible 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 Andra Kiškytė there are many reasons why people commit crimes, but they are rarely premeditated and usually occur in the heat of the moment. For women, this most often manifests itself in the form of violence against spouses, particularly when they feel physically threatened. Of course, the addition of alcohol to the mix does little to de-escalate such situations. "Usually it's self-defence, or as a result of verbal abuse," the psychologist says.

If you want to trace the roots of these crimes, she explains, 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 crimes committed by convicted women

The hope is that the correctional facility will provide the inmate with complete social and psychological rehabilitation. With this in mind, formal and informal education is provided to the inmates. There are also various social activities on offer, 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).

Married to a stranger

During her case, Justina was regularly bussed by armoured 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 they soon began to send each other letters.

On February 20, 2014, they married. At the wedding, she saw her husband-to-be, a convicted murderer, for the first time.

There is no photo of him on the shelf beside her bed now.

"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," she says.

Justina remembers their first conjugal visit. "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."

Each conjugal visit lasts four hours.

She recalls how her husband told her: “If you are happy, I will make you cry." This stayed 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."

Kristina has also married while inside.

"We wanted to have the 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," she says.

Of course, this was not how she expected her marriage to be. Like most girls she dreamed 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 married men from the outside, the others married inmates.
In 2015, 10 convicted women married – nine of them to other inmates.


Marriage rates among inmates

Children – innocent but behind bars

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 10 women are currently serving their sentences here. What makes this group unique is that they are here with their young children. To all intents and purposes, we could call this the family section. Pregnant women or women with children up to three years of age 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 live with your child in such circumstances for the first three years of their live, and what does it feel like when they are then taken from you and placed into care?

The prison psychiatrist empathises 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. However, there is always the real and devastating threat of separation on the horizon.

"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 is sent to an orphanage. It is extremely hard for both the mother and child," Andra Kiškytė explains.

The children spend most of their days in the playrooms. From this arises a rather novel situation - the subject of a running joke among the mothers - where the children start to mix up who their real mother actually is.

Irina explains how her daughter, Deimante, would sometimes call the other women “mum”.

"I was attending manicure classes, and when I was away Deimante would call these other two women "mum". At first I was quite jealous, and I would say, ‘Deimante, I'm your mum.’ But I soon realised that that happens often here. Everyone takes care of everyone,” she says.

These days Irina gives all her love to Deimante and tries not dwell on the fact that she is unable to see her two other 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 asked if it's easier to serve her sentence with her child with her, 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?" she asks.

It’s a sentiment shared by the majority of the women who have children with them: an acknowledgement that the monotony of prison life is easier to bear, but a sense of shame that this is where their children are spending their first years.

Audronė also lives in the family section. 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," she says, as her son Dovydas fidgets on her lap.

Audronė’s mother died when she was seven. 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. Then she was accepted to study medicine at university.

"Everything was going really well. I just had a fear of dead bodies and during the 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 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,” she says.

After her time in the correctional facility, Audronė wants to move abroad, find a job and cut all connections to 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."

Vienodos Dienos - vaikai 05

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 a woman, even in a place like this.

Vilma also has two daughters, who now live with their grandmother. She misses them. "I don't have anyone else. Only them. You only realise what you have lost after you get here."

Prison visits offer the inmates an essential lifeline to their families and the world outside. All of the inmates have the right to see their families and friends for either a short (up to four hours) or a long (up to two days) meeting.

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 two days pass very quickly,” says Vilma. Hugs and long conversations are the main ingredients of those visits, she explains.

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," she adds.

Freedom: the greatest fear

The first prison in Panevėžys was established in 1566, and for most of its life it lay empty. 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 the past he participated in a television dance project, and there is a 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" - the direct translation from Lithuanian - is the correct term to use, he 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 or only way to punish them. On visits to similar institutions in foreign countries he learned that there are a number of ways 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 behaviour. 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 repression in the Soviet Union still advocate it. The frequency of custodial punishment under the Soviet system meant a large part of society 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 Edvardas 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 US and Italy discovered that there was compelling evidence of abnormal neuron behaviour 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 03examines 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 behaviour? There is no doubt that this is very important for medicine. But what about justice?" the author asks.

In his opinion, it's possible that in the future an examination of a person's brain will be used to determine how society judges different offences - a shop robbery or a murder. A brain that weighs 1.4kg 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," explains David Eagleman, the head of the Neurology and Law project in Houston in the US. "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."

In the words of Joshua Greene, from Princeton University in the US: "Punishment should be made less severe because behaviour is the result of a power that is not necessarily connected to one's responsibility for one's actions." In the opinion of Christian 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 will they survive, how are they going to make a living, will society and their families accept them?

Andra Kiškyte says this is the basis of the female convict's greatest fear. "Convicted women are stigmatised. 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 explains. "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," says Piper Kerman, the author of Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison.

Authors: Berta Tilmantaitė
Artūras Morozovas
Music: Martynas Gailius
Eglė Sirvydytė (Sodas Sounds)
Illustrations: Paulė Bocullaitė
Colour correction: Karolis Pilypas Liutkevičius
Text editing: Malcolm Stewart
Subtitles: Jokūbas Plytnikas
Karolis Pilypas Liutkevičius
Reversioning: AJLabs
Supported by:
Lietuvos kultūros taryba