Every Wednesday the inmates have free time for a couple of hours in the afternoon, where they have to clean their dorm room, but there is also time to read a book. © Christian Als / GraziaNeri

Christian Als contacted me recently, to let me know of his project A Childhood Behind Bars.

Als visited Cesis Correctional Facility for Juveniles, Latvia’s only juvenile prison. A quick internet search indicated a paucity of information on Cesis; so this documentary project should be considered a important record of this particular institution and the lives contained within.

Cesis is situated one hundred kilometres northeast of Latvia’s capitol, Riga. It houses 140 young men between the ages of 14 and 21. As soon as the youngsters turn 21 they are transferred to adult facilities.

Als describes the young prison population as half Russian youth and half Latvian youth.

2007

The project is now three years old, so I encourage caution not to assume that all things are the same.

“A study from 2005 made by the ‘Latvian Centre for Human Rights’ evaluated the situation of juvenile prisoners in Cesis and gave recommendations how to bring the prison in line with International standards. So far nothing has been done and the prison looks like something out of Soviet Union and not EU 2007,” says Als

Latvia’s system for juvenile offenders is unique. “Four percent of Latvian prisoners are juveniles; that is a far higher rate of juvenile incarceration than other countries in the region. In comparison Sweden has only 0.2%, Denmark 0.6% and Poland 1.3%,” explains Als.

During the inmates free time some boys are eating soup and playing cards, while the warden is keeping an eye on the action. In Latvia the official standard for living space per juvenile prisoners is three square metres. In the section for sentenced prisoners, juveniles are accommodated in large dormitory type rooms for 20-22 inmates in eight units. © Christian Als / GraziaNeri

The boys are not allowed newspapers or television, because they are not to have any influence from the outside world. But the boys save pages from magazines and hang them on the wall. The most popular teenstars are Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. © Christian Als / GraziaNeri

© Christian Als / GraziaNeri

WHEN IS A PRISON NOT A PRISON?

ALs recounts, “The management insists on calling the prison by other names like school, institution or home. The plaque outside reads: ‘Cesis Correctional Institution for Underage Children’.”

The age of criminal responsibility in Latvia is 14 years-old. Prior to the new Criminal Law of 1999, the age of criminal responsibility for most crimes was 16, and 14 only for the most serious crimes.

The new Criminal Law extended the maximum prison sentence length for juveniles from 10 to 15 years. Many of the children in Cesis Prison were convicted on  charges of murder.

INSTITUTIONAL VIOLENCE

In March 2005 a juvenile prisoner was killed by hanging by two fellow prisoners. On July 28, the Vidzeme District Court sentenced both killers to eleven years imprisonment.

Months later at Cesis, in December 2005, a 16-year old boy, upon his return from a Central Prison hospital, was murdered in his cell by two other juvenile cell-mates.

The boys in Cesis Correctional Facility for Juveniles are allowed a bath once a week, every Wednesday. © Christian Als / GraziaNeri

According to Latvian law the juvenile prisoners are entitled to at least one short visit by relatives or other persons once a week for up to one hour in the presence of a prison officer, and one phone call a week, not shorter than five minutes. But the prisoners rarely get in touch with the outside world. © Christian Als / GraziaNeri

Every Wednesday the inmates have free time for a couple of hours in the afternoon, where they have to clean their dorm room, but there are also time to hang out in the court yard. © Christian Als / GraziaNeri

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A Childhood Behind Bars won third place in the PoYI’s Feature Picture Story category, 2008.

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