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In 2004, Delmi Alvarez documented – over three days – the activities at Skirotava prison in Riga, capital of his adopted home Latvia. We discussed his motivations, the difficulties of access and human rights in Latvian prisons.

Q & A

Why did you decide to do a project inside a prison? Did you decide specifically on Skirotava?
For many years I’ve been interested in what happens inside prison walls. It was not the first time that I secured a permit to enter a prison.

I chose Skirotava because I live in Latvia and – through my work – I am an eyewitness to human rights [abuses]; Latvia is on the black list for its human rights.

I was working for SestDiena magazine. After many emails and calls, and with the help of the former chief editor Mrs. Sarmite Elerte, I got a permit. (Mrs. Sarmite Elerte, like many journalists and myself at Diena company newspaper, was made redundant).

My aim with the photo essay was to study the living conditions of [Latvian] inmates. After visiting Skirotava, I asked to visit more places but at the last moment my permit was denied. Many Latvian prisons don’t have good conditions. Simply, Latvians don’t care about that.

What sort of laws and attitudes exist within Latvia toward crimes, prisons and criminal justice?
I would prefer not to talk about that. I had many problems arise due to my opinions on this subject. In Latvia there is no freedom of speech.

Was it difficult to gain access?
You can imagine. From every direction, I faced questions – who I am; why I was interested; and what were my aims, etc.

But as I said earlier, Sarmite Elerte is a great person and she was always watching out for stories about humans rights. Without her letter of recommendation I would never have gained entry.

If you are trying to enter [Latvian] prisons at which human rights are under scrutiny, you are – for the authorities – like a spying enemy. Once you first enter, you must have a meeting with a few officials and they ask many questions.

This project happened in 2004. Perhaps things have changed today, but I didn’t have a good experience with the people that manage permits.

I would like to go back to give a lecture about photography to the inmates because they were very interested.

You’ve said that prisoners in your pictures are “children of dictatorship”. Can you explain that statement?
Many of them are from the times of Stalin, Soviet rule and KGB. Parents and grandparents of most inmates are from those times. Stalin was [seen as] a dictator by many Latvians.

In Latvia, the minority groups are called “aliens” and there are a large controversies over these minorities. I don’t really want to enter into these issues because it is not my country and Latvians need only study the issues and put things in order.

But something is real, Latvia is for Latvians and they are proud to fight for that. With that logic, they have good reason to want to manage their country before others, but there is an increase of extremism and nationalism. This is bad.

Many inmates come from remote poor areas in Latvia that survive without services. In these places, both Russians and Latvians live. Then, once in the prison, Russians and Latvians are not friendly and it is not a safe place for either group.

What ages are the prisoners? Where have they come from?
During my three-day visit, one officer had a talk with me in his office. He told me about the rules of my visit – no questions; no names; and no photos directly of the inmates without their permission.

In truth, I didn’t – don’t – want to know who they are and from where come from. Imagine … If I knew the person I was photographing was a rapist and killer, I wouldn’t be able shoot neutrally, I wouldn’t want to see into the eyes of the guy and I would be very affected.

I prefer that I don’t know about the person’s past. We are human. I know that many of them are children of drug addicts, alcoholics, and thieves. I know that they are not at fault being to born in this environment.

My question is: What can society and systems provide to help them find a way and be accepted? I am sure that there is lack of reentry programs in the prisons. In the US and other more developed countries there are programs like this. Why not in Latvia?

What reputation does Skirotava have to people for Riga and/or Latvia?
I have no idea, but when I said in a lecture that I had been inside, people looked at me as if they were looking at diabolo (sic).

What were the responses from staff and inmates to your work?
[During the visit] I was always with two officers and I wasn’t allowed to talk with inmates. The officers were not allowed to talk with me [about my work]. But, one inmate asked me to shoot a picture for his mother. With permission of an officer, I made a portrait for the [inmate’s] mother. This made me happy.

I wrote in the article that prisoners like novels and books. The next week, hundreds of novels, books and magazines arrived at the offices of SestDiena magazine!

Any animosity?
For the first visit, the editors assigned a writer to accompany me. Okay, we arrived, passed the check control, left matches, phones and all the stuff that you are not allow to carry inside. After that point we went to the secure areas of the prison – the real prison.

We went into a big empty yard, a big Comanche (sic) territory where hundreds of eyes are watching you: Who the hell are you boys? What are you doing here, cowboys?

One of the inmates approached the writer and told him something in Russian. After that the writer told me, “I am getting out of this fucking hell!” And I stayed alone. Later, I reported this to my editors and they said I needed to write the article myself.

Did you get a pair of gloves?
Yes! Absolutely. It was a big surprise. I have this pair of gloves at home. I saw one inmate making gloves and I asked him if it was possible to buy a pair. The guy didn’t answer me because an officer was near. Later, my translator said that the inmate would make me a pair. I received the gloves some time ago and I asked to pay, but the translator told me, “They are waiting for you to talk about photography [as payment]”. I never got that permit to return. I am sorry about that.

Thanks Delmi.
Thanks Pete.

BIOGRAPHY

Delmi Alvarez (1958-) grew up in Vigo, Galicia, northwest Spain. He has worked as an electrician, street nightclub-ticket seller, bartender, gardener to support his studies. In London, as a photojournalist, he contributed to AP, AFP and Reuters agencies. In 1991 spent one year in Cuba working in a documentary project about the life of the Cubans. From 1990 till 1993 he covered the Yugoslavia war as correspondent and photographer with La Voz de Galicia newspaper. The experience shaped his personal opinion about conflicts and following the deaths of friend-photographers Alvarez no longer cover conflict zones. Since the mid-nineties, Alvarez has worked on a long term documentary project Galegos na Diaspora documenting the spread of Galician people across the globe.  The project has taken him to every continent. In 2006 the Galician Government invited Alvarez to develop a photographic project documenting and promoting the ancient pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. Alvarez is currently working on projects with Magnum photographers Ian Berry and Richard Kalvar. Alvarez has lived among the Galician diaspora in Riga, Latvia since 2002. http://www.delmialvarez.com/

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

– – –

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

Klavdij Sluban and Jim Casper of LensCulture talked about Klavdij’s photography workshops in juvenile prisons across the world.

Klavdij Sluban

Early in the interview, Klavdij discloses his personal sadness that prisons exist. This emotion may be raw but it is not naive; Klavdij is balanced and realistic about what he can achieve with a camera in these specific distopias. He also says in seven words what I established this blog to say “Jails are a world to be discovered.”

He went to the prisons not as photographer, but as a concerned citizen. He realised if he were to go inside it would need to be with some reciprocity … so he took cameras and used them.

In terms of engagement and commitment to a population – the youth prison population of the world – Klavdij Sluban could and should be considered a ‘Concerned Photographer’. He deserves that loaded epithet.

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