My time in an Estonian prison

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If there’s a more miserable place on Earth than Tallinn’s Patarei prison, I’m yet to find it. With a long history of bloodshed, cruelty, torture and pain, this former fortress and jail is a wet, smelly, harsh reminder of Estonia’s bleak history – and it absolutely should not be missed.

Built in 1840 as a sea fortress for the Russian Empire, the conditions inside the concrete nightmare proved to be uninhabitable, with disease running rife through the halls as temperatures remained below freezing year-round. With soldiers dying from simply spending time there, it was used as a monstrous storage facility until, in 1920, it was turned into one of the most notorious prisons the world has ever known.

Patarei had a number of operators over the years, and each put their own horrible spin on the experience. The Nazis used it as an internment and death camp in the 1940s, and the Soviets kept the party going when they took over in 1944, sometimes cramming as many as 5000 poor bastards into its walls at a time. Even after Estonia achieved freedom from the Soviet Union in 1990, the centre was still used as a prison, until finally being closed in 2005.

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The prison is open all day, every day (except Mondays) during the summer, but during the colder months it’s only available as part of a tour company. Thankfully, they cost only eight Euro Spacebux, are easy to book, and the tour guide provides a fascinating insight into the brutal history of the site.

Life as a prisoner in Paterei sounded like a riot, with pretty much every human right set out by the United Nations well and truly stepped on. Tiny rooms that could barely fit 16 prisoners were regularly used to hold 40 or more at a time, and murder, butt-rape and bashings were a part of everyday life. Due to the wet and cold conditions, disease flowed freely through the prison, with little treatment for the inmates, who were usually left to die. The entire precinct was shut off from natural light and, in winter, the temperatures regularly dropped below -20, with not a lot in the way of heating or even blankets. As my tour guide say, “It wasn’t a place where any human should have been.”

And if the drab concrete citadel is rough, the creatures who once inhabited it were far worse – and I’m not just talking about the rapists and murderers who were locked up in there. The guards were brutal, regularly bashing prisoners, or pouring boiling water on them, or starving them. It should come as no surprise that there was a suicide attempt every couple of days, and prisoners regularly chopped off their own limbs just to spend a few weeks in the facility’s hospital. It’s incredible to think this place was in use just 11 years ago.

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Today, the prison is every bit as harsh as it ever was, but thankfully it’s a lot easier to get into and out of it. Hallways lay silent, with Soviet-era typewriters and telephones rotting away in dark corners. Cells piled to the ceiling with rubbish stare back through rusting doors. Everything stinks of rotting wood and stagnant water, and voices echo down corridors that once heard nothing but screams.

Torture chambers that look like something out of a horror movie, and were once a secret shame of the Soviet Union, now lay open to visitors. Execution rooms, buried deep in the bowels of Patarei are riddled with bullets and heaving with ghosts. If not for the peeling paint, it would look like it was abandoned yesterday. One wing is closed off due to being infested by some sort of terrifying mold that causing anyone who enters to spontaneously vomit blood.

While insane prison guards and bloodthirsty inmates are long gone from Patarei, it’s still home to an assortment of weirdos. It’s become a favourite haunt of loopy artists, who wander the grounds collecting bits of wood and metal to build hulking robots and all sorts of other strange stuff. Don’t startle them, because I’m sure they bite.

The tour took nearly two hours, and was a fascinating look into a deranged and horrible place. Yeah, I reckon I might be on my best behaviour for the rest of my time in Estonia!

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