Lithuania has the highest incarceration rate in the EU

After release from prison, former inmates face three choices: find work, get family support or return to prison

Having received his release papers from the prison’s management, on an average day of the Baltic autumn Rimantas Muka (31) moved through the gates of Alytus prison in Lithuania. He bought a kebab and a soda at a nearby kiosk. He just stood there and ate, waiting. Muka thought that the autumn morning was wonderful.

Muka had spent a third of his life behind the bars, stealing, robbing, selling drugs. He thought that this time all would turn out differently.

For months, he has been clear of drugs. Shortly before coming out he smoked his last cigarette and threw away the lighter determined to quit. In preparation for a new life, he traded his cigarettes with the other inmates for two pairs of tracksuit pants, a pair of jeans and sneakers. He bought shaving products, tooth paste and a toothbrush at the prison store, too.

Former prisoner Rimantas Muka. Photo: Inga Lucuniene
Former prisoner Rimantas Muka. Photo: Inga Lucuniene

This was the sixth time Muka had been released from prison. But this was the first time he truly felt that he didn’t want to go back, and this time someone was waiting for him.

“Hey, there is Rimas sitting,” he heard the voice of a former prison mate who was moving in his direction from the parking lot. He was coming together with their mutual acquaintance Nerijus Čekavičius whom Muka met in prison and now calls the man who changed his life.

Čekavičius was a former drug addict who had been imprisoned twice for theft. By now, he had a wife and he had been running his car repair shop for 13 years. His wife is a priest and Čekavičius himself is a preacher who holds seminars in the prison.

After greeting they drove to the nearby town of Alytus where Muka moved into an apartment with his former prison mate. Friends helped him enroll in a benefit programme for the unemployed. Čekavičius and Muka talked about God for hours. In the evenings they visited the homes of other believers for food and talks.

A week later Muka had to make a decision: return to his previous life of drugs or change his circle of friends. There were two options. The first was the Minnesota program which runs for 28 days in another town, Kaunas. It would probably reduce his drug addiction, but wouldn’t change his personality. The other alternative was a social rehabilitation center, located in Kedainiai, where former inmates and other addicts stay for a year.

“I didn’t want to do drugs and steal anymore, but I didn’t want to go to rehab, either,” reminisces Muka. He decided to go to Kedainai. “I felt tired and I thought I didn’t know how to live anymore. I couldn’t really talk to people if they didn’t approach me. I only knew how to be rude.”

In the evening before leaving, during the sermon, Muka started to cry. “I don’t recall myself crying like that in a long time.”

The next day he took a bus to Kedainiai where he was met by a member of the church. They went for a medical examination to fill out forms in the local clinic and then moved to the rehab center called “Lighthouse of Hope.”

Muka was one of 3,319 prisoners released in Lithuania last year. The country has the highest incarceration rate in the European Union. In the region, Georgia and Russia lock up more people than Lithuania.

After release from prison, former inmates face three choices: find work, get family support or return to prison. Many inmates are alcoholics or drug addicts, which makes it even harder for them to return to society. Official statistics show that less than 20% of inmates in Lithuanian prisons are addicts, but people in the field do not believe it.

Gintautas Sakalauskas, a senior researcher at the Criminological Research Department of Lithuania’s Law Institute, estimates that the real number of addicts is probably closer to 50%, while people who work in rehabilitation say that the number might actually be 70%. (in Latvia it is 80%).

Returning to prison is often the easiest way. Many employers do not want to hire ex-convicts, families can be unwelcoming. Government benefits are extremely small (a one-off maximum payment of 30 euros). Once released, they often lack the proper documents and knowledge to apply for work.

Lithuania does not gather data regarding repeat offenses, but last year of 3,049 imprisoned persons almost 500 had committed a new crime within a year of release. In Latvia, research shows that 51% of criminals commit repeat offenses within two years. Two thirds are back within three months, which could signal the lack of support during the first crucial months after release.

It’s hard to break out of this cycle, because neither Latvia nor Lithuania have the proper government funding for support programs to help ex-prisoners re-enter society. Lithuania pays part of the 28 day stay in the Minnesota program or social rehabilitation in one of two rehab centers which can house 22 prisoners in total. This is a far cry from enough. The biggest support comes from the various non-profit and religious organizations.

If not for the support from the church, Rimantas Muka would probably be back in prison. At least that was his initial plan. “I had already decided to kill someone in prison. I told my brother I’m not coming out anymore. My mother was fine with it too, as it meant I would be alive but not present in her life,” said Muka.

He changed his attitude few months before release in October 2014. He visited a Bible seminar.

 

Learning to talk

Muka didn’t go to the Bible group to find God. For months he sat in a corner of the room, his hood over his face, just to be somewhere quiet. One day, unexpectedly, he found himself involved in a discussion. “It was an interesting conversation. I don’t remember about what. I was surprised that I had started talking,” Muka reminisces.

Surprise hasn’t disappeared from his voice even half a year later when we meet in the rehabilitation center. Wearing tracksuit bottoms, with a crew cut and grayish teeth, he still reminds one of a small boy overjoyed about an unexpected present. He’s even surprised he agreed to the interview. “They teach us to talk.”

The “Lighthouse of Hope” consists of several buildings. We are in the guest house, a small building that had a conference room with a long wooden table on the second floor and a small bedroom for guests. On the ground floor, avlaundry machine rumbles constantly.

In the center the addicts can stay for a year while they acquire the skills for living on their own
In the center the addicts can stay for a year while they acquire the skills for living on their own

The main building is a white house which used to be two stories high, but due to an influx of clients was expanded to three. During 13 years of operation the center has accepted around 1,000 people, both women and men. Currently it has 45 places, making it the largest private rehabilitation center for addicts (not necessarily ex-convicts) in Lithuania.

A hundred meters away from the main building is the house where the founders and owners of the “Lighthouse of Hope” rehab center, Albertas and Inga Lucunas live with their children. Albertas is also the co-founder of two other rehab centers in Kaunas and Siauliai, and leads the association of Lithuanian communities for rehabilitation from addictive disorders, which he co-founded and which unites 22 rehab centers across Lithuania.

The members of the association can accept a combined 360 clients. The numbers might dwindle in 2015 because from then on social rehabilitation service providers will need a licence.

Albertas Lucunas says that the license system is needed to separate “philanthropists who work with love” from people who do this for profit. The centers will have to meet several requirements: have a program, professional staff, and adequate facilities.

The rehab centers are funded on a project basis, which they propose to foreign foundations and special programs aimed to help people from risk groups. Those are funded by the Lithuanian government. One client “costs” the “Lighthouse of Hope” 720 euros per month. Money is always short, so the clients are expected to make a donation, which on average is 145-200 euros per month. It is not a precondition for stay: those who can, pay. It is a regular practice in most of the centers. Since Muka has no income he gives his social benefit, of around 100 euros, which he receives because he is officially poor.

The founders and owners of the “Lighthouse of Hope” rehab center are Albertas and Inga Lucunas. Albertas is also the co-founder of two other rehabs in Kaunas and Siauliai.
The founders and owners of the “Lighthouse of Hope” rehab center are Albertas and Inga Lucunas. Albertas is also the co-founder of two other rehabs in Kaunas and Siauliai.

The “Lighthouse of Hope” is not the first rehab center where Rimantas Muka has temporarily lived. He had stayed in similar facilities in Kaunas and Utena during his previous short spells of freedom. But he didn’t like it there because it was forbidden to smoke. “All they had was the Bible and work”. He said that he went to Utena several times because the social worker was nice and “accepted literally anyone out of kindness.”

The humane treatment is what Muka values in the “Lighthouse of Hope.” He still has to work and study the Bible, but it is voluntary and the center offers psychological help and learning courses after work. There are 20 employees for the 45 patients in the rehab center.

Muka starts his day at seven in the morning with prayer and breakfast. Then a meeting where the work and learning program for the day is discussed, followed by work around the compound, dinner and free time in the evening. Mobile phones and TV are forbidden. The goal is to isolate patients from their past, to give them new values and teach them how to live again.

“I don’t know how to go to work, pay the electricity bill or rent an apartment,” Muka explains, “I only have 11 months of work experience.”

Working outside the confines of the Lighthouse is still a step too early to take. The first thing to do is to learn to know himself, which is why he visits the psychologist several times a week. He was hesitant to talk at first, but afterwards he was very eager. He started to write a diary, one for the psychologist and one for himself. He enjoys it.

He could have had access to counselling in prison, even if specialists are in short supply, with one for every 400 prisoners. However, he did not take it up.

“I wouldn’t talk to a psychologist in prison even 30 minutes before release. Prison is the survival of the fittest. You can’t trust anyone.”

The most important thing for Muka is to learn to control his anger. He can control himself and warn others when he feels an oncoming burst of aggression only when he is sober.

“Me and two friends were playing cards and drinking. The next morning I wake up with my hands covered in blood and my friends both in the hospital.”

Muka committed the crimes that landed him in jail while being drunk.

His father was always drunk, too, when he beat him, his brother and his mother.

 

Prisoner of the bottle

Muka has not met his mother for years. She doesn’t want to see him, but they occasionally chat by phone. The breaking point was when he returned from prison the second time, went to his mother’s place, got drunk and had a fight with his stepfather.

Muka started smoking and drinking while in primary school. His father drank regularly. Muka remembers a time when his father beat his mother, and he and his brother jumped in to protect her. All three ended up in the hospital. He had a broken arm, his brother a broken leg, but their mother, heavy bruising.

A few years later things changed, and the roles reversed. His father grew to fear him as Muka would attack him in drunken rages. He would ask Muka’s mother if he had been drinking. If the answer was yes, his father would sleep on the street. Muka had practiced boxing when he was younger and was quite good at it. The skill came in handy when he needed to let go his aggression towards his father.

Around that time he started also to steal from his mother, relatives and schoolmates to buy better clothing and cigarettes. From time to time he gave stolen money to his mother to pay the rent or to buy food. She did not ask where it came from.

Muka ended up in prison for the first time when he was 18. He was sentenced for robbery, carrying a weapon and coercing an underage person to participate in crime. He was accused of robbing rich villas and was sentenced to 6 years in prison. This was a heavy sentencing for a first time felony, but the extreme violence of the crimes was taken into account. Muka claims that they cut off the tongue of one and broke the leg of another to force them to reveal where the money is hidden.

His mother and brother visited him in prison. They sent him parcels and money because they believed that Muka would change, but he spent the money on drugs.

When he returned home after the prison, his father was dead and he had a stepfather. Muka started working the new line of work he learned in prison: selling drugs. He boasts that he earned about 1,000 euros. He switched from smoking weed to dealing -and using – heroin. After a couple of months of freedom, Muka beat someone who was in debt to him. “I smashed his teeth, broke his legs, took his phone and walked away”. For that he was sentenced to two and half years in prison. He got high off anything he could lay his hands on – heroin, sniffing glue.

At the time there was no rehab program in prison (currently two prisons have rehabs with 22 places between them). For most of the imprisoned addicts, help is provided on an individual basis, with the support of the prison psychologist, explains Nijole Martinkeviciene from Lithuania’s Justice Ministry. Taking into account the amount of psychologists working in the prisons, this statement seems doubtful.

Muka was released from prison on parole nine months early. He had to report once a month to the probation office and had to apply for unemployment. Twice he had to go to the museum at the direction of his probation officer. If not, that would count as a violation of the terms of his parole. Three strikes, and you are back behind bars.

He found a job as a cargo loader in an alcohol factory in the capital Vilnius. He slept inside the forklift, drank heavily and eventually started stealing from his employers. Ten months later he was back in prison for the third time because he had beaten up and robbed a drinking buddy.

His fourth incarceration came when he broke a window and stole a computer from a school. The fifth took place in Germany where Muka traveled after a relative invited him to come sell drugs. Muka liked the German prison. He had his own cell and he learned Russian from his fellow inmates. There were different classes available: a chess club and a guitar club. He was offered rehab, but he declined. “Didn’t see the point.”

After listening to other inmates stories of governments funding for an apartment with the option to buy and help to find a job, Muka was looking forward to his release. Shortly before the time came Lithuania’s government requested his extradition as he had an unfinished sentence for robbery which he had committed before leaving for Germany. His dream for a life in Germany ended in his native land’s prison.

By now, it already felt like a home. He knew everyone, while outside the prison walls no one was waiting for him.

When he left prison for the last time, Muka received a one-time allowance of 14 euros, 17 euros for travel costs and a 20 euro salary for his work in prison. In total around 50 euros.

Before prisoners are released, the administration asks what they intend to do outside. The ones without family are given a booklet listing religious and nonprofit organizations that might help. The state subsidizes 50% of a salary for six months if people hire ex-convicts, but there is little demand from employers.

In the first half of 2014, only 49 people were employed in this program, with 800 on a waiting list. The jobs are mostly low skilled, such as cleaning and construction and require no special education.

Life is slightly easier for prisoners on parole because they have to report to a probation officer regularly until the end of their sentence. Probation exists more to control ex-convicts than to help them. They control if a person on parole pays alimony, remains at home at night and are looking for jobs while actual support in education, and a place to stay depends on the local municipality.

The situation in Latvia is similar since support for prisoners was among the things cut during years of austerity. In Estonia, the control over people on parole who are deemed high risk is much stronger. They have to see their probation officers four times a month, and one visit a month takes place at their homes. Psychiatric help is also offered.

Lithuania’s probation service representative Saulius Lauraitis says that there are employers who are willing to hire prisoners who are on parole because they’re easier to control. They don’t drink and they arrive at work on time. Otherwise, they would violate their parole rules and would have to return to prison. In the beginning of 2014, 42% of prisoners on parole had found work, but this does not mean that all of them informed their employer of their past. Probation officers often advise ex-prisoners to not talk about it unless explicitly asked.

 

To punish, punish and punish again

There is no reason to think that the conditions in prisons and for ex-convicts will improve in the next few years in Lithuania.

Lithuania has the highest rate of incarceration in the European Union and the numbers for people on parole are going down. Between 1998 – 2010 half of the convicts were released on parole. Last year, the figure had dropped to the one third.

In 2013, a Lithuanian member of parliament, Petras Grazulis, proposed the reintroduction of the death penalty. He was supported even by the Parliament’s speaker at the time, Vydas Gedvilas, but the proposal died when it was concluded it was contrary to the Constitution. However, other proposals for tougher penalties were approved.

“A more frequent use of imprisonment and longer duration of sentences are more typical for the countries with a still short life-span of the democratic development, not only in the Eastern Europe but Spain and Portugal as well, ” says senior researcher Gintautas Sakalauskas from Lithuanian Law Institute. “Not only society, but also prosecutors and judges still believe that prison is the best solution for these problems.”

Several objectives are reached at once when a guilty person is put behind bars, says Aleksandras Dobryninas, a criminology expert from Vilnius University. “An enemy is created and it mobilises society.” Society is satisfied that the criminal is not only punished, but isolated. But it just delays the problem, as the prisoner will be released sooner or later and there is a possibility that due to prison conditions he will return even more dangerous than before.

This was the case of Rimantas Muka.

“When I met him I immediately saw what he was missing. A basic human interaction,” recalls the leader of the Bible group Nerijus Čekavičius, who motivated Muka to change his life.

Čekavičius, who has been preaching in prisons for 10 years, considers the lack of humane treatment in the criminal system as a main cause to increase criminal activity.

“The real reason why they return to prison is because they’re afraid of being alone. That no one will accept them.”

“We have locked them in a prison cell in our minds and don’t want to let them out even when they’re released in real life,” says Albertas Lucunas, founder of the “Lighthouse of Hope” rehab center.

He and Čekavičius believes that one of the best treatments would be if ex-prisoners would visit prisons regularly to tell them of their experiences and provide proof that the change is possible. Lucunas mentions a program in Sweden where ex-convicts are employed as assistants for social workers because they understand the problems other prisoners face and can gain trust more easily.

There is a similar system in the “Lighthouse of Hope.” Some of the current employees of the center are former “clients” who help new arrivals. In teams with specialists they visit schools and also teach the employees of the probation service. Lucunas says that if they had funding they would regularly visit prisons to motivate prisoners to enter rehab when released. The government used to fund these visits, but during the economic crisis funding was cut and has not been replaced.

A similar program with volunteers is also in preparation in Latvia. Paid for by the Norwegian government, the program next year will use 40 volunteers to coach juveniles and prisoners under the age of 25 how to meaningfully use their free time. This age group is evaluated as the highest risk for re-offending. The volunteer group will grow in 2016 when Latvia hopes to finance it with EU money. The target group will also expand. The head of the probation services, Mihails Papsujevičs, says ex-cons could be among the volunteers, but “they will have to prove that they have really turned their lives around.”

At the time of our conversation Muka had spent a month in the “Lighthouse of Hope” and has reached the second of four stages of rehabilitation. The second stage is the “limited contact stage,” during which Muka can contact people from the outside world such as family and people supporting him. The patients are on a revolving order where one patient becomes the “chief of the house,” making him for a week responsible to manage the tasks for the day. The goal is to teach them to assume responsibility.

The third stage is the “responsibility” phase. Muka will be allowed to visit friends on weekends and apply for the role of “leader of the house.” The leader is chosen in an election similar to the president of the country and has a term of 2 months.

The 4th phase is the “contact” phase. Muka will have to travel to find a place to stay and work. The center will provide psychological support, but he will have to make his own choices. If needed, Muka will be allowed to stay in the “Lighthouse of Hope” for longer than a year, says Lucunas.

He doesn’t want to disclose how many of the 1,000 patients of the rehab center have successfully gotten over their addiction and started a new life. “At least 30% and that’s a good outcome.” They use Facebook to see which clients have gotten married and have children now. Lucunas compares the experience in the center to an upward spiral. Even if the patient returns to drugs, they will still be in a better state than before.

Will Rimantas Muka be able to start a new life? Lucunas provides no comment, but tells a story.

“We had a patient who had come here five times. The last time he escaped by running through the garden. I told everyone to deny him entry if he returns ever again. While I was away, he came back and was admitted for a sixth time. Now he runs a similar rehab center.”

 

By Inga Spriņģe, Mantas Dubauskas, Re:Baltica

 


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