Lepoglava: Towards an Alternative History of Incarceration in Socialist Yugoslavia?

Carceral History and Politics of Punishment
June 2, 2023
Written by: 
Brendan Humphreys
Senior Researcher, Aleksanteri Institute – Finnish Centre for Russian and East European Studies

Lepoglava is the oldest prison in the region of former Yugoslavia. It was founded in 1854 in a Catholic Monastery, and has run continuously until the present day. It is located in attractive hills in Varaždin County in the very north of the country.

Since its foundation, it has existed under Habsburg, royal Yugoslavian, wartime collaborationist, Communist, and finally democratic Croatian jurisdictions. The whole range of political systems; imperial, pseudo-democratic, fascist, communist, and post-communist/democratic had overseen the management of the prison and generations of inmates.

Many notable names in Yugoslav history had served time in the prison, Tito himself, his mentor Moša Pijade were prisoners there before the Second World War. After the war, Archbishop Stepinac was incarcerated there; later Franjo Tuđman would also spend time in Lepoglava. There is much Yugoslavian – and specifically Croatian – history, which has had some connection with the prison. Unsurprisingly, some of the history is rather grim.

However, not only was there a large range of political regimes overseeing the prison in the 20th century, there were also varying carceral philosophies and approaches used in Lepoglava. In the late 19th century, it was run on the terms of the ‘Irish System’ of progressive carceration, with an emphasis on education of prisoners and a view towards re-integration of inmates into civilian life. Under the wardenship of Emile Tauber from 1877 onwards, the prison was liberal and progressive, organizing workshops for inmates, and later literacy classes for juvenile offenders. This progressive approach was in line with the general trends of incarceration in Austria-Hungary at this time (see Kantokoski, O., ‘Is Southeast European Penal Model Too Harsh? The Western Balkan Model of Carceral Punishment in the Context of Western European Prison Reform’, forthcoming).

Over the longer term however, the liberal regime did not last. From the time of the First World War and into the mid-1920s, the prisoners were used to manufacture military equipment, often in very harsh, exploitative circumstances. Work shifts of up to 15 hours were reported, and the expression “Tko ne radi, ne treba ni da jede” [Who does not work, does not have to eat either] was used, even in the prison hospital. Seemingly, this hardship was kept away from prying eyes. In her 1989 study, Kolar-Dimitrijević talks about later innovations in the prison, such as electrical works, as serving as a kind of ‘Potemkin Village’ whenever the site was visited by inspectors.

Then there were the dark years of the early 1940s, the decades of Socialist Yugoslavia, and its violent breakup. These external political events were mirrored in the prison. There was a serious riot in the early 1990s, which led to much physical destruction and proved fatal for one staff member.

The present day prison is comprised of closed, semi-open, and open facilities. It produces agricultural products; activities include bee-keeping, farming, and wine-making. It also has long promoted wood processing, furniture making and metalwork, although the latter has been discontinued. The furniture is of good quality, and used to be exported to the UK. It is still produced and is purchased by sources outside the prison. The wines have won international awards

Our visit

In February 2023, along with project leader Professor Judith Pallot of Oxford University, I was given permission to visit the prison and interview some of its staff, present and past. We are working on a project on the prison system of the former Yugoslavia, financed by the Finnish Academy. Professor Pallot also runs a larger project on the prison system of the former USSR – both projects take place in Helsinki University’s Aleksanteri Institute, the Finnish Center for Russian and East European studies.

Over two days, we conducted interviews with staff, present and past, were given a tour of the prison – I was especially hoping to see the cell of Archbishop Stepinac, and did – were allowed to take photographs (though not of the prisoners) and see the workshops. We were also taken to the open prison facility where the wine is produced, and we ate in the restaurant that is staffed by prisoners.

At close to halfway through our project, we are not near any conclusions, but the two-day trip to Lepoglava, and a further two days of interviews in Zagreb with staff of the Ministry of Justice have been eye-opening for us. To clarify, it is no surprise that Croatia’s prisons are trying to run on Council of Europe standards. What was notable was, when discussing the progressive outlook of Governor Dražen Posavec with him, we learned that the prison was selected for an experiment with progressive reforms as early as the 1970s. What these reforms were, and their impact on the prison today, is something that I will be following up in a future visit.

An alternative view?

For people who are aware of prisons in Tito’s Yugoslavia, the first institution that would probably come to mind would be the notorious Goli Otok logor. Established in the late 1940s, the camp was originally for suspected Cominformists, and other political prisoners. The camp’s brutality, with a hierarchy of prisoners brutalizing those below, has become notorious. This is attested to by many memoirs, documentary films, and the academic study of the camp by Martin Previšić.

Goli Otok became a more normal prison in later decades, but – as we were told by a guard who worked there in the 1980s – it had difficulty in transcending its reputation as a ‘logor’. It would finally be closed 1989. In fact, several guards who worked at Goli Otok also worked in Lepoglava. One might say that they represented two poles of a spectrum in socialist Yugoslav incarceration. Goli Otok as the gulag-style forced labor camp (‘Tito's Hawaii’, ‘the Croatian Alcatraz’) and Lepoglava as a seemingly progressive prison, committed – in theory at least – to individualization, developing work skills, and the re-integration of some prisoners back into society.

Early signs of this more progressive approach are detectable in the 1980s, even 1970s. In the latter decade, marked historically between the death of Tito and the breakup of Yugoslavia, there was a serious attempt in to deal with drug addiction in Lepoglava. This work was done with the cooperation of the addiction center of Zagreb’s Sestara Milosrdnica hospital.

Within only 4 years of its independence, information from Croatian’s prisons compared very favorably with other central and eastern European prisons (as did Slovenia’s). Of particular note are the numbers of prisoners per capita, the space allotted to prisoners, and the work opportunities within prisons. There are two points of interest here. Firstly is that Croatia was at war – at varying levels – in the early 1990s, and one might understand that a society in such circumstances has priorities higher than prison reform. Secondly, from what distance was Croatia coming in terms of catching up with general European standards? This is something we hope to establish in our ongoing research.

Earlier version of the text was published on the site of the Gulag Echoes project.

Annals of the Croatian Political Science Association

Croatian Political Science Association
Faculty of Political Science
Lepušićeva 6, 10 000 Zagreb

email: anali@fpzg.hr
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