The long wait at Pankrác prison

I recently came back from a visit to Prague’s Pankrác prison. Such were the preliminaries and security checks that it was harder to get in than out. My mobile phone was taken from me, my recording gear looked at suspiciously and passport scoured before the keys rattled and buzzer sounded. But it was all handshakes, smiles, and a brisk goodbye on the way out. Needless to say it is not the same story for most of those inmates in one of the country’s most famous prisons.

I did not get a look at any of the around 1,000 prisoners – half waiting to be tried and half already sentenced – only a glimpse of the barred cells not so far away. I did however serve a bit of time in the waiting room and that was enough. The waiting room was a good preparation for the museum visit that I had booked. If anything, the museum is in far better shape.

Bars on the windows, 30-year-old communist regime furniture and a concrete floor across which small black ants traced a path that perhaps crossed the border between freedom and incarceration were the first impressions of that waiting room. I later eyed the coffee machine and cigarette dispenser that gave out consolation at a price.

Pankrác Prison, photo: CTKPankrác Prison, photo: CTK I was a bit surprised by the ants since Spring had only just arrived, but I suppose institutional heating keeps them warm throughout the year. I hope these words will not be read by some prison authorities and amount to a death sentence for them.

The human visitors were a mixed bunch. Some were clearly the relatives of those on the wrong side of the bars. Others, carrying folders and files, as well as a certain assurance with the whereabouts, looked like the legal briefs.

There was one man in bright red shoes – I was still following the ants – and a sort of wide brimmed cowboy hat favoured by Czechs of a certain maturity who I could not really place. I half expected him to jump up, wave a weapon and announce a break out. I was early for the meeting because I had not worked out in advance quite which door was the right for the large prison. I dislike being late. Pankrác occupies a big site but is sort of hidden away behind the rather grim court buildings where some of the communist show trials in the 1950’s were held.

I should have remembered that I was already familiar with the site. Opposite the prison, is an office where Czech declarations about criminal records, or the lack of them, are dispensed. I spent many hours waiting there in the days before Czech EU entry when that paper was one of a collection that had to be made for a residency permit. The problem was the papers expired at different periods, making it quite a challenge to line up all of them with valid dates.

Sometimes I looked at the grey doors of the prison and thought it might not be so bad to be there. But the Pankrác waiting room has, if anything, given me other ideas.