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


GULAGECHOES has strong synergies with the Academy of Finland project “Yugoslavian Penal Nationalism”.  In February 2023, Professor Judith Pallot, PI of both projects, accompanied Brendan Humphreys, lead researcher of the Yugoslavian project to Croatia on the invitation of  the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Croatia, or Republika Hrvatska. The Ministry arranged interviews with staff of the Directorate for Prisons and Probation and at the high security prison in Lepoglava. In this blog Brendan Humphreys writes about what he learned during the visit about the history prison reform in Croatia.

Lepoglava Prison

Lepoglava is the oldest prison in the region of former Yugoslavia. Founded in 1854 in a Catholic Monastery, located in attractive hills in Varaždin County in the very north of the country. It has retained its penal function continuously until the present spanning Habsburg, royal Yugoslavian, wartime collaborationist, communists, 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 successive generations of inmates. Many notable names in Yugoslav history had served time in the prison. Tito and his mentor Moshe Pjade, were held 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 grim.

But not only did a large range of political regimes oversee 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 incarceration, with an emphasis on education of prisoners and a view towards re-integration of inmates into civilian life.

By contrast, in the 1920s the prison regime was one of harsh labour and exploitation. Work shifts of up to 15 hours were reported, and the expression “Tko ni radi, ne treba ni da jede” (‘Who does not work, does not need to eat’) was used, even in the prison hospital. Seemingly, this hardship was kept away from prying eyes. In a 1989 study, Kolar-Dimitrijević talks about later innovations in the prison, such as electrical works, and as its service as a kind of ‘Potemkin Village’ whenever the site was visited by inspectors.[i]

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 beekeeping, farming, viticulture 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

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 with the Governor, Drazen Posavec, his progressive outlook of Governor, 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, is 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 labour camp (‘Tito’s Hawaii’, ‘the Croatian Alcatraz’) and Lepoglava as a progressive prison, committed to individualization, developing work skills, and the re-integration of prisoners back into society.

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

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.[iii] There are two points of interest here. First, is that Croatia was in conflict – at varying levels – yet, in the early 1990s, a society in such circumstances, it might be assumed, had priorities higher than prison reform. Secondly, in terms of catching up with general European standards, an important consideration is what the starting point was. This is something I hope to establish in my ongoing research.

[i] Mira Kolar-Dimitrijević: ‘Radnička kretanja u lepoglavskom i ivanečkom području u međuratnom razdoblju.

Radovi Zavoda za znanstveni rad JAZU, br. 3, Varaždin 1989.

[ii] Zdenko Videc, ’Program rada s ousnicima o drogama u kaznionice u Lepoglavi’, Zaprimljeno: 21.102005

[iii] R. Walmsley , ‘The European Prison Rules in Central and Eastern Europe: Progress and problems’, Home Office, Queen Anne’s Gate, London, 1995

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