In 1970, I faced prison for the first time in my life. I was a student of language and literature at the University of Łódź. A 21-year-old girl with a head full of ideals, I knew nothing about life in prison. I’d never even thought about prison before – I had no reason to. I grew up in a neighbourhood where nobody did time. At least I didn’t know anyone who had…
The story began when I joined the Polish Students’ Association, a communist youth group, during my university years. Quickly disillusioned by the realities of university life and encouraged by the mass student strikes that spread through Poland in early ‘68, I got involved in the student opposition, helping to run grassroots discussion groups where we raised issues that were taboo in the traditional educational system.
That same year, I became a member of Ruch, a serious opposition initiative with an underground magazine named Informant. My task was to gather information from the Polish Press Agency’s restricted materials and transform them into real news stories for the magazine. Two years of frenzied activity passed.
Then, in 1970, I was suddenly arrested and imprisoned. A whole new world opened up to me. My first and lasting impression of the prison in Łódź was one of… sadness. The prison where I was held was filled with young girls, who weren’t necessarily political prisoners, but had ended up there because they had no-one to look after them. If only the penal system had been different, if only it had worked better, they might have avoided such a fate.
Yet, surprisingly, life in prison turned out to be much the same as life in the outside world. The prison guards who abused their power over helpless prisoners weren’t so different from my grammar school teachers. The atmosphere in prison resembled the atmosphere in Poland at the beginning of the 70s; I realised it was no surprise that life in an authoritarian state is often compared to life in prison. The only difference was that, in prison, all the evils of reality in a communist state were sharpened. You saw things more clearly.
Startled, he ran away, but I chased him all the
way to his office.
In general, I tried to be calm and polite and keep my head down, knowing that a fight with prison staff would end badly. All the same, I did lose my temper once. The story became legend and was retold over and over again to generations of Łódź prisoners, as I later found out.
It happened in 1971. I was in my cell with two fellow inmates. One of them was trying to wash and, since she was rather shy, she’d asked us to turn around to give her some privacy, which we did. We looked out of the window, just for something to do. But the guard suspected us of trying to send a secret message outside – a forbidden activity, of course. He called us out of the cell and eventually decided that I was to blame! He summoned me to his office, screaming at me the whole way there. I kept a cool exterior, but this infuriated him even more and made the yelling and name-calling worse.
All of a sudden, I felt myself screaming back at him in a blind rage. It was so shocking and unexpected that he drew back, but it was too late: I came at him in a kind of frenzy, still screaming. Startled, he ran away, but I chased him all the way to his office, where he locked himself in. Still furious, I tried to kick down the door, but he refused to open up. After a couple of minutes, I calmed down and left the corridor, returning to my cell and leaving the guard in his safe haven. Needless to say, everyone at the prison was stunned. This was unprecedented. The most astounding thing is that I didn’t face any serious consequences: the guard contented himself with depriving me of the packages I was sent. Soon after that I was released.
After my release, I was barred from the university because of my prison sentence, so I had to make arrangements to continue my studies elsewhere. I was accepted by the Catholic University of Lublin, which was the main academic refuge for us young outcasts involved in the opposition during the communist era. In 1976, I finally graduated with a degree in language and literature. My dissident activity continued throughout the 70s: between the Workers’ Defence Committee, the successful August strike at the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk and the Solidarnośćmovement, life was full of possibilities and struggles. Sadly, the joy from our victory in Gdańsk would not last long. Martial law was introduced in December 1981, and I was forced to go underground and live in hiding from the security services.
During my time as an outlaw, I used a fake ID. This meant that, when I was arrested, I couldn’t identify myself officially, because my documents belonged to someone else. Without the proper documents they couldn’t put me in jail, so I spent hours on end, which turned into days on end, waiting in terrible conditions at a militia precinct. The cells were crammed to bursting, with six, seven, eight or even ten people crowded into a six square metre space and there were no beds or running water. The precinct cells were only designed to hold inmates for up to 24 hours, but I spent six days there.
I dreamt about prison as if it were some sort of promised land.
All night long, the door would open and they would throw in some girls from the city. The first to arrive bagged spaces on the wooden platform, while the rest would lie side-by-side on the ground. It was difficult to sleep with the crush of people, the stuffiness and the reeking toilet in the cell. We weren’t allowed any personal items: no matches, no toothbrushes, no combs. It was 24 hours a day in the same clothes, and washing was out of the question! I refused to spend more than a minute in the bathroom and always walked in covering my nose. I didn’t even try to wash, because the water from the tap was so dirty and reeked so badly that it was the antithesis of the idea of washing – you would be soaked with an unbearable smell!
In all honesty, I was very relieved when they took me upstairs for my interrogation, because at least I could wash my face and hands and sit on a normal toilet seat. I actually started dreaming about finally being moved to a real prison. I knew that in prison I’d at least get my own bed with sheets, regular meals, walks and water. I dreamt about prison as if it were some sort of promised land. But they wouldn’t send me there, because I didn’t have my documents. They photographed me for a temporary ID and the whole affair dragged on endlessly, in a way that was typical of the Polish People’s Republic bureaucracy. In that country, you couldn’t even be locked up without the correct documents!
In 1982, I was sent to an infamous prison on Rakowiecka Street in Warsaw. Although the case against me was weak and the prosecutor had huge difficulty pressing proper charges, I was incarcerated for the duration of the trial. It was around this time that I lost my cool for a second time: I got into a stupid fight about a stool.
It was autumn, and we were given coats so that we could go for walks. Coats – Lord have mercy! Stinking, dirty and dusty, they hadn’t seen soap for years. They were utterly disgusting. One day, while I was folding clothes, I put the coats on the floor. The section commander, actually a rather pleasant, polite man, came in and asked, ‘Why is there state property on the floor?’ ‘State property, Mr. Section Commander?’ I replied incredulously. ‘This reeking pile of rubbish? Do you think I should put them on clean, washed things so they get dirty too? After all, the floor is clean and nothing will happen to them there.’ He decided to show me who was boss: ‘In that case, get another stool and put the coats on it. State property will not be kept on the floor.’
But we needed the stool he was pointing at to play cards. So I calmly said that I couldn’t put out another stool, because there were four of us and we needed four stools. If he could obtain a fifth stool, we would be delighted, because God forbid we should misuse state property. There were still three more hours before lights out and we wanted that stool. He said we could sit on our beds. I told him, still calm, that he did not have to tell me this, because I knew that after six o’clock we were allowed to lie and sit on our beds, but tonight I wanted to sit on a stool.
One thing led to another and we both got angry. Suddenly, he entered the cell to grab the stool, which was not allowed. I immediately sat down on my stool and the two other women sat on theirs. The third woman got up from her stool like a coward, so I grabbed it quickly, thinking, ‘I’m not giving up this fucking stool, I’m not giving it up’. The commander jerked a little and began shouting to the warden, threatening to call God knows who. The cell door was open, I was sitting on this stool holding the other one, furious as hell, and I knew that, if I backed down, I’d be a yellow belly and get bullied by the other prisoners. Eventually he left. I heard the commander complaining to the shift manager, who said, ‘Are you crazy, making such a fuss about a stool? Leave them their stool!’ The angry commander came back and slammed the door shut. Later, he reported me for something else, but we kept the stool and the coats stayed on the floor. I had won. On 15 October 1982, they released me, because the court was unable to deliver a verdict.
Prison didn’t break my democratic spirit.
If I had to compare the two prisons, the one in Łódź where I was held in 1970 and the other in Warsaw where I spent time in 1982, it would be hard for me to say which was better and which was worse. Some things were better in Łódź and other things were better in Warsaw. The food was bad in both places, but at least in Warsaw I didn’t starve. In Łódź, the only hope of survival was receiving food from friends and family on the outside. So everybody waited for packages with desperate impatience.
When all’s said and done, I don’t have many traumatic memories of prison. In fact, I try to see the positives! Since I was stuck there anyway, I spent my time reading and got through a large number of Polish classics. All the same, I felt useless and tired all the time. I really envied people like Adam Michnik who developed intellectually in prison and spent their time writing. I would never have had the energy for that. All my energy was drained trying to stay silent during the regular interrogations by officers. I had to be very careful about every single word that came out of my mouth, because the smallest detail could have betrayed me or my friends.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
Prison didn’t break my democratic spirit. The networks I formed during my prison sentences helped me through the dark days of the 1980s. And opposition work, the kind that comes most naturally to me, has shaped the rest of my life. Although the fight was finally over, the memory lived on.
Joanna Szczęsna’s story draws from her personal, written memories as well as external sources that have been rewritten and inserted here to complement the narrative.