A prison, a revolution, and something resembling sleep

Hello readers,

So I’m now about to enter the final week of my Erasmus Intensive Course here at lovely Sisekaitseakadeemia.  My Estonian language skills are still, admittedly, quite limited, but the course continues to be quite an adventure.  I’ve learned a lot about Estonian history, culture, and politics in a remarkably short space of time, and I’ve already had many unforgettable experiences and have had some once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.  While I have yet to move into my dorm at Tallinn University, I’ve already settled into Estonia more quickly and with fewer problems than I expected.  Tallinn is a clean, beautiful, and unique city, and I’m overall very pleased with how things have been going.  The language barrier has also been less of an issue than I anticipated, as English is widely spoken around the city.

This past week was again packed with activities.  Monday took our group to the far east of Estonia to visit Viru Prison, a massive, recently built prison complex that houses thousands of prisoners, including juveniles and maximum-security inmates.  Admittedly, it wasn’t the type of trip I would normally think of taking myself, but I enjoyed the visit quite a bit.  We spent several hours touring the prison’s many facilities, and even had some (often awkward) moments to interact with some of the prisoners.  Still, the visit was undeniably fascinating, and it gave me a chance to see the inner workings of Estonian law enforcement and public policy.  In Estonia, rehabilitation into society is an important goal of the prison system.  Viru Prison has, for example, programs for Russian-speaking inmates to learn Estonian and enter legal employment.  There were also rooms available for inmates to practice religion, play music, create art, and exercise.  The quality of the cells ranged from modern and comfortable to barren and terrifying, although most of the facility was fairly high-tech.  I’m afraid I don’t have any pictures, as cameras were strictly forbidden inside the facility for security reasons.

Last night (Saturday the 20th) marked the 20th anniversary of Estonia’s independence from the Soviet Union.  Many thousands of people (including us EILC students, of course) took to the historic Tallinn Song Festival grounds to watch a string of concerts, speeches, and videos celebrating Estonia’s status as a free, independent nation.  It was a remarkably powerful ceremony, even for me as a non-Estonian.  Estonia, incredibly, managed to break away from the Soviet Union in a way that was completely nonviolent and avoided the social and economic catastrophe that befell other nations south of the Baltic.  For a country that lost over 25% of its population in World War II, followed by nearly five decades of brutal oppression and occupation, its rapid development and ascension into the international community are astonishing.  There is a lot to learn from this small nation’s perseverance, community spirit, and peaceful reform.

As always, I could go on for hours detailing what I’ve observed in the Estonian social character, the subtle tensions that remain in relations with Russia, the intricacies of Tallinn’s urban layout, and the striking mannerisms of the many wonderful friends I’ve already made, but I think it’s best if I reveal my observations slowly.  Rest assured, there will be much, much more to come in later blog entries.  I’m always open to comments and questions as well!

Terviseks (that’s ‘cheers’ in Estonian),

Tim

P.S. If you’re wondering why my EILC group took a field trip to a prison (I was wondering for a while myself), remember that my course is at an Academy of Security Sciences, where police officers and prison officers are trained.  The course coordinators (Triin and Kaisa) plan some of these trips with the intent of giving students a glimpse into Estonian security and law enforcement.

P.P.S. As another note of interest, the Academy of Security Sciences (Sisekaitseakadeemia) was once a Soviet military base.  This past can still be seen in the crumbling buildings on the outskirts of the complex, the alienating ‘concrete box’ architecture, and the curious dominance of the color red throughout the Academy’s dorms.

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