This article originally appeared on VICE Poland.
Warsaw's Rakowiecka Prison is the only place in Poland where you can visit to see an incarcerated loved one and have your brakes checked at the same time. For almost 60 years, the prison has housed a car repair shop that the inmates operate themselves. The shop doesn't advertise—since it's one of the best car repair centers in the city, word of mouth is enough to keep the inmates fully occupied. I've been curious to see the place and the service for a while now, so when I noticed that my car wasn't running as smoothly as it should be, I decide to drive to Rakowiecka to get it checked out.
The prison itself was built in the early 20th century and is mostly famous for the vast number of political prisoners that have been executed there—mainly by the Nazis during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. After the war, it held other political prisoners—like students who participated in anti-government protests in March 1968, and members of the anti-Communist Solidarity movement in the 1980s.
Before I go in, I have to pass a basic security check and leave my ID card and my phone with an unimpressed guard. He asks if I happen to be carrying any drugs or weapons, checks the trunk of my car, and waves me through a second gate that leads from the prison to the shop.
The car repair shop was part of a resocialization program launched in 1957. The prisoners working here make minimum wage, which they can spend on food, coffee, or cigarettes—or save for when they get out. But not every inmate is allowed to work in the shop. "Perhaps we would let someone who's in for involuntary manslaughter work here, but not someone who's in for murder," explains Warden Piotr Hernik. "No smugglers either—having this kind of contact with the outside world could be too tempting for them."
Anyone can take his or her car to the shop, provided that you don't mind leaving your car with convicted criminals. The inmates also fix the cars of the prison services, of the municipal police force, and the prosecutor's office. When I talk to some of them, they all agree that they would never think about, let's say, unscrewing some bolts from a police car that came in. They say they like their job because it provides them with escape from the monotony of life in prison.
Most inmates working there can't wait until it's Monday again. "Weekends and holidays are a nightmare," says Krzysiek, who I'm told is the best mechanic in the shop. "Free time is like additional punishment. You spend the whole day in a cell, locked up and isolated."
Krzysiek will be released in two months—it's been his second time behind bars. "I didn't want to come back after the first time," he explains. "My first sentence was deferred, so when I got out of prison, I started building a new life. But then something stupid happened, and I had no money to pay off a debt." Most guys I talk to claim they're there because they did "something stupid" while on probation. Someone drank too much before driving home, and ended up with a two-year sentence. Another messed with the mileage on cars to get around EU restrictions—a year and a half.
The walls of the shop are cluttered with calendars that the inmates use to cross off the passing days. They all have their own small space marked with some private belongings in the shop, too—photos of family and friends, a pack of cigarettes, or a coffee mug. "We spend a half day at work. When we return to the ward, we have some time to make a quick phone call and have dinner—and then another day has passed," an inmate named Tomek tells me.
When I ask him what he's in for, Tomek tells me that during his first time in prison for theft, he decided to never steal again—but now he's serving time for theft again. "There was no other way for me," he tells me. "When an opportunity comes up, you can't control yourself. The remorse comes later." He is being released in a few days but claims that he would love to keep working in the shop.
Rakowiecka Prison isn't taking in any additional inmates. By the end of next year, the last prisoners will be gone and the building will be transformed into a museum about soldiers and political prisoners. It's unclear what will happen to the repair shop. "Without the prison, the shop may lose its charm," Warden Hernik tells me. You won't have to go through as many safety procedures any longer, and some clients come here mainly for the unique experience."
When my car is ready, I leave the shop, and the guard hands me back my ID and my phone. Before I can drive away, he opens the trunk of my car again—just to make sure I'm not hiding anyone in there.