Fact and fantasy collide at the Penang War Museum in Malaysia.
The name ‘Doftana’ once evoked a powerful sense of dread; now, in modern Romania, it is largely forgotten. In conversation the word draws blank looks, while the building itself – the huge hulk of an abandoned prison, at the edge of the mountains leading into Transylvania – has been left to die a slow death at the mercy of nature. A corpse on which the forest feeds.
Doftana Prison was notorious in the early 20th century for its harsh confinement of political prisoners. Many of them were communists – philosophers, terrorists, would-be revolutionaries – and some of Doftana’s inmates would go on to become leaders of a Red Romania.
After hearing rumours about the place, I simply had to see it for myself; and so one day I headed north from Bucharest, into rural Romania, in search of a derelict bastille.
Arrival at Doftana Prison
It’s funny, really. People nowadays have access to fingerprint readers, closed circuit television, facial recognition software, retinal scanners, all sorts of crazy gadgets – but even in this age of advanced security technology, when it comes to keeping people out of a place it’s hard to top that classic combination of one guard and a bunch of hungry dogs.
Doftana Prison might have been a ruin, but getting inside was far from simple.
The abandoned prison is located in Romania’s Prahova County: a region at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains.
We took a train there, Petre and myself. He’d insisted on an early departure, leaving Bucharest before the morning commuter rush in order to allow us enough time at the prison; and so I met him at the station, shivering from the dawn chill and desperately clutching a paper cup of coffee.
One train ride and a taxi later we were passing down a wooded lane, a thin strip of tarmac all but lost in this wild, green landscape; when we turned a corner in the road and suddenly an iron gate reared up ahead of us. Beyond the spiked fence, past the keep-out signs, a 19th century brick gatehouse was engraved with ominous letters that spelled: ‘Penitenciarul Doftana.’
The taxi driver threw us a quizzical look. We glanced at each other. This was it.
The taxi dropped us at the gate, and then hurried back toward civilisation. Soon we were peering through the bars, assessing the security situation.
There was at least one guard on duty, it seemed – and inside the perimeter fence, mangy looking hounds trotted this way and that across the grass. Every time we so much as touched the fence, those dogs would set off in a chorus of barking.
These walls would certainly not prove easy to breach; but then, I suppose that was rather the point of them. This structure had been built in 1895, when initially it served the local mining industry. In time though, the walls of Doftana were repurposed for detaining political prisoners, and the prison population swelled after the Peasant Uprising of 1907.
As the Soviet Union took shape in the east, Lenin’s anti-monarchist philosophy would find its echo in Romania. In 1924, fearing for his crown, Romania’s King Ferdinand I outlawed the communist movement altogether. Doftana Prison became the place where suspected communists were sent to serve their sentences and in time, it earned the nickname, ‘the Romanian Bastille.’
Amongst those early inmates were men who’d later rise to significant positions within the 1947-89 Socialist Republic of Romania; Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej was one of them, a future Prime Minister and Chairman of the State Council of Romania. Another was Nicolae Ceaușescu.
Ceaușescu was 18 years old when he arrived at Doftana Prison, arrested on a charge of ‘communist activities’ and sentenced to two years in the bastille. Decades later, he’d become General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party: serving from 1965 right up until 1989, when he was tried, sentenced and shot by a firing squad on Christmas Day.
Suffice to say, the prison at Doftana was thick with history – and we’d already come too far to just turn back. Dogs and fences or not, we were going inside.
A Tour of the Cells
Eventually we made it past the fence, past the guard hut and safely inside the walls of the derelict prison. While the details of that route are a story for another day, I’ll say just this: our technique for getting inside Doftana Prison was something I have never attempted before or since, and it was an experience that I certainly won’t forget in a hurry.
Once inside, we had limited time to work with – limited time to get a feel for the shape of the building, its cells, and to find our way to the good stuff while we still had access.
The prison was built in the shape of a horseshoe: an imposing outer ring surrounding central gardens that had been tended by the inmates. Outside the walls, and within the far perimeter fence lay a no-man’s land of flat grass, a level field that had the effect of a moat around the bastille.
Inside, there were a total of 308 cells, split into eight sections labelled ‘A’ through to ‘H.’ Three of these – Sections A, B and C – had afforded prisoners the luxury of light. The other five blocks featured unlit cells.
We had followed the curve of a heavy stone corridor; its blue paint flaking into chips that mingled with a moist loam of plaster dust, broken bricks, creepers, and the red shards of tiling from the splintered roof above. We turned a corner, and the Section A cellblock opened up before us.
The cells here had been divided across three floors; with doors set into the walls ahead of us, two rows below and more, above, a series of elevated cells now all but inaccessible. The metal gantries that hung from the walls had seen better days.
At the end of the block, a high window let in sunlight from the prison’s central courtyard. Any glass that had once fitted it was long since gone – the window now reduced to nothing but bars and greenery.
These well-lit cells had been reserved for those prisoners on shorter sentences: one year or less. Future Romanian Prime Minister Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej had been kept here in Section A, along with various other prominent communist leaders.
After that we found our way to Section B, many of whose inmates had arrived following the strikes of 1935-58. The block was lit by a tall window, like the one before, although life for these prisoners was very different to conditions in Section A; inmates in the B-cells were committed to a routine of hard labour. They also suffered stringent dietary restrictions, with no more than three kilos of food permitted per person, per month.
We walked all around the prison – up and down concrete staircases, through barred gates that hung open on rusted hinges. From outside, the open, grassy space around the building had made it look smaller, compact, but now that we came to explore these winding corridors the place felt like a maze. Eight cellblocks across three floors, in addition to a whole network of staff quarters, visiting rooms, dining halls and washrooms; I wondered what sights these walls had seen.
Conditions inside Doftana Prison were notoriously harsh, and the administrators took little interest in basic human rights. Prisoners were fed on watery vegetable soup and mamaliga: a Romanian maize porridge. Beatings by guards were frequent. Cells were unfurnished and inmates were often detained without clothing or shoes, even during the bitter winter months.
The prison had a medical bay, of sorts, though those who used it sometimes ended up worse as a result. An improvised cemetery was dug beneath the prison walls, where inmates who died inside could be buried in unmarked graves.
In 1924 the prisoners were given access to workshops where they could learn practical trades, or attend classes in mathematics, physics and chemistry; but the privilege was revoked just the following year, after an outbreak of prison riots.
Prisoners in the (comparatively) bright and airy Sections A, B and C could take their 30-minute breaks out in the garden… though of course, anyone caught sharing food or cigarettes would be sent immediately to the unlit isolation cells.
The punishments at Doftana prison were notorious. After a hunger strike in the winter of 1922, a total of 25 prisoners spent four days locked in bare, windowless cells to freeze. Some of the worst stories come from Section H though, a cellblock devoted to harsh corrective treatments.
It was here that communists were beaten until they denounced their politics; Ceaușescu himself was said to have made numerous trips to Section H. Here the prisoners were kept in pitch-black cells that were often deliberately flooded. A typical stay would last anywhere between two and three months, during which time prisoners would shit in a can and go for days without food. A large number of them died.
By the time we reached Section H for ourselves, it was a crumbling, worm-chewed mess. There were 40 cells here, dark, ugly boxes arranged across two levels. Heavy wooden doors slumped at awkward angles, the weight enough to pull rusty hinges clean out of their frames. Above, the higher level of cells was out of reach: the wooden staircase connecting the upper gantry hung lifeless, its rungs giving way to splinters.
Mould grew around the narrow windows set into the cellblock walls – and there were holes that opened up in the floor, where the structure was beginning to give way altogether. After my boot went clean through a damp-sodden floorboard in Section H, I learned to watch my step very carefully.
We would end up spending several hours inside Doftana; roaming its corridors, strolling through overgrown gardens and courtyards, peering inside punishment chambers. I hadn’t done much research on the place before this trip, but sometimes I prefer it that way. It’s like going to the cinema, without having seen a trailer first – I had literally no idea what to expect, no benchmark for the experience to live up to.
Besides, a place like this spoke volumes for itself. I didn’t need a history book to tell me about the grim conditions inside this prison; all I had to do was stand inside a cell, close the door and shut out the light. The atmosphere throughout the building was abhorrent. Cruel.
Later though, when I did read up on the prison’s history I came across the story of Doftana Red: an illegal communist newspaper, written and edited from inside Doftana Prison.*
It’s an old trope: that prisons often act like universities for criminals. Doftana was no different, only here the criminals were largely communists.
Locked up together, these inmates would preach the gospels of Lenin and Marx; they taught communist politics, history and economics to the uninitiated. Many of the prisoners at Doftana went in as petty criminals… but came out as radicalised communist terrorists.
Fresh arrivals at the prison would bring news from the outside world. Newspapers were smuggled in, their stories disseminated amongst the inmates. The guards would claim that their prisoners seemed to know the news before it was even published.
From sometime around 1924, the year that Lenin died, the inmates at the prison decided to write and edit a political newspaper of their own. Over the years it would go by various names – including Bolsheviks Bound and Doftana Red.
The prisoners went to incredible lengths to keep the project secret. Systems of code were developed, patterns of knocks on walls and radiators that constituted a functional alphabet. The paper’s stories were written with makeshift pencils onto cigarette papers and foils. Finished issues would leave the prison by water, into storm drains that met the nearby River Doftana – or smuggled into construction carts, snuck out by the blacksmiths who visited to rivet chains and shackles on the prisoners.
They crafted specialised tools as well, to aid their clandestine communication networks. A ‘Mouse’ was a thin slat of wood with split ends that could be used to pinch and pass pencils, documents and cigarettes through the bars of one cell to its neighbour. The ‘Soft Horse’ was a bag stitched from bed cloths – it could be filled with contraband, then swung from a string across from one inmate to the next.
Given the remarkable level of ingenuity behind the production of Doftana Red, it isn’t hard to see why the later communist government would choose to memorialise these revolutionary efforts… closing the prison at Doftana for good, and in its place opening up a museum.
The Penitentiary Museum of Doftana
The last inmates left Doftana Prison in 1949. The Romanian Communist Party dismantled the facility – they put their own prisoners in places like the gulag at Pitești, places not stained with such a history of loyal communist blood.
Years later it would be revived as a museum. The Penitentiary Museum of Doftana celebrated the early life of Romania’s leaders, back in the days when they were teenage revolutionaries. It celebrated the sacrifice of those who died inside, and detailed the story of the prison’s paper, Doftana Red. Exhibits preserved the original cigarette foils on which the newspaper articles had been drafted, scripted in tiny, delicate handwriting.
Under the regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu, the former prison developed into a strange kind of communist pilgrimage site. It hosted meetings of the Communist Youth Organisation, and Ceaușescu would make regular visits of his own.
The prison was expensive to keep however, and a series of natural disasters added to growing maintenance costs. In 1929 and 1940, Doftana Prison had been struck by severe earthquakes. The quake in November 1940 was particularly bad, bringing down part of the prison walls and injuring 300 inmates. At one point during the chaos, future communist leader Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej had found himself outside the cells; rather than escape to freedom however, he went back inside to rescue his fellow inmates from the rubble. At least, that’s the story the way the museum told it.
Another earthquake hit the building in 1977; and this time it would never fully recover.
Once we’d made a full circuit of Doftana Prison – explored its cells and basements, one block after another – we found our way back to the front of the building. Past a series of offices, was a hall divided in two by a double-row of thick metal bars; a visiting room.
In the next room we found a model of the prison building itself. The replica had been smashed up, badly vandalised, its polystyrene crumbs mingling with the very real rubble of the full-size prison crumbling around it.
Doftana Prison has been estimated at a value of 1.2 million euros – but the costs of renovation would run much higher still. Various potential investors have shown interest over the years, and there’s even been talk of developing a medical centre, or a novelty ‘prison hotel’ at the site.
None of it has happened yet though, and every year the cost of repair goes up.
Here, on the edge of the Carpathian Mountains, winters can be tough; in 2011 a heavy snowfall collapsed large portions of the roof. Looters come to strip the building for its metal, while guards work around the clock to try and stop them. Meanwhile the forest does its part as well, the green tentacles that patiently work their way between bricks and mortar.
Doftana Prison, a relic of the Kingdom of Romania, lived long enough to be enshrined by the Socialist Republic that followed after. Judging by the state of the building now though, it seems unlikely that it’ll survive to see a second renaissance.
*Specifically, the best sources I could find about the place were: Communist Terror in Romania and Ceauşescu and the Securitate: Coercion and Dissent in Romania, both by Dennis Deletant; National Museums: New Studies from Around the World, edited by Simon J. Knell et al; and additionally, this highly informative article over at TourofCommunism.com.
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