Czech film director tells EdMin the country's children's institutions are "hell"
This past March the Czech media reported on an incident that occurred at the Králíky juvenile reformatory in Ústí nad Orlicí. Allegedly a 14-year-old boy stabbed a staff member in the neck with a screwdriver and then, together with a 15-year-old inmate, kicked around another staffer who came to his aid.
As RESPEKT magazine has reported, Czech Education Minister Marcel Chládek subsequently announced the return of repressive measures, with strict punishments for children and greater protections for staffers at these institutions. The matter is not as simple as it seems, as testimonies are coming to light that children have been beaten at the Králíky institution and placed in harsh solitary confinement.
Petr Václav, a film director and screenwriter, has now written an open letter to the Czech Education Minister about these matters. Václav has made two films with Romani themes, one of which, the famous film "Marian", was set precisely in the Králíky juvenile reformatory.
Václav's second "Romani film" is "The Way Out" ("Cesta ven"), which will soon be screened at Cannes, the first Czech film to be shown there in many years, and which will open in Czech cinemas on 29 May. News server Romea.cz now publishes in full translation the open letter by Petr Václav to Minister Marcel Chládek describing the conditions he observed in the Králíky institution during the 1990s, including children being placed in solitary confinement:
I have read in the press about your visit to the Králíky juvenile reformatory to gather information about how it came to pass that two wards of that institution so brutally attacked a staffer. I don't intend to comment on this case because I don't know the details and I only have information about it from the press.
However, I would like to share my own experiences of that particular institution with you. In 1994 I spent time at the Králíky juvenile reformatory in the guise of a psychology student looking to become a future warden.
I used my experiences there to work on the screenplay of the film "Marian". We also filmed crucial scenes from that character's childhood in the institute with its wards.
Historically, Králíky was considered one of the worst facilities in Czechoslovakia, and all of the wards in juvenile reformatories throughout the country feared being sent there. They were right to be afraid.
Those living at Králíky were both truly young criminals and psychiatrically ill children as well as completely normal boys, the vast majority of whom had the bad luck to have been born Romani and who were then taken away from their families. The so-called "institutional care" they received turned their lives into hell, warped their characters, thoroughly criminalized them, and gradually assigned them to other, even worse, prison-type facilities.
Králíky was precisely one such children's prison. The laws that ruled there were the worst kind of double harassment: Abuse, including sexual abuse, perpetrated by those with a great deal of experience in it.
Some of the wardens also practiced arbitrariness and violence. Naturally, just as there were many nice boys or completely harmless sufferers among the wards whose already-difficult lives were being programmatically destroyed, there were also wardens there who meant well and who did their best to do an honest job among the burned-out, cold-hearted, cynical, harsh authorities there. However, the overall set-up of the institution meant that no one in the system could succeed.
The wardens were there to "keep the shit under a lid so it doesn't leak out", as they liked to say in the common room, and they did so using force and military order. The history of the institution was full of stories of assaults on wardens, attempted murders, and violence.
One such attempted killing is an essential part of the plot in the film "Marian". The film shows how and why the deed occurs, portraying where the emotional deprivation generated by an institution of this type leads.
While the plot of "Marian" is set in the communist past, it is necessary to ask whether that past is completely in the past and whether the genius loci of these institutions is still persisting there, even after all these years. At the time that I got to know Králíky, the post-revolutionary era had partially relaxed the forces of repression there - the wards were given new track suits with "Dreams" written on them, and they didn't have to go so frequently and uselessly to their own sleeping quarters, but were permitted to spend their free time in the television room.
At the time the wardens said they believed that if "that fool Havel has banned us from making these motherfuckers work or from punishing them, then they can rot in the club room". They let the children use their allowances to rent pornography on VHS cassettes, and then at night some of the wardens would take these videos for themselves so they could explore (at no cost to themselves) the achievements of their freshly-acquired freedom.
The sociological profile of the wards changed and there were more white children from ordinary families. There was one young murderer there, if not two, and there was also a psychotic who sometimes could not tell the difference between dream and reality.
The Catholic Church dropped by a few afternoons and inferred from what it saw that it could not help there in any way, as the wards were incorrigible. That meant that at the time I was at Králíky, Satanism was rampant.
Somehow, the followers of Satan were just there. For these bored adolescents and children, it was the only form of spirituality they were offered, the only one to spark their interest.
This was not an expression of any tendency toward evil on the part of these children. It was simply that nothing else but boredom had ever been offered to them.
Even though it was a time of comparative relaxation, repressive elements did remain in use: Everyone was afraid of solitary confinement (which is depicted in "Marian"), and I myself assisted during a very tense internment of a ward in that particular dungeon. Although head-shaving was no longer part of the punishment by then, those who traditionally slashed their forearms while in isolation did still get their wounds sprinkled with salt afterward so they would think better of it next time.
Such a scene is featured in "Marian" and is based completely on reality. The film is available on YouTube and that particular scene runs between minutes 40 - 44.
The management of Králíky was very helpful toward me back then. The wardens were as well.
Everyone was friendly and willing to work with me, both during my screenwriting and during filming. They shared their experiences and opinions with me.
For example, I learned from them that "the blacker [the child] the more stupid he is, because he has a bigger dick and only thinks about fucking, rape and reproducing." The wardens also told me that the wards were so incorrigible that it would be best to use them as organ "donors" to provide transplants for competent, hard-working citizens.
The wardens were completely serious when they said these things, and there was a sincere dose of philanthropy to their attitudes. Sometimes they drank white wine out of teacups while the time dragged by incredibly slowly - the boys were bored, and the most frequent kind of communication with them was shouting.
Hanging over it all was the ubiquitous odor of poorly-ventilated cooking, poorly-brushed teeth, and a very specific, state-supplied smell that has probably eaten its way into the very core of the walls by now. Králíky, just like many other institutions of its kind, was just a preparation for prison.
No one there could believe it would be any other way. Not the wardens, who for that reason provided no nurturing of any kind, and not the boys who, thanks to the dark certainty that awaited them, cared about nothing at all.
This programmatic destruction of these children's lives began in the diagnostic institutions. In 1995 (i.e., not during deep communism) a director at one of them said to me of a 16-month-old Romani infant dancing in a shower stall that it was a real shame he had only been born for the gallows.
Even though I experienced many depressing moments at Králíky, I also had many beautiful, deep experiences. For many of the boys aged between 12 and 16, I was the first person in their lives to have ever taken them seriously, to have taken an interest in them, to have listened to them.
We spent the summer nights sitting on the sills of their open windows. We talked about dreams, about ghosts, about grandparents in Slovakia, about magic, about parents, about the lives of children from broken families.
A desire for the good came out of many of those boys. A desire for a life without conflict.
These children were thirsting for someone to love them. Some of them became actors in "Marian".
The filming at Králíky took place in the best, most heart-filled atmosphere, and in total silence - there was not the slightest problem to film using contact sound there, even though dozens of wards were living in the institute at the time. It wasn't until the last day of filming that the boys caught a kestrel, beat it to a pulp, and made sure we all knew about it.
That violence was their way of discouraging us, of stopping our wanting to say goodbye to them. The emotionally deprived have their own style, their own way of avoiding emotions, of avoiding feelings that are suddenly a threat.
Today I am reading in RESPEKT about the "Dark story of a reform school". I don't want to make demands on anyone's conscience, I am aware that it has been 19 years since my experience at Králíky and that most of the wardens I knew there have retired.
On the other hand, Minister, you know as well as I do that deeply-rooted customs and methods have their strongholds. What has changed in the other institutions - Kamenná Lhota, Načeradec, Nový Jičín, Višňová, etc. - whose very names sparked chills in those who made it beyond their gates even for just a couple of hours?
Now, after visiting the Králíky institute, you have said that "excessive rapprochement between the inmates and the staff does not help the atmosphere", that "inmates have the impression they can do as they like." I am very surprised to read this coming from you, a former teacher who went on to become vice-chair of the Committee for Education, Science, Culture and Human Rights.
Please tell me: How do you imagine you can raise a child, including a pubescent child, without his having a close relationship with those raising him? On what else can child-rearing be raised other than on a close, friendly relationship that makes it possible for the young person to identify with the adults?
Are you, as an expert, certain that further repressive measures will be the solution? They have been failing in these institutions for more than 50 years now.
You yourself know best of all that relatively few people are born into this world as truly dangerous individuals and monsters. Society raises the rest itself.
On 29 May, I will be premiering my film "The Way Out" (Cesta ven) in Prague. I sincerely invite you to the screening.
If you come, you will see the story of a population, most of whose fates are connected either directly or indirectly with their re-education in children's prisons. I would like to introduce you to the actors in this film.
Some of these people have had years of experience with an "institutional upbringing". After the screening, they could tell you about what has happened to them and probably, unfortunately, about what life in these reformatories may still be like.
There will be many people who are interested in these questions at the premiere. They can give you well-founded opinions about it.
I am sure this topic is an important challenge for you, and that thanks to the events in Králíky you are following it with great seriousness. If you could manage to initiate real reform of the disasters that these institutions are, if you were able to complete the definitive elimination of the evil that rules in them, it would be a brilliant, very important deed of which you could be deservedly proud.
I am sending this as an open letter because I believe this topic is of interest to the broader public.
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