The year 1908 saw the birth of Enver Hoxha, the Albanian politician who managed to keep his role as the head of state for more than 40 years. The New York Times called him the “mastermind of Albania’s isolation.”
During this period, the state of Albania was under communist rule and was filled with labor camps and prisons, which in turn were filled with political prisoners and people that didn’t quite fit the usual definition of “criminal.”
There were around 40 official prisons at the time. One of these, in the cordoned-off state of Albania, was known simply as “Spaç.” Part of the village of Spaç, the institution hides memories of Albania’s dark past.
It was initially established in 1968, 17 years before the death of Hoxha. The site was rich in both copper and pyrite and was placed in the middle of nowhere. The prisoners were forced to work in these mines.
Many of the prisoners were part of Albania’s top echelon before Hoxha deprived them of their status and position. The prison complex was constructed to closely resemble the harsh Soviet gulags.
The main building was situated below the entrances to the mines, of which there were five in total. The entrance to the whole complex was at one end.
The terrain was so treacherous that a parameter wall was never erected. A few guard posts scattered around the area and a mere barbed wire fence were all it took to keep the inmates inside. Experts were hired to ensure the mines functioned properly; they lived just outside the prison complex.
The total population of Spaç was around 1400 people – a small number compared with the total number of people imprisoned during this period. That number reached hundreds of thousands. A great percentage of these people were locked away and forced to work in these mines for something as trivial as comparing the living conditions of Albania with those of the rest of the world.
Conditions in Spaç were brutal, to put it gently. The mines were grueling places to be and many people died of exhaustion and malnutrition. Temperatures in them were constantly around 40 degrees Celsius.
Sick and tired of being treated this way, the inmates decided to rebel against the authorities. On May 21st, 1973, a revolt took place. In no time, the inmates took control over the prison but managed to keep it for only two days.
When the authorities managed to gain back control over the site, they executed those responsible for organizing the revolt. Nothing changed: conditions even worsened for some.
The prison continued its practices, even after the death of Hoxha, but its time was slowly coming to an end. By 1995, it was abandoned and left to deteriorate: sentenced much like its inmates to a slow and painful death.
When people learned that it was left unmanned, scrapers and looters came to collect their share of Communist Albania, heavily destroying the site in the process.
Not much was done to preserve the place. Many of the rooms where the prisoners were locked are filled with drawings and inscriptions from the inmates, but these are slowly fading.
In 2007, the prison was declared a second-category national monument and plans were made to convert the whole site into a museum. However, nothing changed for years until 2017, when Tirana’s Swedish Embassy donated funds towards preservation works.
The project involved clearing the site, stabilizing some of the more deteriorated buildings, and repairing many of the roofs. The importance of the prison was officially affirmed by the Albanian Ministry of Culture.