Located in the poor, sparsely populated district of Mirdita, north-central Albania, the rocky valley of Spaç is incredibly remote, a natural prison. During the 1960s, Albania’s Communist authorities realized this; they built a prison there on the model of the Stalinist gulag—harsh natural conditions combined with forced labor in a mine.
Spaç prison was built onto a terraced slope of the mountainside. Above the prison, there were five mine entrances, on various levels. The two cell blocks and various support buildings were constructed on an improvised platform overlooking the river. This cluster formed the nucleus of the prison complex, framed on its south side by the main gate. Given the remoteness of the prison and the steep terrain, perimeter walls were not needed. Instead, barbed wire fencing, marked with occasional guard posts, surrounded the entire complex, meeting at the front gate. Just outside this gate stood the administrative buildings. Further down the road, two tall towers housed the technical staff of the mine and prison, along with their families.
Prior to 1968, Communist Albania had two types of prisons—isolation prisons and forced labor camps. Spaç combined the two. As in other Communist countries, many of Albania’s prisoners were jailed for political reasons. The National History Museum in Tirana estimates that the Communist regime held nearly 50,000 people for political reasons, in a system of 23 prisons and 48 internment camps. With a maximum prison population of around 1400, Spaç was one small cog in the larger machine of oppression, but the inhuman conditions of the mine and the high profile of some of the camp’s political prisoners, many of them intellectuals, gave it great symbolic weight.
One episode of resistance in this hellish prison continues to inhabit the public memory—the Spaç revolt. From May 21-23, 1973, the prisoners at Spaç took control of the prison in a general revolt. This event is one of the watershed moments in the history of the site.
Two factors contributed to the outbreak of revolt at this particular moment. One was a liberalizing movement that the Communist Party briefly encouraged in the early 1970s, only to retract and denounce it a short time later. The other was the ‘medieval’ working conditions in the mine. Prisoners were subject to long hours underground, working by hand in stifling heat that could reach 40 degrees, their lungs clogged by toxic dust and fumes. Even as the Communist regime repeated the slogan “Man is the most precious capital”, it dehumanized those it sent to work in the mines.
For two days, the prisoners held control of the camp, raising the Albanian flag without its Communist star (the flag used by Albania today) and shouting in unison such forbidden phrases as “We are with Free Europe!” “Freedom or Death!” and “Down with Communism!” Many consider this one of the first political revolts against Albania’s Communist dictatorship. When the revolt was put down, its leaders were executed and the rest given harsher prison sentences, but the event succeeded in gaining Spaç a place in the collective imagination of the country.
In the early 1990s, the closure of the forced labor portion of the camp preceded the eventual shuttering of the prison itself, which was abandoned entirely by 1995. Since then, the site has suffered from destruction, looting and neglect. It was declared a second-category monument of culture by the national government in December 2007, but this has done little to curb the destruction—each year, more of the complex is reduced to rubble as people harvest the iron within its walls. In 2009, the National Restoration Council decided that Spaç should be restored and turned into a museum, though this project still awaits funding.