Touring Paterei Prison in Tallinn Estonia

It’s almost a shame that Paterei Prison was our first abandoned prison tour. It’s a fascinating, horrifying, beautiful place. Other empty prisons will likely seem tame after this decrepit masterpiece.

welcome-to-patereiThis post originally appeared in the Travelfluential section on

Paterei Prison in Talinn Estonia made a prison tour aficionado out of me. This unusual peek at raw, unedited recent history turned out to be one of the most haunting, confusing and inspiring tours I’ve ever taken. All at once.

A little background on the abandoned institution:

Patarei Prison was built as a fortress and then used as a prison during the Soviet era. It was overfilled and housed both male and female inmates for a variety of reasons ranging from political to psychiatric disorders, alcoholism, and petty crimes. Inmates were a mix of nationalities and ages, and in for numerous different types of offenses. They were sorted accordingly. They were housed in different areas of the facility.

What’s most shocking is that this prison was in operation until 2005. That’s barely a decade ago that prisoners were still resident in this nightmarish, American Horror Story film-set looking place. Tough to imagine, but then not really, because it’s practically untouched. When it closed, it was not emptied entirely. Much of the supplies, signs, inmate’s graffitti and posters, medical equipment etc, sits in the now abandoned and decaying building.


Outside the almost bucolic courtyard is littered with tangled reels of razor wire and shards of broken glass. You can find the entrance to the “walking yards” here. These are a series of dog-pen like outdoor cells with caged roofs where the inmates would be taken for a chance to get fresh air.


There wasn’t really anywhere to go inside the cramped quarters, other than in circles. Or insane. The space is barely more than 100 square feet and would be used to air out up to 40 prisoners at a time.


Naturally they would want to use the opportunity to try and talk to prisoners from other cells in the next walking yard/pen, or yell to the windows of the inmates in the hospital wing. They managed to message each other, with wall thumps and tossed notes, despite the careful watch of guards on the ramparts above the cages.

The hospital wing was the luxury part of the prison. These cells had windows facing the sea, though many are high up and covered with bars. A few rooms had an actual view. Slightly cruel. The sea seems so close, and yet so far.

The remnants of years of despair still shimmer in the air. Human dust, blinking sadly, suspended in thick slivers of sunlight.


The less luxurious parts of the prison are soul crushing and unphotographable due to the darkness.

The darkness masks the many dank basement-like isolation cells that are, essentially, windowless holes. Pathological root cellars. The damp smell of decay is still peppered with menacing undertones of sweat, adrenaline, and hopelessness.

One furry walled, damp and almost entirely dark cell was the worst one to be placed in. Nearly everyone in this cell contracted TB and perished from the wet and unhealthy environment.

Prisoners were at the guard’s mercy here. If a guard didn’t want you to go home after time was served, they would throw a lit match at you. The burnt match would then be used as evidence of your infractions – a sure sign that you’d been smoking. Six more months.


Magazine ads still cling to the walls in poignant flaking patches here and there above mattress-less beds, and on cabinets and next to communal sinks. Despite the desolation, prisoners attempted decorate and claim their spaces. Cars and perfume, mostly. A few magazines and books still linger as well.

In one cell, a massive fantasy mural, drawn entirely in pencil travels the length of one wall – a dreamy headboard for the 8 bunkbeds gathered below. This was considered a lucky cell to be confined to, as the resident tattoo artist was housed here. His pencil drawings are evidence of his skill.


I asked about ghosts – it was impossible not to, in an environment like this. And so we heard the tale of “cell 100” – in a part of the prison no longer safe to access. Supposedly haunted, nobody placed in that cell would survive a night there, and no-one was able to explain their deaths. It was so controversial that the cell was welded shut long before the prison closed.


Somehow, there were stubborn weeds of beauty poking up thru all the decay. Some of the them, literal, wildflowers blooming in cracked cement. Local artists have also used the abandoned structure as a canvas for new images.


Hashtags slapped on peeling paint can be seen floating up the staircase and there’s a “Go F*ck Your Selfie” spot for all the selfie enthusiasts, inevitably trampling through this living museum. We’re all prisoners in a way.  Time can’t be stopped. Nature is competing with pop culture in a race to reclaim the space.


Around back facing the ocean, there’s a hipster cafe, facing the cruise ships that port here in summer. The cafe also sells art.


There’s a retro/soviet era junk shop in the courtyard as well. Watch the past and present collide as you sift thru sundry military items, smoking paraphernalia, old mugs and a fair amount of questionable propaganda and posters.


The prison was not on the tour that was booked for us but our guide Dmitry who works with Tours by Locals  made it happen. He’s extremely knowledgeable – just a font of information and clearly loves history and a good story as much as we do. Please look him up if you are in the area. I know we will if/when we go back!

Thanks so much also to my friend Heather Sievers. I’m down for any outing you’ll let our crew tag along on from here on out.