The Pitești prison (Romanian: Închisoarea Pitești) was a penal facility in Pitești, Romania, best remembered for the brainwashing experiments carried out by the Communist authorities of Romania between 1949 and 1952 (also known as Experimentul Pitești – the “Pitești Experiment” or Fenomenul Pitești – the “Pitești Phenomenon”). The Pitești Experiment was designed as a way of “reeducating” political prisoners opposed to the communist government of Romania. The experiment was designed as an attempt at violently “reeducating” the mostly young political prisoners, primarily supporters of the fascist and anti-semitic Iron Guard, as well as former members of the National Peasants’ and National Liberal parties or Zionist members of the Romanian Jewish community.
The experiment’s goal, compliant with the regime’s take on Leninism, was for prisoners to discard past political and religious convictions, and, eventually, to alter their personalities to the point of absolute obedience. Estimates for the total number of people passed through the experiment range from 1,000 to 5,000. It is considered the largest and most intensive brainwashing torture program in the Eastern bloc.
The prison itself was built at an earlier stage. Work on it had begun in the late 1930s, under King Carol II, and had been completed during Ion Antonescu’s rule (see Romania during World War II). The first political prisoners it housed arrived in 1942; these were high school students suspected of having taken part in the Legionnaires’ rebellion. For a while after the proclamation of a Romanian People’s Republic, it continued to house primarily those found guilty of misdemeanors.
The early stages of “reeducation” had occurred at the prison in Suceava, being soon adopted in Pitești and, less violently, in Gherla prison. The group of overseers had been formed from people who had themselves been arrested and found guilty of political crimes, and was headed by Eugen Țurcanu, a student at the University of Iași and former member of the Iron Guard, who had joined the Communist Party before being purged. Ţurcanu, who was probably acting on the orders of Securitate deputy chief Alexandru Nikolski, selected a tight unit of reeducation survivors as his assistants in carrying out political tasks. This group was called the Organizaţia Deţinuţilor cu Convingeri Comuniste (ODCC, “Organization of Convinced Communist Detainees”), and included the future Orthodox priest and dissident Gheorghe Calciu-Dumitreasa and the Jewish Petrică Fux.
STAGES OF “REEDUCATION”
The process begun after that date involved psychological punishment (mainly through humiliation) and physical torture.
Detainees, who were subject to regular and severe beatings, were also required to engage in torturing each other, with the goal of discouraging past loyalties. Guards would force them to attend scheduled or ad-hoc political instruction sessions, on topics such as dialectical materialism and Joseph Stalin’s History of the CPSU(B) Short Course, usually accompanied by random violence and encouraged delation (demascare, lit. “unmasking”) for various real or invented misdemeanors.
Each victim of the experiment was initially subject to regular interrogation, during which torture was applied as a means to expose intimate details of his life (“external unmasking”). Hence, they were required to reveal everything they were thought to have hidden from previous interrogations; hoping to escape torture, many prisoners would confess imaginary misdeeds. The second phase, “internal unmasking”, required the tortured to reveal the names of those who had behaved less brutal or somewhat indulgently towards them in detention.
Public humiliation was also enforced, usually at the third stage (“public moral unmasking”), inmates were forced to denounce all their personal beliefs, loyalties, and values. Notably, religious inmates had to blaspheme religious symbols and sacred texts.
The inmates were required to accept the notion that their own family members had various criminal and grotesque features; they were required to author false autobiographies, comprising accounts of deviant behaviour.
In addition to physical violence, inmates subject to “reeducation” were supposed to work for exhausting periods in humiliating jobs (for example, cleaning the floor with a rag clenched between the teeth). Malnourished and kept in degrading and unsanitary conditions.
It has been argued that techniques used by the ODCC were ultimately derived from Anton Makarenko’s controversial pedagogy and penology principles in respect to rehabilitation.
The prison also ensured a preliminary selection for the labor camps at the Danube-Black Sea Canal, Ocnele Mari, and other sites, where squads of former inmates were supposed to extend the experiment.
Ending and legacy
In 1952, as Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej successfully maneuvered against the Minister of the Interior Teohari Georgescu, the process was stopped by the authorities themselves. The ODCC secretly faced trial for abuse, and over twenty death sentences were handed out (Ţurcanu was held responsible for the murder of 30 prisoners, and the abuse exercised on 780 others); Securitate officials who had overseen the experiment, including Colonel Teodor Sepeanu, were tried the following year; all were given light sentences, and were freed soon after. Responding to new ideological guidelines, the court concluded that the experiment had been the result of successful infiltration of American and Horia Sima’s Iron Guard agents into the Securitate, with the goal of discrediting Romanian law enforcement.
Abandoned and partially in ruin, the building was sold to a construction firm in 1991 (after the Revolution of 1989; several of the facilities have either been torn down or suffered major changes). A memorial was built in front of the prison’s entrance.