Jusovaca was always meant to make an impression. Even today, its empty watchtowers and holed outer walls, offering the occasional glimpse of weeds gone wild in its inner courtyard, are unmissable to anybody arriving in the city.
Should you ever find yourself needing to learn about the criminal history of Montenegro (hey, it could happen!), you needn’t look further than Jusovaca. This Turkish prison, which later became Montenegro’s state prison, hosted inmates from all walks of delinquent life throughout its run from the mid-19th century to the 1960s. Today the crumbling complex sits abandoned – if you don’t count an unknown number of squatters and one excellently located little bar.
Located in the district of Durrës, Podgorica’s traditional transport hub and home to its main bus station, Jusovaca was always meant to make an impression on travellers arriving in the city. Even today, its empty watchtowers and holed outer walls, offering the occasional glimpse of weeds gone wild in the inner courtyard, are unmissable.
In the taxonomy of disused man-made structures, Jusovaca occupies that murky stage between historic ruins and contemporary vacant sites: too recently abandoned to be equated with ancient castles and churches, yet old and derelict enough to bear a stronger visual resemblance to those than, say, your standard abandoned 20th century factory or hospital. In places, it is less of a structure and more of a big pile of rubble.
This begs the question: Can exploring Jusovaca still considered urban exploration? I entertained similar thoughts on the last New Year’s Day when we spent a peaceful morning at Lyon’s Fort Loyasse, another 19th century site now succumbed to the passing of time. Urban exploration is usually understood as acquiring alternative experiences of places that are somehow relevant to our everyday lives, whereas visiting very old ruined sites might be classified as heritage tourism or just ”checking out those damn ruins over there”.
The lines here are blurred and, of course, ultimately unnecessary. As with human sexuality, it doesn’t really matter what you label it as long as you get a kick out of it. The topic does, however, give some interesting insights into where we consider the line between ”near history” and ”history proper” to be. As one of Podgorica’s only remaining buildings that date back from the pre-WW2 period, Jusovaca comfortably occupies both categories.
Anyway, I digress. Jusovaca is impressive. Though we had no idea what it was when we first locked our eyes on it through the bus window, we knew we’d be coming back for it. The five-hour ride from the blissfully cool Rugova Mountains of Kosovo to Podgorica, where July temperatures tend to start with the number 4, had left us too worn out and dehydrated for any impromptu exploring of strange buildings anyway.
A little later, having set camp in our great little Airbnb flat and showered for what felt like an eternity, I opened a cold beer and got doing my research. Soon I’d pieced together the story of the buildings we had seen.
Well, parts of it, anyway. There doesn’t seem to be much information available about Jusovaca in any recorded form, especially in English. Most of the tidbits I present here have been gathered from a few different Montenegrin online accounts run through Google translate. You may want to take them with a grain of salt.
Interestingly, on a later day I discovered two photos of Jusovaca in its active times at the Museum of Podgorica. I stupidly didn’t think to take a picture, but thankfully some flash-happy individual did:
Source: Facebook group “Kulturno Istorijski Spomenik Jusovaca”
Though no exact, or even vague, dates are available, Jusovaca appears to have emerged sometime in the mid-19th century as a prison and training facility for Turkish soldiers stationed in Podgorica. The city, Montenegro’s largest, had yet to acquire its capital status from the Old Royal Capital of Montenegro Cetinje, which we also visited and I intend to write a separate post about later!
In 1878, the Congress of Berlin brought an end to the Ottoman rule of Montenegro and established it as an independent country, but the prison retained its original usage. Its inmates at this time are said to have mostly been petty criminals and smugglers – especially of tobacco, the substance at the center of Montenegro’s legendary smuggling industry.
Jusovaca’s expansion from a small-time prison to a serious correctional facility began with the two world wars, which brought Podgorica to its knees. When Montenegro fell under Austro-Hungarian occupation in WW1, many a Montenegrin patriot suddenly found themselves behind Jusovaca’s bars.
In WW2, Montenegro was first seized by Fascist Italy and shortly after by Nazi Germany. This brought about a surge in national incarceration rates. A separate women’s facility, among other extensions, was built to provide cells to the 1500 to 2000 inmates incarcerated at Jusovaca at any given time. Former inmates, many who ended up being executed or tortured for their crimes (or sometimes “crimes”), have described the living conditions in these units as inhumane.
This was the women’s facility
The decline of Jusovaca seems to have started in the 1960s. Changing political atmosphere and the opening of the new prison Spuz in Podgorica forced the old prison to finally close down in the 1980s. After this the buildings served as homes to the families of former prison guards, who now had to face early retirement and an uncertain future.
I’m not aware of when these families left Jusovaca or if they left at all. We certainly found the place still inhabited, though it was impossible to say by whom and just how legally. It could have been the children or grandchildren of the original inhabitants, homeless people, squatters or any combination of these. In any case, the standard of living does not seem to have significantly improved since the institution’s heyday.
It was partly for this reason that we explored the area only superficially. Having reached the prison’s inner courtyard through a large hole in the outer wall, I immediately spotted a wary-looking person watching us from inside one of the buildings. Figuring that s/he was probably homeless and more scared of us than we were of him/her, as is usually the case with these encounters, we thought it was best to not enter the buildings. You know, basic manners.
Another reason for our hesitation was the sorry state of the place. In more than one spot, the structures had already given in and come down in a glorious and undeniably dangerous mess. Getting crushed by a falling roof just seemed like a hefty price to pay when the place could easily be admired from the outside, too.
I did ultimately venture into the former second floor of the main building (pictured above), which could be accessed via a pretty solid-looking set of stairs outside. I found the floor completely roofless and overgrown with weeds like an ancient castle that the local folks just forgot. As anytime we steered off the beaten path in the Balkans, I came back with my bare legs covered in bloody cuts from some thorny plant that was absolutely everywhere, but whose name I still don’t know. (Still worth it.)
As the noon sun began to feel a little too hot on our faces – we had embarked on our quest soon after sunrise to avoid early exhaustion – we retreated into a little bar standing just inside the Jusovaca walls. Yes, you read that right: there is a bar at Jusovaca. While we had been dilly-dallying around the area, three retired construction worker types had been quietly sipping their morning coffee and watching us, probably rolling their eyes at the crazy foreigners’ choice of holiday fun.
The discovery of the bar brought me joy, as did later learning about an ongoing people’s campaign to have Jusovaca preserved and reopened as an arts and culture center. Organized by the Association for Democratic Prosperity, the campaign draws its inspiration from Ljubljana’s Metelkova Mesto, an internationally recognized art squat cum cultural institution, where I incidentally spent a very memorable night of mayhem during a trip to Slovenia with my brother in 2008.
Personally, I am not sure that any amount of investment can save the terminally derelict Jusovaca at this point, as lovely as that would be. The city certainly doesn’t think so, having ignored ADP’s pleas since the 1990s – the decade when the preservation should have started, if it was to be started at all. Perhaps all we can do here and now is raise a glass to those unfairly incarcerated and mistreated at this Podgorica institution disintegrating in front of our eyes and hope that the history never repeats itself.
Jusovača-bivši zatvor u Podgorici (1893 – 1945), Marijan Miljić (ref. b92)
Mugoša ne želi da se Jusovača pretvori u urbani centar, Vijesti, 12/22/2013
Ucimo, putujmo, Acocijacija za demokratski prosperitet