A prison in Serbia is also home to a hotel.
When you enter through the front door of the Srem, one of two hotels in Sremska Mitrovica, a receptionist welcomes you and assigns you a room on the first floor, accessible via a fancy double stairway.
The back entrance is different.
You enter along a fenced passageway fringed with razor-wire and with an armed guard at your side. Your room is at the foot of the stairwell, in a corridor behind heavy drapes and heavy-duty bars – no other way in or out.
The hotel is owned by Serbia’s largest penitentiary, the Sremska Mitrovica prison.
Part of the hotel is reserved for use by prisoners during so-called private family visits allowed by the local law.
Converted from an administrative building in 1972, the hotel is located on the northwestern corner of the massive prison complex built in the latter half of the 19th century.
The compound is in clear view from the southern side of the E-75 highway, 60 kilometres west of Belgrade. But despite the proximity to one of the chief roads used by western vacationers travelling to Greece, Mitrovica has little to offer tourists.
Relaunched as a regular hospitality business in February, following a thorough renovation and a decade-long dormancy, it is also seeking to host small conferences and parties such as weddings.
The hotel has two large terraces and a kitchen capable of cooking for nearly 400 guests. It provides 10 rooms for regular paying guests, along with the 10 rooms for conjugal visits to inmates on the ground floor.
In addition, the prison plans to begin reviving a well-kept, but dormant horse racetrack adjacent to the hotel.
This year some shows are planned, next year there will be proper races and, of course, more income, warden Marko Sekulic predicts.
The former policeman says that he and his team intend to revive the facilities the prison was allowed to install during the crisis 1990s.
“The racetrack, the hotel, the fishpond: they were made by our predecessors for these prisoners and it would be a shame to let it all rot away,” he says.
Despite low prices, the hotel can make money because it gets its food and workforce from the prison, while achieving revenue and relieving some of the pressure on the state treasury from a hard-hitting economic crisis.
After all, it is not only about money, but also about education and rehabilitation opportunities for inmates, according to Sekulic.
The Mitrovica prison is nearly self-sustaining, harvesting grain, vegetables, meat, milk and eggs from an 800-hectare farm surrounding it. It bakes its own bread for the 2,000 inmates and guests alike.
The surplus food the farm generates is sold on the open market.
That is not all: offspring from the 34 purebred Lipizzaner horses and German shepherds from the prison kennel are also available to buy.
Inside the prison walls, there are small factories making tractor trailers, tractor wheels and furniture, as well as a printing facility which supplies Serbia’s entire penal system with forms and also competes for commercial jobs.
The farming and small industry require up to 600 workers at the peak of the season, says the man in charge of jobs and training, Zeljko Lazarevic. In quiet times, as in January, there are 300 people working, recruited from volunteers.
“Some decide they want to sit all day, every day. Still, we always get enough hands to carry out all jobs, even those that are the least popular,” Lazarevic says.
Of course, the top jobs are those in the administration building. At the very peak is working in the hotel.
“It is like regular work, you’re among free people and every day is different,” says Uros, an inmate in his early 20s. “It is much better than seeing only guards and inmates.”
A fellow inmate, Zarko, says that it’s a relief to see the street and hear traffic after months in the relative quiet of the penitentiary complex.
“It is much livelier and the time passes much more quickly. Inside, the silence and the daily repetition of motions seems to make the time even longer,” he says.
Also, changing light bulbs and carrying laundry certainly beats cleaning up behind cows and pigs on the farm, Uros says, before adding that he would apply for any job available at the prison, just to prevent the agony of boredom. (THE NATION: Boris Babic, Deutsche Presse-Agentur, Sremska Mitrovica, Serbia)