Student Prison at the University of Tartu: The A-Holes of History

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Have you ever been to a student prison? During our trip to Tartu, Estonia’s second city and home to the country’s prestigious national university, we made a point of visiting the University’s old student prison or lock-up. Founded by Sweden’s King, Gustavus Adolphus, in 1632, the University of Tartu is kind of a big deal as the intellectual and research hub of Estonia. The entire city seems to revolve around the university, with the main drag lined with student bars filled with hipster-esque students who made me feel old, inadequate and painfully uncool.


"University of Tartu at night"
The University of Tartu: It’s also real purdy


Despite its beautiful facade, Tart U (as I like to call it) actually has a deep, dark secret: a student prison!


Except it’s not actually a secret, but rather something which they tell you openly about and allow you to tour! But before I begin, we should probably talk about library books…

When we moved back to Vancouver in 2011, I discovered I had unpaid library fines. These were not your average library fines, where you discover you owe money and pay it upon your next visit, a few days or weeks later. Nay, these library fines had stuck with me across multiple years and multiple countries: when I left Vancouver in 2003, I moved to another country. Then I came back, and then moved to another ANOTHER country. Then we came to Canada, but not Vancouver. Then we moved back to the second ANOTHER country. THEN we came back to Vancouver, 8 years after I’d left, and discovered I had owed roughly $12.00 in overdue library fines since 2003! A reasonable person would have paid those fines immediately. But we’d just moved home, and had just started earning a single income. And also, I wanted to buy a fancy coffee that day. So I postponed paying the fees. No problem, right?

Which leads me back to Tart U. That would have been a HUGE problem had I been a Tart U student.

Because as it turns out, the Tart U administrators used to be gigantic A-holes!

Prior to about 1900, I would not have done well there. At all. I likely would have spent the majority of my career in the student prison. Yes, you read that right: Tart U had an on-site student prison to punish students who offended public morality and the code of student conduct.

I’ll tell you what offends my sense of public morality: this commode. Just think of the splinter potential…


The student prisons were housed in the attic of one of the main university buildings. Students who offended the good decency of the university, by insulting a cloakroom attendant, keeping library books past due, or dueling, for example, would be locked up for anywhere from several days to SEVERAL WEEKS! Today, you can request to visit the student prison (or student lockup, as they call it) by asking in the University’s museum (I’m pretty sure this is just a ploy to get people to visit the museum, which I found to be about as exciting as a post).


The student prison at University of Tartu
I imagine Rapunzel’s room would have looked rather similar to this


There were originally a few lockups, but an electrical fire in 1965 destroyed all but one of the originals. The far wall was damaged in the fire and those drawings are reproductions, but the other three walls survived, complete with student graffiti (much of it is in German – the University of Tartu didn’t use Estonian as a main language of instruction until 1916. To add insult to injury, it had to switch to Russian during the Soviet occupation).


"Graffiti in University of Tartu Student Prison"
Even the graffiti is sophisticated and intellectual.



The old student prison in Tartu Estonia
I like the self-portrait of the long suffering student behind bars


If you happen to find yourself in Tartu, the student prison is one of those strange attractions that you can’t not visit. Just head to the University’s main building and wander around until you find the museum (we ended up in the dean’s office before we found the museum, but they were very friendly!), and ask to visit the lock-up. They’ll find a spare staff member to take you up to the attic (stairs alert!), and answer all your annoying questions with a smile on their face.

Ed: Don’t worry! I have since paid my library fees. I am all up-to-date with the Vancouver Public Library system.


This was a post in Wandertooth’s first-ever series: The A-Holes of History! I got some good feedback (thanks, Mom!) from my posts about how the Soviets were a bunch of A-holes, so thought I’d run with it, and pull from the far-t00-many historical examples of human a-holery. I have no particular plan or schedule for this series, so I’ll just wait for inspiration to strike. Human history being what it is, I doubt I’ll have to wait very long…Please let us know what you think in the comments, or say hello on Facebook and Twitter.

3 thoughts on “Student Prison at the University of Tartu: The A-Holes of History”

  1. The commode is reminiscent of the modern day Australian bush loo, minus a seat, which I never use. Scary what people were put away for in those days. The Brits were stuck on a ship and sent to Tasmania for petty crimes such as nicking a lump of coal.

  2. Ha ha! Thanks Tom! There’s just so much material to choose from out there, so I don’t think you’ll have to wait long. Thanks for reading :)

  3. Tom @ Waegook Tom

    First off, I have to say that I’m glad you paid your overdue library fines, finally.

    Secondly – LOVING the concept for the series and I want to read more! Seriously, imprisoning students?! A wee bit excessive. The commode offends me, too. Can you imagine a splinter-filled bottom? Ouch.

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