June 3, 2016 / 3:12 PM / a year ago

Juggling jailbirds make debut in Lithuanian prison circus

Circus artist Viaceslavas Mickevicius (L) and inmate Darius Braziunas perform during their first circus performance to an audience of visiting relatives in a prison in Vilnius, Lithuania, June 3, 2016.Ints Kalnins

VILNIUS (Reuters) - Stilt walking across the exercise yard, 24-year-old Tadas Voitiukas is making his circus debut as fellow prisoners look down on him in silence from their barred cell windows.

This is no big top. The circus is being performed by and for inmates at Lithuania's highest-security jail - a project aimed at shaking up the gnawing routine for 700 men serving long sentences for some of the most serious crimes, including murder.

"This guy likes juggling so much that he agreed to stay here for seven more years," jokes ringmaster Viaceslavas Mickevicius, a 32-year-old performer who set up the circus program at Lukiskes jail, in the heart of the capital Vilnius.

Nervous laughter rings around the yard where tall yellow brick walls and coils of razor-wire enclose what is more usually used for basketball but today is a performance space for newly trained jugglers and unicyclists.

Along with the captive audience peering down from their cells, around 20 invited relatives and a dozen prison guards watch the prison troupe's first ever performance, with those in the yard enjoying popcorn and candy floss laid on for the event.

Relatives were allowed to bring flowers for the performers but had to be searched for contraband before being let in.

A red clown's car and a circus billboard placed below a basketball hoop are an attempt to brighten the atmosphere at the century-old prison that has been criticized for poor conditions.

In 2013, a Northern Irish court refused to extradite a terrorist suspect, saying overcrowding and sanitary conditions at Lukiskes breached the European Convention on Human Rights.

"It's just a way to pass the time for me. It's fun. There's nothing else to do here", said stilt-walker Voitiukas of his newly acquired skills.

"But I might have something to show off once I'm outside".

Mickevicius, who trained the prisoners for nine months, asked them not to tell him why they were in jail, fearing knowing their crimes would change his attitude toward them.

"It was not good deeds that brought them here. But now they're learning to spread happiness, to raise mood of those around them", Mickevicius said.

"In a way, this is a redemption of their crimes, it's a small step towards goodness."

Editing by Robin Pomeroy

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