(MENAFN - AFP) Warsaw bank manager Grazyna Dubiel would not normally be behind bars on a Sunday.
"I'd be out taking a walk somewhere," the 57-year-old said while following guards down a windowless corridor of a jail in the Polish capital.
"After this, I'll definitely need some fresh air."
Dubiel and her husband were among 60 curious members of the public who toured the Warszawa-Bialoleka penitentiary, Poland's biggest prison and one of 10 Polish facilities to throw open their gates for a day in February.
"We're still seen as this institution that detains inmates and that's it: nothing else happens," said prison psychologist Dorota Alame, who ushered visitors in through a barred door with a smile and sky-high heels.
"We wanted to show that we really work with the inmates. We're constantly giving them tools they can use on the outside."
Polish prisons are overcrowded, with around 80,000 inmates for a country of 38 million people, said Piotr Kladoczny, a criminal lawyer with the Warsaw-based Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights.
"That's more or less the number of inmates you have in Germany, and their population is double ours," he said, adding that it does not get much worse in Europe, though "the US is in a league of its own".
- No more drunk cyclists -
"Fortunately, you no longer go to jail for drunk cycling," he told AFP, referring to a law that was on the books for over a decade until 2013.
Another 40,000 people have been convicted but are on a jail waitlist because there is no room.
Warszawa-Bialoleka is not only Poland's biggest prison but one of the largest in Europe, at capacity with around 1,400 adult men behind bars for crimes spanning the penal code -- from theft and drunk-driving to domestic violence and serial murder.
With that many men, pairing up cellmates is like doing a puzzle: management must ensure veteran convicts do not wind up with teenage newbies, smokers with non-smokers.
The president himself is an alumnus. Bronislaw Komorowski was a political prisoner there in 1981-82 with hundreds of other anti-communist opposition figures while Poland was under martial law.
After checking IDs, guards lead the group down a snow-speckled path surrounded by barbed wire to a recreational centre with inmate art: paintings on easels, origami flowers, theatre masks.
Behind the quadruple-locked door to cell number 18 are two bunk beds, a table with oversize green plastic cutlery and bowls, a shower with shampoo for four and a barred window.
What is missing are the prisoners. Or all but the two management selected to represent the rest.
Robert, a tall 38-year-old, is on his fourth stint in jail, a place he has called home for a third of his life because of drug possession and theft. He still has eight years to go.
"It's only now that I got a chance to change, to try to be a better person," he said, grateful for the books and paintbrushes that he says keep him from vegetating.
- From tough guy to softy -
"Most of my life I was locked up in my own world. I wasn't interested in what was going on because I was afraid. I felt something was wrong but I didn't want to show weakness," he told AFP.
When he first entered prison, he got a little tattoo off the corner of his right eye to fit in. He has since tried to remove it, along with his arm ink, and made a conscious decision to open up to people.
"Now, in all honesty, I'm not afraid of feelings. I can even bawl over a movie," he said.
Visitor Marek Sznajder, a 26-year-old public relations employee, said afterwards he was impressed by all the prison's resocialisation programmes.
"I can't say I consider it a super place," he said. "But this has made me see it in a more positive light."
Too positive, for some: Kasia from the northern city of Torun was surprised to see new computers, classrooms and how clean it was.
"I'm appalled by the fact that children at orphanages have it worse than inmates, who should really be serving time and not be here as a reward," she said.
Kladoczny says people do not seem to realise that these individuals will one day be back on the outside.
"If we treat them like cattle, like beasts, then that's what they'll become," he said.
"And after some time they'll come out and it'll be the same thing all over again."