Seeking to Sober Up

In Search of the Last Drunk Tank

By Ray Paul Biron

When the night gets too crazy,  the 'drunk tank' is where you sober up for the night.

When the night gets too crazy, the ‘drunk tank’ is where you sober up. Photo courtesy of Robcartorres

The last sobering station in Prague lies at the bottom of a hill adjacent to the Bulovka hospital in Prague 8, a hospital known for its treatment of infectious diseases. The sobering station – or drunk tank, as it is sometimes called — stands about a quarter of a mile down Bulovka Street across from an abandoned factory with smashed in windows and peeling paint. Loud construction trucks bustle up and down the cracked asphalt and drills clash against the pavement as workers create space for a new sidewalk. The sobering station, a tall, gray building, has a parking lot to its left and a guarded gate with a no entry sign to its right. All its windows are covered with bars.

The sobering station is meant to house, or perhaps imprison, people in Prague who are excessively drunk in public and are committing illegal acts, from desecrating property to assaulting stranger. This is where they are meant to sober up, instead of going to jail. Thus the station is a cross between a hospital and a punishment center.  The idea is, if they were sober, they probably would not engage in such reckless behavior.

A typical sobering station admits unruly patients who have been detained by the police and gives them a bed in a cell. Some patients are strapped down if uncooperative. Depending on their actions the previous night they are either released with a fine or brought to a police station for further charges. A typical one-night stay in a sobering station for an involuntary guest costs 1,950 korunas (about $88).

“He was smoking a cigarette, but had trouble removing it from his mouth as he had handcuffs around his swollen and bruised hands”

The first sobering station was founded in the Russian city of Tula in 1902. It was not until May 1951 that one was built in Prague, its first client being a Russian naval engineer. The founder of the first Prague sobering station was Doctor Jaroslav Skala, a lifetime combatant against alcoholism.  At their zenith, there were 63 sobering stations across communist Czechoslovakia.  More than a million people were treated in the stations over the last 60 years, 180,000 alone were treated in Prague. Today, however, only 16 remain in the Czech Republic, mostly concentrated in Moravia, and there is only one left in Prague.

What is the best place for the violently drunk?

Doctor Karel Nespor, age 62, has also committed his life to fighting alcoholism, especially in Prague. He has written over 30 books concerning addictive diseases.

“It is true that there was once many more sobering stations in Prague,” he recalls during a phone interview. “But today there is only one, it has been that way for a long time. They cost money to run and the state believes that that money is better served elsewhere.”

Today the method for dealing with overly intoxicated and disruptive persons in Prague is relatively the same as other European cities. The sobering station at Bulovka does not have a very large capacity and thus very few are actually brought there. Most people are brought to the hospital or straight to jail to sober up for the night.

“The hospital sometimes is not the best place for aggressively intoxicated persons,” said Dr. Nespor with a laugh. “The doctors and nurses are often getting more than they can handle.”

However, Dr. Nespor also spoke of the importance of having trained medical officials when dealing with intoxicated patients even if aggressive and disruptive.

“If they are so drunk as to be committing illegal activities chances are they are very drunk and sometimes at a dangerous level,” he said. “You just do not want to leave them in a cell all night so at that point a hospital may be better.”

A fruitless search for sobriety

Finding the Bulovka sobering station was a challenge. It does not show up on the hospital directory or on the hospital map and though it is referred to online, no exact address is given – only the name of the street.

The Bulovka street sober station is the only left in Prague. Photo courtesy of Light Brigading via Flickr

Police escort drunks to Bulovka Street, which is home to the last drunk tank in Prague. Photo courtesy of Light Brigading via Flickr

Bulovka turns out to be a rather long street. To locate the exact building I attempted to seek out someone at the hospital’s information center. Eventually I was directed to the foreign department and into a tiny office with large windows, which revealed Prague Castle in the distance. A middle-aged woman sat in the chair.

“Excuse me, do you know how to get to the sobering station here?” I asked.

She laughed, “Why do you want to go there?”

I told her that I was a journalist and that I just had a few questions.

“Well it’s private, but I guess you can try out your luck.” She took my map and drew in a building that was previously non-existent on the map.

There is no sign on the sobering station visible from the street. When I arrived there were two people in the parking lot. One was an elderly man who was rummaging through a bag on the ground. He stood up straight and stared at me as I arrived, but soon bent back over throwing me a suspicious glance every few seconds. Another man leaned against the trunk of an old BMW about 15 meters away. He was smoking a cigarette, but had trouble removing it from his mouth as he had handcuffs around his swollen and bruised hands.

It was on my fourth try that I eventually gained entrance to the actual sobering station. The first two times I was in the wrong department (the substance abuse department shares the same building). On my third visit, which took place on a Saturday afternoon, I went to the door on the other side of the building, rang the doorbell and was met by a man in full medical gear. He looked me up and down suspiciously  – I guess the place does not get many voluntary visitors. I asked if he spoke English.

“Ne, ne.”

One of his co-workers came over, turning his ear slightly toward me to listen.

“Is the doctor here?”

“Doctor, doctor!” They both looked at each other, nodding their heads in understanding.

“Can I speak to the doctor?” I asked.

One of them went back inside. He came out a few minutes later.

“Monday, Doctor Novak Monday.”

I returned to Prague’s last sobering station on Monday morning at 8 when it opened to visit Dr. Novak, who I assumed was the head physician. An assistant let me inside and I waited in a small room with only one chair. I was then called into a large office. The office featured several computers and desks. The far wall was gone on the other side and several showers were put in place where patients were perhaps washed down. Dr. Novak was a plump man who sat in an office chair with his arms folded. He looked at me peculiarly.

“Dr. Novak it is so nice to meet you.”

I stuck out my hand. He stared at it for a moment before shaking it lightly. I began rambling about how I had had such a hard time finding the place and how I was just going to ask him a couple questions when he stuck up his hand to stop me.

“Deutsch?”

He was asking me if I spoke German. I replied that I did not and asked if he spoke even a little English.

“Cesky?”

I went to the computer and loaded a translator on the web. I wrote that I wanted to ask him a couple questions.

“You here?” He asked pointing down. Oh lord, he thought I was a previous patient.

“No, I was not here I am a journalist.”

“Ahhhh, journalist.” He smiled and shrugged. I tried asking him another question on the computer, but he just smiled and shrugged again. I gave up and left the station. I wondered how many patients a night usually get taken to the station. In my time here in the Czech Republic I have not seen many people that seem like a sure candidate for the place. Maybe its one of those Americans dudes who punches his friend in the face because of a girl they met at the club. Or maybe it’s that old man on the tram that would not stop yelling at the top of his lungs. Or maybe it’s myself that time I stumbled back from Mecca in Prague 7 to Namesti Miru at 5 in the morning. I don’t really remember what happened….

Ray Paul Biron is in the Tufts University College of Arts and Science Class of 2016. His hometown is Dartmouth, Massachusetts.

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Categories: Culture, Fall 2014 Issue Number 3

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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