Prison Overhaul Vital in Romania

Improving conditions in overcrowded jails is a priority before Romania enters the EU.

Prison Overhaul Vital in Romania

Improving conditions in overcrowded jails is a priority before Romania enters the EU.

When Romanian officials talk of reforming the justice system they cite the importance of an independent judiciary or eliminating political influence on magistrates.

For Constantin Stamatie, who lost his 17-year-old son in a tragic fire at a juvenile detention facility in Craiova, southern Romania, transforming the country’s overcrowded and under-invested prison system should be their top priority.

“I will never forgive those who are responsible for the death of my son and hope they have to pay for this,” he said of the September fire which claimed the lives of three youngsters and badly injured two others.

Ionut Plesa was serving four years in the Craiova jail on charges of theft. Last September, angered that a package he was expecting containing clothes and sneakers had not arrived, Plesa and his five room-mates set their mattresses on fire, blockaded the cell door and demanded negotiations with the prison director.

The mattresses burst into flames and smoke soon invaded the tiny space. Before police officers could intervene, Plesa was dead and the others seriously injured. Two more boys died in the following days.

A one-day inquiry into their deaths found prison management guilty of failing to prevent the incident. The director was sacked and other staff members also lost their jobs.

Though Emilian Stanisor, director general of the justice ministry’s National Prison Administration, ANP, expressed regret in an interview given to BCR. He also suggested the boys themselves must share some of the blame.

“While we wish it never happened … the facts were crystal clear. No one but the children - one of whom had a disrespectful attitude towards the staff - started the fire which ended so tragically,” said Stanisor.

Less than one month later, a dispute between two prisoners at the Rahova high security prison near Bucharest also ended in a mattress being set alight. This time, the fire was extinguished before it spread and no- one was injured.

Romania’s politicians are well aware that reforming the country’s judicial system is a prerequisite to joining the European Union in 2007. But improving the judiciary as a whole cannot be achieved without overhauling the ailing prison system where inmates, including children, are held in conditions which still do not comply with Western European standards.

In response to the fires, the justice ministry made checks at eight prisons across Romania and ordered all mattresses in cells to be replaced with ones that smoulder when lit instead of flaming. Security and monitoring of convicts has also been enhanced.

But the underlying issues that triggered the tragic event in Craiova are multifaceted and defy a quick-fix solution.

“Problems still persist in this Balkan country’s judicial system, with poor living conditions, serious overcrowding and lack of a clear strategy for rehabilitating inmates,” said Manuela Stefanescu from the Association for the Defence of Human Rights in Romania – the Helsinki Committee, APADOR-CH.

Overcrowding has been a major problem in Romanian prisons for many years. The situation has eased recently compared with 2001 when there were some 52,000 detainees in a system with a legal capacity of only 37,500 places.

Today, Stanisor said occupancy rates run at 110 per cent, “which means that the situation is not dramatic”. However, he admits some prisons still house more than twice as many inmates as they should.

Many detainees come from poor families who can’t afford three meals a day or television. So despite the overcrowding, living conditions for some are relatively good in comparison to what they’re used to.

However, local media and international human rights watchdogs are less forgiving, complaining prisoners are suffering from poor diets and inadequate medical attention.

Despite efforts at modernisation, Romanian jails still fall below European standards with inadequate toilet and washing facilities. Many are difficult to renovate because of the way they were originally built and with few exceptions have no dining rooms.

Instead, meals are served inside cells, which are usually small. Measuring about 25 square meters, they accommodate 10-14 people. Stefanescu said this amounts to about two square meters per detainee, below the 4.5 square meters recommended by the United Nations Committee Against Torture.

“Except for the four juvenile re-education centres across Romania where the conditions are good enough, no other prison in Romania, which includes 45 units, complies with the international standards,” said Stefanescu.

Elsewhere, critics say vocational training in prison, that can prepare inmates for real jobs on their release, is also lacking and not geared towards real demands on the free market. Prison officers still put a low priority on education while in prison, and workshops only attract a small number of inmates.

Justice officials argue that budgetary resources allocated to the National Prison Administration to improve the situation are limited. Last year, for example, the prison service received 3.7 trillion lei (97 million euro), less than 70 per cent of what it needs. Each prisoner costs the system 120 US dollars per month.

“The situation is quite similar in 2005 as we can cover the expenses only for the first nine months of the year,” said Stanisor.

Despite the financial constraints there have been improvements.

The justice ministry said one priority has been to provide better living conditions for women in prison and ensure all prisoners – male and female – have access to decent medical care.

To that end, five prison hospitals have been modernised and a new one built. With the help of a 20 million US dollar loan from the EU, all prison hospitals were supplied with new equipment including machines that allow a rapid diagnosis for acute or chronic infections.

“For sure, a lot of things have improved regarding medical care in local prisons,” said Stefanescu. “But the number of sick detainees is still high, with the main health problems among them being cold viruses and bad behaviour, while most medical units are understaffed.”

There are no official statistics regarding the number of ill prisoners in Romanian jails. This was a subject that was usually hidden or ignored by officials along with homosexuality and drug use.

However, pressure from the EU means these issues are at last being addressed.

A Brussels-financed scheme which taught convicts about the dangers of AIDS, hepatitis and drugs started in 2003. Last November, a new programme was launched aimed at preventing drug dealing in prisons and training public servants working with drug-addicted convicts.

“There can be no question of drug dealing in Romanian jails and the exact number of detainees who used drugs is to be found at the end of the programme in mid-2006,” said justice ministry official Simona Maya Teodoroiu.

Other reforms to the penal system have so far focused on young offenders and are concentrating on rehabilitation rather than punishment.

Since 2001, the government has set up more than 40 centres geared towards young people trying to reintegrate into the community. Once again, however, money is a problem.

“We would get better results if not confronted with problems such as not enough state subvention and understaffing,” Andreea Willie, from the Victim Protection and Social Reintegration Department within justice ministry, told BCR.

The Prison Fellowship Centre, PFC, in Cluj, central Romania, is a privately-run facility that counsels former prisoners and juvenile offenders with the aim of reintegrating them into society and helping them catch up on missed school work. Staff at the PFC also teaches life skills, provide vocational training and offer recreation and counseling programmes.

“Two-thirds of those who were part of our programmes finally succeeded in returning to a normal life, which in real terms is almost double compared to the situation from the state education sectors,” said Constantin Asavoaie, president of the PFC.

A former prisoner himself, Asavoaie now works with 5,000 volunteers in penitentiaries across Romania.

In line with EU rules, there have been substantial amendments to Romania’s criminal code to allow community service as an alternative to jail time for prisoners.

The new penal code adopted in June 2004 introduced the possibility of open and semi-open prisons for less serious offences, and provides alternatives to imprisonment when sentencing minors. The changes also mean that people convicted of minor crimes now have the possibility of probation.

Stefanescu, however, urges further reforms, saying community-based rehabilitation, not imprisonment in state facilities is the way forward for young offenders. She also calls for lighter sentences for first-time, non-violent young people.

“My opinion is that the punishment with jail for minors [will] be abolished sooner or later,” Stefanescu said.

Maria Huculici is a journalist for Editie Speciala newspaper in Craiova. Cristi Pantazi works for in Bucharest. Ambrus Bela is a freelance journalist in Cluj and Marian Chiriac is BIRN Romania director. BIRN is a localised IWPR project.

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