My six months EVS experience in Romania was really interesting in several respects, but what really made me think and reflect on what I was doing was experience working inside a jouvenile penitentiary. When I applied for the project I never entered a penitentiary before and I didn't know what issues I could have faced. All my fears disappeared when I first walked in through the big armoured doors of the “Penitenciarul pentru tinerii si minori” of Craiova.
The penitentiary has around 500 places, divided in girls and boys sections. The place looks like a school, with a football field outside, a gym inside and some colourful rooms for the activities, but of course there are prison guards and barbed wire everywhere around. The controls at the entrance are very strict for everybody, you cannot take your mobile, keys or anything personal inside, just the material for the activities which also has to be checked carefully. Our week was structured like this: we had every day a different activity regarding music, sports, interviews for the prison's internal broadcast and handcrafting activities with the girls. We used to work with around 20 boys aged 16 to 27, and 15 girls aged 14 to 21.
The first problem that me and my teammates had to deal with, was how to communicate with the prisoners: most of them didn't speak a word of English and when we arrived we didn't speak a word of Romanian. Because of that was impossible to talk with them without the help of a translator, in the person of their teacher, and this fact led to some kind of mistrust between us and them. What's really interesting is that after a while, with the ones of us that could understand a little bit more their mother tongue, because of linguistic similarities or personal interest, the youngsters started to be more friendly, to teach us words, to laugh with us. This was very important for the project's aim.
Craiova's is one of the only two Romanian juvenile detention centers where detainees are offered the chance to be rehabilitated through school programs run by the Ministry of Education.
Besides that, the administration decided few years ago to start an international project for taking the youngsters to a less traumatic coming back in the society: that's why we were mostly working with the ones who were going to end their time inside the penitentiary. Even if all the prisoners were arrested aged less than 18, some sentences were up to 10 years, so some of them were actually older than me, around 26/27 years old. In my home country (Italy) they can only stay in the jouvenile penitentiary until 25 years old, than they have to be tranfered in an adults' one.
In order to help the partecipants for the reintroduction in the outside world, once per month we had the opportunity to create some events (like music and theatre shows, flashmobs and football tournaments), and to take them outside the penitentiary: this was, for all of them, a very intense and hopefully useful experience.
The youngsters were divided in “open” or “closed” regime according to their behaviors. In the open regime, the focus is more on the rehabilitation of the individuals. The ones we were working with came all from an open regime, but if during the duration of the project something happened, they wouldn't be able to partecipate anymore; that's exactly what happened for our last event, where we were expecting 10 people to come and in the end just 3 of them could actually perform the show.
I always wondered how it would have been to work with the ones in a closed regime, but of course none of us had the competences to do it.
All of this happened thanks to Dan Buzărnescu, who has been working with juvenile delinquents since 1985, when the current penitentiary was a youth detention centre and he was a schoolmaster. He's now working on the artistic side, teaching music to the students (they play percussion heavenly!), managing the theatre plays and the girls' choir. Also, there was dance teacher, a sport teacher and a woman managing the girls' handcrafting, plus many social workers coming to help in the everyday life.
It can look like they were having not such a bad time, but that was just a small part of what the penitentiary life really is: fights were happening every day, and often some youngsters were taken to the court, families were waiting hours outside to see them, and when I could understand little bit more of Romanian, I found out that not all was how they used to tell me before through a translator, for example about food and accomodation, that werenot so good and for some of them, unacceptable. Also, the prisoners' lives were every day in the same place, for some of them for years and years. This is the main difference between working with prisoners or with other people in difficulties but “free”: being aware of the difference that this makes between your life and their, you can react differently, but the right way is to put even more effort in every activity, becoming aware that every minute in which they do something different can be really meaningful. That was confirmed by the times the youngsters had the opportunity to go outside the penitentiary: talking with them in those moments, I understood that someone was feeling better thanks to us, and that really changed my perspective.
One of the most interesting events to me took place inside the Penitentiary, and was called “living library”. The youngsters became “books” that anyone could “read” asking them any questions, that they had the chance to anwer to or not. That's how I found out how some of them ended up there: the majority had stolen something but there were also bigger crimes, concerning drug traffic or even homicide.
I was really interested in this project's topic because in my home country (Italy) there has been a huge immigration of romanians, especially in the past 10 years. Today, they are the first migrant community in Europe, with more than 1.150.000 residents. The biggest part of them is working legally and comes here trying to find better salaries, but for lots of Italians, they just come here to steal. This prejudices affect also young people, who can suffer episodes of real racism from their schoolmates: lots of them have already a difficult familiar and economical situation going on and when they also don't feel accepted, they are more likely to start stealing and having bad habits. The majority of foreign youngsters arrested in Italy is from Romania.
Romanians are one of the most kind and interesting population I have ever met and I'm glad I had the opportunity to find it out, but I think Italians who have never been there should go over prejudices and get to know it too.
What I learned for myself, though, can be sum up like this:
“It's not the absence of issues that gives us happiness. On the contrary, facing the difficulties of any nature, putting ourselves out there to overcome them, fighting to change an unfair situation, exploring possibilities and scenarios to jump over obstacles: this is the essence of happiness” Zygmunt Bauman