At the Underage and Juvenile Prison in Craiova, Romania.
The pupils are leaving the high school building. They linger in front for a few minutes to have a cigarette. Though it’s been drizzling for a couple of days and the moist cold is getting to your bones, the boys are lightly dressed, in sports jackets and T-shirts, and most of them wear espadrilles without socks. They laugh, huddled up together, and puff like men. Once they finish smoking, they break up to go to their rooms, except for two or three of them, who head for the club, to rehearse with educator Dan Buzărnescu.
Here they meet their choir mates, who are already improvising on drums. Adrian wears blue converse sneakers, Aris – a rapper shirt, and Dutch – a tight T-shirt. Ahmed and Alin have their hair shaved around the ears and gelled up on top of their heads. Those whose families no longer care about them wear oversized grey clothes which I will see every day of the following week. “Come on, guys, let’s start,” says Buzărnescu, gathering them. “Come on, slowly: ‘The acacias have gone mad / With so much spring’.”
There are few days left until the show on Woman’s Day, which the choir of 16 boys will perform in the Craiova-based Maximum Security Prison (MPS). The pupils are between 18 and 21 and are imprisoned in the Underage and Juvenile Prison (UJP) in the same town. Dan Buzărnescu, the music teacher, has been working with juvenile delinquents since 1985, when the current penitentiary was a youth detention centre and he was a schoolmaster. The 62-year old man has taught reading and writing to over 600 “bears”, boys who were illiterate when they got into prison, and has worked in the choir with hundreds, maybe thousands of children. “I’ve spent more time here than a lifer”, he says.
Since 2007, Buzărnescu has been working only with delinquents who have musical aptitudes. However, apart from playing the drums or the accordion, the inmates learn how to stick to a schedule, help one another, and observe some rules of conduct. It is no small feat, considering that three of them never went to school, and the majority only graduated six grades and come from underprivileged layers of society. Between songs, the boys crack jokes at each other, show off and squirm in their chairs. “Come on, boys, there are 20 of you and only one of me,” Buzărnescu tells them. “And depending on your performance, we stand a good chance to visit other places, too.” The choir has performed in Craiova at several freshman proms, and recently the young men and their drums were invited to several TV shows in Bucharest.
“Stop forcing your voice, don’t try to cover the other,” Buzărnescu tells Vali, one of the sly guys in the group. He wears a pink T-shirt, a checkered scarf and skinny jeans. He has a dark complexion and delicate features, which make him look like a man one moment, a teenager the next. His muscular body is still feeble, with thin legs and tiny hands. He starts singing: “I’ve picked a flower / For my mother” and the teacher strives to make him drop all the bent notes to make the song sound more cultured. Vali starts again: “I picked a flo-o-ower/For my mo-o-other.” Buzărnescu signals to him to stop lengthening the vowels. Meanwhile, the other boys beat the drums, and Țesală (“Horse Comb”) accompanies him on the accordion.
Vali, who is now 20, has been serving time for theft since 16. “I couldn’t reach the peephole to talk to Buzărnescu when he would come to take me out of the cell,” he says. “I love my teacher like a father; he helps us every time we need a good report. The activities gave me psychological comfort, because I can see other people too. I’ve been in here for four years and I’m efed up with my cellmates: the same stories, the same crap talk.”
The boy has never met his mother, who abandoned him when he was six months old. His paternal grandmother raised him, while his father was serving a 10-year sentence. “Grandma’s biggest desire was that I become smart, so that dad should be proud of me when he gets out of prison,” says Vali. “She was so happy when she saw that I could read the TV subtitles and she told me: ‘Dearie, I’ll make you into a good boy’.”
He has a nice, guttural voice; still, I can hardly make out his words. He speaks in a low voice and when he’s left alone with us in the room he seems shy. He grew up in prison and the choir shows were his only connections with the outside world. He no longer has any family to “look for” him; his grandmother died when he was 15. “We were very poor,” Vali recalls. “For six months on end we ate only bread and milk, because we didn’t have anything else. When I was a little boy, the house fell on us, as it were, the entire roof fell.”
He has another 11 months to serve and the choir activities help him kill time. He plays a manele beat on the drums, and the other boys accompany him. “I let them play their favorite parts too, this way they feel in their own element,” says Buzărnescu. “If I tell Vali: ‘Quit bothering me with your manele,’ he won’t come again. It’s very difficult to start everything from zero with a 16-17-year old kid. His framework is already built, and it’s on this framework that I have to imprint my educational influence. I cannot destroy his values, I can only guide, polish them.”
Since he started working with Buzărnescu, Vali has started to play classical folk music, Tudor Gheorghe’s songs and soft music and he has understood that, regardless of the style, a song has its own interpretation register and a message that needs to be decoded. The teacher has never told any of his boys that what they like is wrong. “Let’s take Pal, for instance! He writes hip-hop lyrics about his life: how he was abandoned, how he took to drugs, how the “pigs” got him and put him in cuffs. We listened together to Puya and B.U.G. Mafia, I showed him where the stress should be laid on each syllable depending on the rhythm and the pronunciation of words.”
Pal, nicknamed Dutch, distinguishes himself among the other boys – blonde, blue-eyed, fair complexion, tall, stout. The 20-year old young man wears a tight T-shirt, which squeezes his biceps. He plays the dentist’s role in a sketch he’s rehearsing at the club with educator Cristi Dumitrescu. Buzărnescu and Dumitrescu are holding a general rehearsal for the 8th of March show, which the boys will perform at MSP. The choir, the drums, the poems and the sketches should take 40 minutes.
Dutch and Savin, who plays the patient’s role, are rehearsing their lines, and educator Cristi Dumitrescu is performing with them and gesticulating dramatically. The two boys graduated 11 grades; few inmates are so highly literate. Dutch transferred to Craiova to finish highschool – in the Tîrgu Mureş penitentiary he could only attend up to the 9th grade. He’s got big plans: he wants to go to the Faculty of Law in New York, be a pilot in Germany or study economy in the Netherlands and become a businessman afterwards.
If he was “out”, his plans wouldn’t sound utopian, especially since he speaks fluently four foreign languages: English, Hungaria, German, and Romanian, which is not his native language. Pal was born in Tilburg, in the Netherlands, in a Romanian family, and lived there until twelve with his twin sister, at some of his parents’ friends. His father worked in London, his mother in Cologne, and they would send money each month to support the children. Though they spoke daily on the phone, Pal almost didn’t recognize his parents when they returned to the Netherlands.
After a few months together, the children grew tired of scandals. “They would yell at each other, curse each other, wake us up at four in the morning so we could tell them who was right, as if we were supposed to teach them, and not the other way around,” says Pal. When he was 14, the boy got his first punch from his father. “He was nervous because of my mother and he took it out on me. I ran away from home and I preferred the street to staying in that house where I had parents.” It was also when he had his first experience with drugs. “The drug dealer promised me that those scandals would end, that I would no longer think of that and that my mind would feel light.”
The police found him and brought him back, but the scandals continued. Pal was smacked in his face with a belt by his father and ran away again. Before turning 15 he got a suspended sentence for drug trafficking and his parents sent him to Romania, to other family friends, in order to pull him out of that group of drug users. Here he was imprisoned at 16 for first-degree murder, drug trafficking and drug use.
The sketch with the dentist and his patient is wittily humorous, and Dutch and Savin know their lines by heart; Cristi Dumitrescu is satisfied now. The poetry comes next. 18-year old George seems the youngest of all and he reminds me of a former prep-school mate, winner of the Mathematics School Olympics. He is spindly, with the body of a growing teenager, so the tattoos, the incisions on his arms and the marks of cigarettes stubbed out on his skin don’t give him a fierce look. He keeps his anorak hood on his head, though Buzărnescu takes it off several times and squeezes his shoulders, as if he were a child. “Don’t you dare stand like this during the show, you hear me?,” the professor says.
George declaims the poem “I Miss my Mother” in a rough voice. Cristi Dumitrescu stops him and declaims in an exemplifying manner, in a pathetically choking voice: “I miss my Mother, / I miss my Father!” The boy repeats the first lines in a dry tone. Aris, Horse Comb and Marius burst into laughing, and George turns red. “Come on, stop it, stop fooling around!” says Buzărnescu. “You pay attention here: you met your girlfriend, you’re chatting and at some point you tell her: ‘I miss my Mom!’” George tries once again, but he is abashed by the background giggles. The professor sends them out to have a cigarette, to calm down. “I have a small strategy of my own: I let them do whatever they want for a few minutes: crack jokes at each other, exchange information,” Buzărnescu says. “If I were tough on them, I would irritate them and it would be more difficult then to control them. So I let them do their tricks and calm down, then they obey me, since they have no other choice.”
“My biggest fear is about what I’ll do with my life, I don’t know what will come of it. I am aware that if I return there, I’ll do it again, this haunts me every night.”
The boys have finished smoking and George recites his poem properly. He is still red in the face and the hood doesn’t cover his vividly red skin. The boy was imprisoned until 17 for car theft, but he committed his first burglary at 16. George had been living by himself in a studio apartment in Slatina since he was 11: his father died and his mother left to work in Greece and sends him money every month. Only his aunt comes by once in a while to bring him food and to see if he needs anything.
The “environment” to which all the boys here allude was, in his case as well, the reason why he began stealing. The money he earned from selling cars he spent on girls and legal drugs. He has a few months to go until he is released from prison, but thinking of the future scares him, especially since he will be back in his apartment in Slatina. “My biggest fear is about what I’ll do with my life, I don’t know what will come of it. I am aware that if I return there, I’ll do it again, this haunts me every night.” If George gets a second prison sentence, he will serve at least five years, as he already has three suspended sentences.
Only the club activities help him keep his mind away from such thoughts. “Mister Buzărnescu is like our father, he only teaches us good stuff. He sometimes gives us cigarettes for the weekend, because taht’s when then we have the biggest shortage in prison.” When the boys from one cell run out of cigarettes, they set up a “carriage”. That’s what they did last night, when they stayed up until four in the morning and they were up at six. There is one day left until the show at MSP and the boys come to the final rehearsal all sleepy. “We made a carriage with Adi’s shoe”, says Adrian. In other words, they put the cigarettes in a shoe tied with a string and pulled it from one window to another until it reached its destination.
“Don’t you dare come with these faces tomorrow,”, says Buzărnescu. “And don’t you even dare not to…,” he says, running a hand over his cheeks. “Hair nicely combed, no excess allowed. You can gel it, but don’t exaggerate. Aris, I don’t want to see you with that beard tomorrow. Put on jeans, you all have jeans. T-shirts: black should be ideal, no inscriptions. You know what you have.” The teacher gives the tone and the boys begin singing in their bearlike voices: “The morning sun / Shining on your day / Wishes you, dear Mother, / Good luck all the way.” “That’s it! Come on, boys, you made it,” says Buzărnescu, moving around them and corrects their positions with mild gestures.
Horse Comb smiles awkwardly when the teacher presses his head against his chest. The “thieves” – as the personnel calls them or as they call themselves without feeling at all offended – are not used to such an abundance of the heart. But for Buzărnescu they are only a bunch of children. “With every child I worked with, I tried to remove the criminal and keep the child. He was already punished once when he was put in prison, I don’t need to punish him again. I have to open his way back and help him leave the penitentiary as an ordinary man. Sometimes I make it, sometimes I don’t.” Judging by his experience, Buzărnescu says that only 20 per cent of the young people here will never return to prison.
The boys beat the drums forcefully, though Buzărnescu signals to them to slow it down. This is their favourite part, because most of them have a sort of appetence for rhythm. “This instrument has a psychological effect too, it helps them discharge their energy.” The band is improvising, and Horse Comb is accompanying them on the accordion. Adrian sticks out his tongue while beating the drums in concentration. He has the funny face of a playful child; he keeps smiling all the time.
He was imprisoned at 17 (now he’s 20) for theft, though he didn’t lack anything. His parents went to work in Germany when he was very little and he and his three brothers were raised by their grandmother. However, they would receive parcels and money every month. “Clothes, toys, electronic devices, all we needed,” Adrian recalls. “I wish they’d sent no parcels and stayed with us instead.” The children used to see their parents twice a year, when they had a few days off, but most Christmases they spent without them. “Their leaving was the saddest thing,” the young man recalls. “They would spend two or three weeks with us, we would walk in the park, go to Children Town and then they’d leave.”
As a rule, the children who get into penitentiary custody come from subcultural areas, with serious educational deficits, explains Buzărnescu. “I cannot restore their education. Sometimes I can’t even provide them with elementary education, since they weren’t lucky enough to live in a family that could have taught them something.” Here come boys who didn’t go to school until they were 18, 19 or 20, or who never went to school at all. “The family bears part of the guilt, but not all of it,” says the teacher. “There are families who abandoned them, neglected them, didn’t send them to school. When such a thing happens, the environment interferes and hence all the troubles. We had cases of pupils saying: ‘Why go back home, when Dad lies in bed all day, beats my mother, beats my sister and sends me out to steal?’.”
At eight AM, when Buzărnescu comes to take them out of the cells, the boys are already gelled up and dressed in their best. They head for the club to take their instruments, the speakers and the mixers, then they go through the scanner at the gate. “There’s only one smart guy in this prison, and that smart guy is me,” the guard tells them when they get into the van. “Watch out, I might not write anything down, but I remember everything.” The boys laugh, beat the drums which they hold in their arms, speak in loud, agitated voices. “Performing out o’ the prison’s all good – nobody knows us there”, says Petrişor. “But here in prison they knows us, we have family an’ stuff there. We can’t go an’ make an ass of ourselves in front of them thieves.”
Petrişor, aka Becali, is happy: today he received a letter from his woman, after seven months with no information from her. To mark this moment, he’s drawn a pair of lips on his neck. On his way to MSP he imitates Becali: “I give 1,000 euros to whoever can recite The Credo, but right now I don’t have any change on me.” The boy, who is 20 now, has been in prison since 15. “Prison’s my mother an’ my father, prison took care of me,” he says.
“The family bears part of the guilt, but not all of it. There are families who abandoned them, neglected them, didn’t send them to school. We had cases of pupils saying: ‘Why go back home, when Dad lies in bed all day, beats my mother, beats my sister and sends me out to steal?’.”
He never knew his natural father and lived with a step parent who would beat him all the time. When Petrişor was three years old, the man broke his teeth because he had damaged a radio. He was beaten black and blue when he was seven because he had lost the stallion while returning from the pasture. “He tied me to a pole and he lashed me with an oil-soaked rope from the tractor. I was crying and telling him: ‘Just you wait ‘til I grow up’.” When Petrişor grew up, he was sentenced several times for scandals. “Sometimes I lie in bed and think: ‘God, what did I do wrong that I’m back here, what did I do, did I kill a man? I hit him, he fell, but I didn’t hit him on the head, I didn’t kill him,” he says.
The van drives up to the Maximum Safety Prison in Craiova, and the boys undergo a more thorough control than in the juvenile prison. The club here has a stage and cinema-like chairs. Buzărnescu gives them directions: where to put the mixer, the speakers, the instruments, where to stand on the stage. The Woman’s Day show is dedicated only to female inmates, so they are brought in series from their rooms. The boys scan the audience for young bodies. A group of girls who have just turned 20 sit in the first row and eye Dutch. “He’s so handsome!” they whisper. Dutch ignores them, but Aris gazes at them. A brown-haired woman smiles back at him while playing with her hair.
“The acacias have gone mad/ With so much spring.” The boys are singing against a background of giggles and provocative laughter. Alin makes eye contact with a woman, who is 10 years older and 20 centimetres taller. I think I’ve seen this look before on the Discovery Channel. “It’s a pity there are too many old women in prison,” says Adrian, scanning through the elderly women, wearing headkerchiefs and flowered skirts. George finishes his poem and the choir continues: “I stand by you, my Mother, / I’ll always stand by you / Here I find my happiness.” A few old ladies suppress their sobs and wipe their tears with their kerchiefs.
Buzărnescu moves on to something merrier and the boys begin beating the drums. The more daring female inmates take off their jackets, stand up and begin twisting their hips. The guards get closer to the chairs. Alin is banging on the drums, exchanging glances with the woman he set his eyes on. They read each other’s lips. The 40-minute show comes to an end, but the women burst into applause and cry ‘Encore!’. After another song, the guards take them out of the room. Alin shouts something in Romani to the woman while she heads towards the exit. The guards are trying to put some order in that incredible hue-and-cry.
Buzărnescu’s boys come out into the yard to have a cigarette; the show has turned out well, and the teacher is satisfied. “Guys, I won’t leave this place empty-haded,” says Alin, all fired up. Aris doesn’t know the name of the brown-haired girl: “Well, we kind of feast our eyes to make time pass, what else can we do? If we were out, then things would be different.” A roar is heard from behind the fence, where the detention area starts: “Fuck that Nazi in his filthy mouth!”. The heavy iron gates open, and a group of men pass by, staring at us. “Come on, move on,” orders the guard who accompanies them. “There are three months left ‘til I get free, then I’ll come fuck him in the face, for making up bullshit reports against people,” says a massive man, two heads taller than the guard, spitting through his teeth. We go to the van. The boys are silent and tired with all the excitement. “’Pon my Mum’s soul, there’s no way you’s gunna catch me ’ ending up here”, I hear one of them say.
Photographer Cosmin Bumbuț and journalist Elena Stancu travel by caravan, trying to grasp the colours of the communities they come across on their way, in Romania and abroad. In order to afford the privilege of long-term documentation on a subject, they need your support. You can subscribe to postcards or buy limited-edition prints here.
Translated by Magda Achim. Translation edited by Anca Bărbulescu and Anca Fronescu.