Over 31,000 inmates live in the Romanian penitentiaries. Almost half of them are repeat offenders. Have you ever wondered what their life looked like before prison?
The room is filled with the smell of stuffed cabbage and sweat. The small windows, built too high, close to the ceiling, can’t freshen the air fouled by the heavy breath of the 12 men who share the same room. Beds and under beds reveal each prisoner’s world: clothes, photos, shavers, food containers, shoes and plastic bags. A man offers me a chair which he covers with a towel. I sit down.
Nelu Mărcuș scatters his precious books, which he keeps in a wooden box, on the grease- and mud-stained carpet. They are books distributed in the prison by various religious groups which visit the inmates. Nelu has read them all several times; the 45-year old man graduated from the Faculty of Theology while he served time in the Baia Mare Penitentiary. He’s been convicted 16 times to date, so he has spent most of his life in prison.
Nelu’s cellmates sit on their beds – there are only two chairs in the room – and pretend they’re ignoring us. Once in a while they cast us a curious look. “Why are you talking only with Mărcuș? He’s an informer,” an inmate whispered to me while I was crossing the corridor towards Nelu’s room. The repeat offenders who “served time” several times are considered by the others the guards’ people: they wouldn’t have survived here for so long if they hadn’t denounced those who posses mobile phones or other forbidden things.
Nelu has long hair, tied back in a ponytail, and wears glasses with thin frames. He is dressed in a leather biker jacket, with a Harley-Davidson label on its back, and wears military boots. He drawls his words, in a low voice. I get closer to hear what he says.
THE BLACK SHEEP
Ioan Vasile Mărcuș was born in Baia Mare, in Northern Romania, in a family with nine children. Their mother, who worked as a nurse, gave birth to four sets of twins during the communist era. Ceaușescu even awarded her a medal for being a “heroine mother,” recalls Nelu, and baptised the last set of twins.
Nelu’s father was a driver, and when he drove back from work and parked the car in front of the block of flats on Basarabia Street, both mother and kids froze with fear. He’d beat up his nine children with his hands, fists, feet and the belt. “If one did something wrong, he would stand us all in a line, and we’d start blaming each other“, tells Nelu. Their father beat them all until he found out who was guilty. After identifying him, the other kids had to punish him. “If father lashed me 10 times with the belt, he gave me the belt to give the same number of hits to the one who recognized his guilt,” says Nelu. “And if I didn’t lash him properly, he doubled the number of hits.” He felt this on his own back, when he refused to hit his twin brother.
The mother got beaten up together with her kids. “We were a big family, so my mother couldn’t part with him,” says Nelu. Also, out of fear, she couldn’t defend her children when he slapped, kicked them or bit their ears or fingers. “The police came once in a while when our neighbours called them. But none of us ever said: ‘He beat us, that’s why it’s so noisy’.”
“If father lashed me 10 times with the belt, he gave me the belt to give the same number of hits to the one who recognized his guilt. And if I didn’t lash him properly, he doubled the number of hits.”
Of all the children of the Mărcuș family, Nelu was the naughtiest, so he got beat up most often. “Father would tell me that I was good for nothing, that I was bad, cursed.” Once his father hanged him from the 3rd floor with his head down and told him: “I made you, I’ll kill you.”
When he was 13, he started stealing and was sentenced for complicity in robbery and double murder. He was released from the youth detention centre when he was 18, but his father didn’t receive him back home. He had no earnings, so he started to steal again. He was arrested and put in prison; then he was released and imprisoned again. By 45, he had been sentenced for robbery, murder, procuring, bodily injury – he doesn’t even remember all his crimes. “I’m a man of impulse, my behaviour and my temper were influenced by no other than my father,” he says. Nelu has twins – a boy and a girl – who are now about 25, but he hasn’t seen them since they were little.
Nelu grew up a in a communist block of flats on Basarabia Street in the town of Baia Mare. The colour of the building, darkened by rain, is now uncertain Some double-glazing windows and a few air conditioners have appeared here and there. Clothes hang out to dry on the line in the Mărcuș family’s balcony, and an empty flower pot dangles by the window. The concrete walls now shelter other family histories – a few years ago, Nelu’s parents and a sister of his who’s still living with them moved to another residential area.
We gathered information about Mărcuș family from several people in Baia Mare who didn’t want to have their names mentioned. Our questions were met with suspicion by the people who couldn’t understand why we were interested in such a story.
One of the family’s nine children died as a teenager, after falling from a tree. In kindergarten, Nelu and his brothers would bite other childrens’ hands and fingers, as we were told by a woman whose son attended the same kindergarten. Another brother apparently tried to commit suicide a year ago, while another one lives in a block of one-room flats and, in summer, he drinks beer on the steps of the store at the ground floor.
The only family member we could get into touch with was Nelu’s younger sister, a 35-year old woman, who’s still living with her parents. We find her at work, at the florist’s in Maramureșul Shopping Center. Margareta leads me into a warehouse full of flowers, among bouquets, pots and petals scattered on the concrete floor. The sweet smell makes me dizzy. She has short hair and boyish gestures. She speaks frankly, as if she’d been waiting for a long time for someone to ask her all these questions.
“I’m not saying say that our father wasn’t severe – we were nine kids, after all – he had to guide us some way,” says Margareta. “He’d beat us, but he didn’t abuse us. He’d box our ears, pull our sideburns, but it was all for our own good. He’d beat the boys more often.”
Their father started to drink more heavily after one of his sons died at 14, says Margareta. “Then he didn’t grow violent, but he’d swear or curse at us sometimes, he’d throw things. He made our neighbours think he was fighting someone.” She loves her father, who is a model for her. “We all made good, we finished schools, faculties, and he only led us in the right direction. Only one, the black sheep, as he says, is now in prison.”
The poem The Robber recited by Nelu Mărcuș.
Child Protection and The Law
We took dozens of interviews of adult people who recalled how they were beaten in their childhood. But these men – thieves, rapists, murderers, troublemakers – have something awkward in their fragility. Aggressive, slickers, villains, “bears”, literates or illiterates, the inmates speak without any dramatic tint about slaps, kicks, belts, punches and hits. Most of them say they deserved it, as they were bad at that time.
“A 4-year old kid slapped by his parent because he broke a toy, got his clothes dirty or refused to eat, who is told that he got beaten because he deserved it, will believe you, as you, his parent, are the centre of his universe,” explains Diana Stănculeanu, a psychologist with the Save the Children organization. “That’s why we end up believing that we deserve getting beaten.”
“One needn’t be a psychologist to understand that these children bear the hatred of an undeserved suffering which they project onto others as a form of revenge.”
The psychologists and the educators who work with the inmates say that those who faced abuse in their childhood have low self-esteem, suffer of anxiety and depression and often have violent bursts. “One needn’t be a psychologist to understand that these children bear the hatred of an undeserved suffering which they project onto others as a form of revenge,” says anthropologist Vintilă Mihăilescu.
Education by beating is the reason why children nowadays are very aggressive, believes Diana Stănculeanu, a Save the Children psychologist. “Just as children learn from us, the adults around them, to wash and go to school, they also learn from us how to treat others.”
However, the inmates who were abused in their childhood avoid discussing these issues as they fear they will be stigmatized, explains Angela Kozma, a psychologist at the Baia Mare Penitentiary.
It’s hard to establish to what extent the abuse suffered in childhood has affected the inmates’ behavior, says Angela Kozma. “But violence provides us with behaviour models: we learn that things can be settled this way, by beating, and we apply this in critical moments.”
For almost a year we’ve been listening, recording, playing forward and backward stories about dark childhoods: C.N. was tied up to the bed by his parents with a wire. They beat him and his brother with the washing machine hose. Alexandru Danu was hospitalized for three months after his father hit him on the head with a piece of metal.
Marius Crăciun and his four brothers would get beaten by their father, a miner in Baia Mare, every time he got home drunk. He also beat their mother black and blue until “you couldn’t seeher eyes on her face anymore”. This went on for a few years, until the woman took her children and decided to move to Satu Mare. She no longer sent Marius, who was in the fifth grade at the time, to school.
“Violence provides us with behaviour models: we learn that things can be settled this way, by beating, and we apply this in critical moments.”
Last year the Romanian Police registered almost 5,000 cases of domestic violence, of which 115 were murders and 73 – murder attempts. However, almost 75% of domestic violence cases are not declared in Romania: the victims don’t know they can ask for help, they feel embarrassed or live in a small community where beating is socially accepted.
Though in Romania there is a law, in force since 2004, forbidding any form of domestic violence against children, a study conducted by Save the Children in 2013 reveals that almost half of Romanian parents beat their children. In the ten years since this law came into force, Diana Stănculeanu has seen many cases of parents beating their children, but very rarely were they made accountable for it.
One of the problems faced by the institutions lies in the small number of employees who have to cover a large number of cases. “Social assistants who could be conducting inquiries and visiting families to find out their problems have with cases pending for months on end,” says Stănculeanu.
In the communities we visited, the social assistants employed by the town hall are either overwhelmed by the large amount of social problems in the community, or they don’t interfere in cases of domestic violence. To prove that a child gets beaten by his parents, they require a forensic certificate: in other words, the child should be taken away from his family to a hospital in the nearest city. In most cases, the town hall doesn’t have enough funds for this.
On the other hand, the police complain that they don’t have enough authority. When they get a call from the Emergency Number, they need to decide if a person’s life and integrity are in danger. That is because, if they enter the house, the owner can sue them or file a complaint against them. Even if the policemen are not punished in any way, they will be subject to inquiry for weeks and forced to fill in all kinds of papers.
If the neighbours accepted to be witnesses, it would be easier to enter the house and they would be legally protected. But people don’t want this, they fear bureaucracy, explains Aurelian Bocan, speaker of the Bucharest Police. “I think that the 2004 law could be applied properly if the policeman’s statute was amended,” he says.
Gabriela Coman, head of the National Authority for the Protection of Children’s Rights and Adoption (ANPDCA), coordinated the elaboration of Law 272/2004 regarding the protection of children’s rights. She believes that the law is very good and it doesn’t need any amendments. “The law provides the framework; beyond that, you need people to apply it and the human and financial resources,” says Gabriela Coman.
AN INMATE’S LIFE
Petrișor calls us up whenever he’s got credit on his prepaid card or every time a colleague of his gets a mobile phone (illegal in Romanian penitentiaries). The first time, we didn’t understand what he wanted from us: he didn’t ask for money or cigarettes. He asked Cosmin to mail some portraits of his for a girl. As the guardians found the mobile phone from which he had made the phone call, he was transferred from the closed regim to the maximum safety regime. The boy would call us up simply because he had no one to talk to.
Petrișor Pârvoiu, now 21, has served time since he was 15. He got all his terms for beating. He was first imprisoned in the Underage and Juvenile Prison (UJP) in Craiova (where we met him), then, when he turned 21, he was transferred to Drobeta-Turnu Severin, to an adult prison. But as he broke several rules there, Petrișor is back to Craiova, in the Maximum Security Prison.
Since 7, he grew up in a foster care centre in Băbeni, Vâlcea County – and he ended up here after he ran away from home several times for fear of his stepfather. When Petrișor was 3 years old, the man kicked him and broke all his teeth. A few times he kicked him out of the house barefoot. He lashed him with an oil-soaked rope from the tractor. He beat him with his hands and his feet. “He’d beat my mother too, but not as hard as he beat me”.
His mother wouldn’t defend him, most of the time she beat him too. “‘Go to hell, you bastard!’, ‘Go to hell, you crazy brat’. Every day she’d say ‘Go to hell!’,” Petrișor recalls. When he reached the orphanage, he felt like he was in Heaven: “Everybody would listen to me, everybody had something good for me.”
When he was 15, he was imprisoned in the Găești Re-education Centre – he finished his the 5th and 6th grade there. 3 years later he was released and went to Fetești, where he found a job as a butcher. Ramona, his girlfriend, stayed with him for a while. During a fight, Petrișor punched her in the face, and the girl ended up in the emergency hospital, where she had eye surgery. She didn’t file any complaint, so Petrișor escaped imprisonment.
When Petrișor was 3 years old, the man kicked him and broke all his teeth. A few times he kicked him out of the house barefoot.
But, shortly after, while he was in a bar in Fetești, he fought a boy his age. “I said to myself: ‘God, I know I’ll end up in prison, but I’ll land a blow in his face’”, he recalls. “I hit him between his eyes. The next day he had stitches all over his face. I handed myself in to police and I got 3 years and a half. After that I got another 4 years (editor’s note: for breach of conditional consent), again for fighting.” Petrișor got seven years and a half of detention.
His aggressiveness shows with each sentence and gesture. He clenches his fist even when he speaks about God: “If someone dares contradict me in terms of religion I’m able to hit him on his head.”
Petrișor looks like James Dean: he has an athlete’s body, a face with rough, attractive features and he gels his hair up (he attended a hairdressing course in prison and now he cuts the other inmates’ hair). He’s a cheerful guy and he keeps cracking jokes all the time: he’s nicknamed Becali, as he imitates him perfectly. He can recite poems, has a beautiful voice and can mimic anyone; in the Underage and Juvenile Prison he even attended a theatre troupe. “I’m a kidder: when I’m not in the room they are bored like hell.”
As other repeat offenders, Petrișor is reconciled with his destiny and the life here. “Prison is mother and father to me,” he sometimes says. He’s gotten used to the guardians and the inmates, he’s learned who his friends and enemies are, he knows how to protect himself and “serve time.”
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.