JILAVA, Romania – I’ve now lived in ex-Communist Eastern Europe for most of the 20-year transition to democracy. And try as I might, I’ll never fully appreciate what it was like to live under dictatorship.
I can, however, imagine those farthest from human rights were the fellows thrown behind bars of a Communist-era prison.
Which is why it’s been so jarring to hear of a revolution apparently taking place within Romania’s prison system. Two decades after its police state crumbled, prisoners are reaping the harvest of democratization, after learning about their newfound human rights and related protections. Which leads me to a mind-boggling revelation: prisoners may feel more empowered than the ordinary Romanian on the street. (Not that we had the time to explore that angle.)
Today we visited the Bucharest prison, located in fact in the nearby village of Jilava. More specifically, we toured the Jilava prison hospital.
This was a visit arranged by my reporting colleague, Petru Zoltan, stemming from his interest in the Romanian prison-system’s struggle to contain the spread of HIV and tuberculosis within its walls. A serious, meaningful idea, I thought. Moreover, how the most disproportionately arrested people within the prisons – the Roma – are presumably also the most disproportionately infected.
Yesterday, we prepared for our prison visit by meeting with Romanian activist Veronica Broasca, who works for the Romanian Anti-AIDS Association. Most relevant for us, she leads their prisons project.
She painted a remarkable picture of a country that, as recently as the last 1990s, refused to admit its prisons even had an HIV or TB crisis.
Yet the system today allows her group to come in, hold informational seminars for prisoners, recruit prisoner representatives and teach them how to answer HIV questions, and leave behind a full supply of condoms and lubricants. Even though, the prisoners are forbidden from having intercourse.
Just as important, the prisons must provide drug addicts the option of methadone-replacement treatment … or clean needles? Even though, the prisoners are forbidden from doing drugs.
Why are the prisons now so easy-going? It’s not just that they’ve seen the light of democracy. They also fear the legal wrath of prisoner lawsuits that accuse a prison of denying them their human rights – specifically, the right to proper healthcare.
“Convicts know their rights,” Broasca told us, in flawless English. Prison administrators “tell us they’ll be sued in one second if they don’t provide the treatment needed.”
At the prison hospital today, we wanted a first-hand look.
Kicking off, we interviewed the hospital boss, Chief Commissar Mihai Apavaloaei. Apavaloaei trained as a doctor toward the end of Nicolae Ceausescu’s reign, and recalls how he was warned to never diagnose any illness as “tuberculosis.” Apavaloaei says that in the ruler’s mind, TB was the disease of a poor nation. Ceausescu could never confess such a thing about his regime.
Today, the pendulum has swung the other direction. In search of Western financial aid, post-Communist Romania – like others in the ex-Soviet orbit – had to come clean about their problems. To get the cash, reforms were required, including legal harmonization with EU human-rights standards.
The prison-inmate dynamic has changed so dramatically, says Apavaloaei, a prisoner who claims his right to speak with the hospital director, can also file a complaint if he fails to meet him that day.
“Democracy is a good thing,” he says, grinning through his thick mustache. “But there are situations when people can abuse democracy. Probably because we didn’t have democracy for so many years that now we over-use it.”
[MJJ NOTE: A full article on this topic will soon appear on this site.]