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Romanian prison guards jockey for roles that put them into contact with TB-infected inmates to receive a 50 percent bump in pay. (Michael J. Jordan/GlobalPost)

Funding and democracy helped Romania improve conditions in prisons. But will the funds run out?

By Michael J. Jordan — Special to GlobalPost

Published: March 24, 2010

JILAVA, Romania — Communist Romania was a vast den of spies and paranoia, with thousands locked up inside one of Eastern Europe’s cruelest prison systems. Twenty years later, prisoners land behind bars for different reasons, but they still have much to fear.

Prisons are widely considered a leading source of HIV and tuberculosis (TB) infection. And Romania, which already claims the highest TB rate in the 27-member European Union, now worries that heroin injection with tainted needles is spurring an HIV crisis. (Overcrowding and lack of hygiene are leading causes of TB in the slums of Mumbai, as well.)

But thanks to the work of Veronica Broasca and others, as the world marks Tuberculosis Day today, Romania’s prisons can be held up as a success story.

Broasca, an activist with the Romanian Association Against AIDS, heads up the group’s prisons program. She and her colleagues are allowed into Romania’s prisons to provide drug-addiction services, offering inmates a chance to come forward for either clean needles or methadone treatment. Before she leaves, Broasca also unloads a batch of condoms, lubricants and HIV literature in the prison’s visitation room.

She credits prison officials for their progressive mindset, but said they’re also driven by fear of inmates’ ability to seek revenge through the courts. Recent lawsuits accuse prisons of denying them access to proper health care.

“Convicts know their rights,” said Broasca. Prison administrators “tell us they’ll be sued in one second if they don’t provide the treatment needed.”

This new respect for prisoner rights also reveals that in Romania two decades of post-communist democratization has grown roots. Romania’s campaign to join the EU obliged it to align its laws and values with club members. As further incentive, Europe dangled a carrot: cash to tackle problems such as the TB infection rate. (more…)

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Heavy snow paralyzed much of Bucharest, causing schools to close for THREE days. (Photo: mjj)

BUCHAREST, Romania – One of my very worst habits is being late. In Romania, though, I’ve found kindred spirits.

I’ve only been in snow-covered Bucharest for 24 hours, yet have already managed to be late for several appointments – the brutal combination of horrendous traffic and slick roads only partly to blame. But our team has also been kept waiting for several other meetings.

In each case, reporting partner Petru Zoltan or my interpreter, journalist Lavinia Gliga, has reassured me with a smiling declaration: “This is Romania!”

History-rich Romania is one of the most colorful characters of all the ex-Communist Eastern Europeans. And this sentiment seems a charming mix of Romanian resignation and optimism: things will surely be fouled up, but it just may work out in the end. It also reflects serious self-deprecating humor.

A popular Romanian TV host became famous for his sign-off: “We live in Romania, and that takes up all of our time.” Later, Lavinia would further illustrate the dark humor when explaining a fascinating photo we saw: the Romanian photographer had superimposed a map of Europe over a human buttocks, with his homeland smack in the, um, rectum. (more…)

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