This article originally appeared on VICE Romania.
When I arrived at the Craiova Special Professional School, the teacher was busy doing roll call. The school is part of the Craiova Penitentiary for Minors and Youth, a juvenile detention center for young Romanian offenders. Out of the 243 teens currently incarcerated there, 129 are enrolled in the educational system.
Craiova is one of only two Romanian juvenile detention centers where detainees are offered the chance to be rehabilitated through school programs run by the Ministry of Education. Unfortunately, education or no education, 40 percent of all detainees end up being re-incarcerated following their release. I visited Craiova because I was curious to see how the first day of school felt behind bars.
"OK, boys. Let's see how things stand: How long are you set to serve in here?" asked Marius, the first grade teacher. The boys all answered back at the same time but with varying figures—some would stay three years, others only three months. According to Romanian law, school is mandatory for imprisoned minors (anyone under 17), but most of those in the class had already celebrated their 18th birthday, which means they weren't obligated to attend. However, many see it as a good opportunity to grow.
After roll call, the teacher asked whether anyone had family in the city and, more importantly, if they receive visits from them. Romanian law states that it's mandatory for at least some of the parents to be part of an administrative board, but in this class, the majority of the inmates had little to no contact with their parents. Realizing that he'd hit a wall there, Marius quickly moved on to deciding who would be appointed class president. In an attempt to dodge that bullet, one of the students quickly let it be known that he wasn't able to write. When he was told that writing wasn't a requirement to be a representative for the class, he laughed: "So, you're just looking for a snitch then?"
According to a particular paragraph of the National Law of Education, the school is classified as a "special school." Special school classes are 45 minutes long and can have a maximum of 12 pupils. Each student is provided with a notebook, a language handbook, and a pen, but given that a pen can easily be turned into a makeshift weapon, the convicts only receive their materials when they enter the class and have them taken away at the end of each lesson.
Most of those in the room had never actually attended school outside of prison. They wanted to give it a try now because, as one of them told me: "Everyone says knowledge is power. We also want a bit of that power."
One of the things that struck me about the class was that everybody dressed so differently—as if they all came from a different world. One guy was wearing an expensive shirt, another one was in a tracksuit. One was even wearing his flip-flops. I found the contrast odd because, in many ways, prison is synonymous with uniformity. Not here, though.
Of the nine people registered for the class, seven had shown up for the inaugural day. The two missing were either working, in court, or simply could not be bothered. None of those present—the youngest being 15, the oldest, 24—knew how to read or write but they all had a grasp of basic math, which they had taught themselves through exchanging cigarettes and the likes.
"I have never been to school before. It is weird, but I want to learn how to write and read," said one student.
The class rules were pretty clear: don't steal; don't fight; you can only be absent for work, visits, or court hearings; and all students need to attend class from 8 AM until 12:30 PM. Everybody agreed to the terms, but most only seemed concerned about whether or not they could smoke on their breaks.
"At the beginning they'll test you. They want to figure out what type of jokes they can get away with. But after establishing the rules, you work with them like you would with any other student," Marius told us.
The parole board sees inmates' participation in activities like this school as a proactive attempt to change their ways. Sure, teachers are aware that many of these kids simply attend class as a means of passing time and because it'll make them more eligible for parole, but they're still happy that they can equip them with some basic skills. Every now and then, they even meet someone who's motivated. The class also gives the young people the option of further education after release, by granting them a place in a "second chance" program or night school.
Before leaving, I had a quick chat with a student named Tibi. He was 24 years old and had never attended school because he had no one to take him—his parents left the country right around the time he was supposed to begin learning the alphabet. He had, however, learned how to count by earning money when he was a free man. His biggest dream is that, in three years, when he leaves Craiova, he'll know the alphabet by heart.
When I asked him if he liked school, he seemed enthusiastic: "Yes. I'll always skip work to come to school. The only reason I'd miss a class is if I get a visitor."
School ended for the day and Tibi and his classmates returned to their cells—without their pen and paper.