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Romanian Prisoners Don't Believe in Friendship

The inmates I spoke to at the Aiud penitentiary never want to see their friends again.

Aiud prison in Transylvania, Romania (Photo via)

The first time I entered a prison was two years ago, when I was interning with the justice department. Besides an unsettling feeling in the pit of my stomach, there's one thing I remember most from that trip: the realisation that anyone can get caught. In fact, at the Aiud penitentiary in Romania, I met plenty of people who prove that justice is just another word for dumb luck.


Recently, I went back to Aiud and spoke to eight inmates who were weeks away from the parole board. They told me about their time inside and what they hope to do once they're released.

Dura George, 24 years old

Sentence: Five years and six months for human trafficking. He's served three years and four months so far.

VICE: How do you think you'll feel when you walk out of here?
Dura: Like a new born. You’re born for a second time. I'll get the feeling that everybody is looking at me, but nobody will be.

Complete this sentence: This cell is…
A living hell. It keeps you locked up. You can’t do anything.

What is freedom?
When you can do what you want – when I'm on my motorbike and there’s nothing else, nothing ahead of me, and I just push it to the limit. (At this point he closed his eyes and stretched his arms out like he was holding his handlebars.)

What was the most difficult thing to get used to in here?
The fact that I'm locked up all the time. It’s been hard to get used to that – impossible.

What do you want to be when you get out of here?
What do I want to be? I’d like to be a totally different person. I’d like to work so that I can support myself and my family.

Zoltan Gheorghe, 30 years old

Sentence: Five years for violent robbery. He's served three years and four months so far.

What do you think you'll feel when you're released?
Zoltan: Joy that I’m getting out, that I’m going home to my family and that all this torment in jail is done. The main torment I've had while locked up is that I don’t have freedom and don't have my family with me.


Do you keep in touch with your family?
Yes, they've visited me. They’re looking out for me and send me money every month. The children are quite young. My son is only four and my daughter is ten. Only my daughter knows I’m in here. My son keeps asking that I come home. I’m almost there.

What is freedom?
It’s happiness. If you’re free, you have everything you wish – you can do anything you want.

What does friendship mean?
Having enemies. Friends always land you in a bad place. It’s because of them that I’m here.

Tell me a joke you've heard in prison.
When we have our daily walks, the others always say, "We’re going home – we’re going home tomorrow." That’s the biggest joke among the inmates.

What do you want to do when you get out?
To be good, to go to work, to not repeat my mistakes – to not do the things that got me here. And I want to work, for my family.

Boldijan Florin Constantin, 24 years old

Sentence: Six years for violent robbery. He's served three years and nine months so far.

Complete this sentence: This cell is…
Florin: A nightmare. My days goes like this: Close the door, get out, then I'm told: "Stop slamming the door, stop knocking on the wall, don’t do this, don’t do that." It gets on my nerves.

Who do you miss the most about the outside world?
My little girl and my mother. My little girl visited me, but she’s young – she doesn’t fully understand, but she knows. She sometimes tells my mother: "He’s in jail. Florin is in jail."


What food do you miss?
Cabbage meat rolls [a typical Romanian food made out of meat, rice and some vegetables], what else? Yeah, just cabbage meat rolls!

Have you learned anything while you've been behind bars?
I learned to participate in the rehabilitation and reintegration programmes they put on here. And that it's important to not have anything on my record – to mind my own business, to get in front of the parole board and go home.

What currency do you use around here?
Cigarettes and coffee; you can’t live without them.

What do you think has changed on the outside since you've been locked up?
Too many things. Where to begin? There are a lot more pickpockets.

What do you want to do when you get out?
To have my wife next to me. I miss her – I miss being next to her. I want to make love until I die. That’s the only thing I'm living for now: making love. You can’t live otherwise.

Stoica Ioan, 27 years old

Sentence: Two years and four months for drug trafficking and consumption. He's served one year and four months so far.

VICE: Where will you go once you've been released?
Stoica: I'm not very good at orientation. What direction is home? I'll go towards there. I don’t even know where I am right now.

How do you imagine you'll feel when you step out of jail?
I can only guess, as I’ve never been through this before. Maybe I'll feel like I've been reborn.

Complete this sentence: This cell is…
My enemy. It holds me back from all my habits. I was used to a life that was way more… totally different from the one here.


How does prison smell?
I can’t find a word that bad. When I came up here just now I smelled cabbage.

Tell me a joke you heard in here.
I don’t know what you were hoping for, but there aren't really any jokes here. We just make fun of people. Just meaningless nonsense.

Did you get a nickname?
I had one from home: "Ursu" [the bear]. My parents gave me it when I was a kid because I was short, fat and had a swaying walk.

What kind parents you have. What is friendship?
For me, that word had a meaning until I got here. I used to think that friends were like family. But now I don’t. Friends are actually acquaintances and people who are after something. So, someone is your friend until they get what they want. I've acted like that that, too – I admit it. So did everyone around me. Here, you realise there is no such thing as a friend – like, a real friend.

As time goes by, do things get easier or harder?
Every day is hard for me. It’s hard that you have to wait. My sentence is quite short compared to other people here, but, for me, it still feels like I’m never getting out.

Coca Antoniu, 29 years old

Sentence: Three years for theft. He has a few more days left.

Complete this sentence: This cell is…
Antoniu: A nightmare. I can’t explain it better than that. I don’t know – it’s a sort of a terror. I could kill myself, just commit suicide. It’s ugly in here. I want to get out as soon as possible.


Did you learn any bad habits in here?
They always tell you that, when you get out, you’re coming back – that you’re going to steal again. They all say that – the thieves and the prison officers.

What was the hardest thing to get used to here?
That you only have the right to go outside for two hours. But a lot of things are hard to swallow here.

Have you kept in touch with your family?
They’ve only visited me once since I’ve been here. They can’t afford to come – they don’t have an income.

What are you going to do once you're out?
I want to get rid of my friends and my relatives. It's because of them that I'm here.

Varga C Nicolae, 23 years old

Sentence: Five years and six months for violent robbery. He's served four years and nine months so far.

What’s the hardest thing here?
Nicolae: That they keep you locked up; that they don’t let you go out.

What do you miss the most?
My parents. They haven’t visited me at all. They can't afford to come.

What was the hardest thing to get used to in here?
My cellmates. When they see that you have food or cigarettes, they become friendly, and after that they push you away. And when they have stuff, they don’t share.

Did you get a nickname?
Yeah, Coco. It comes from my name.

What does prison smell like?
Misery, what else?

What kind of food do you miss the most?
Food isn't that important, but let me think… roast chicken!

What are you going to do differently after getting out?
I’ll try to find a job, to mind my own business. To be another man, basically – to change.


What does having a criminal record mean?
It reminds you of jail. Maybe you can’t get employed because you have a criminal record. Maybe you’re not given a chance.

Bandulea Roberto Tonini, 31 years old.

Sentence: Three years and nine months for theft. He's served two years and one month so far.

Complete this sentence: This cell is…
A closed room with some bars and four walls. That’s it.

What does prison smell like?
It’s a different smell than the one outside. You know you’re in jail.

Do you have any keepsakes?
The only thing I keep is a little icon that I bought for my mother before she died and never gave to her. And some letters from my wife. This is a place where one keeps their letters.

Can you get rid of your vices in prison?
It depends on the situation that you’re in. You can do it, but you might not.

What are you going to do differently after getting out?
I'll leave all the gang stuff aside and listen to my wife more. She taught me a lot of good things and I never listened to her.

Are there any good things you've learned behind bars?

What about bad things?
I learned what bad means – about everything we’ve done that got us in here.

Did you get any nicknames?
No, thank god!

What do you think has changed outside?
Not much. It’s just our idea of “outside” that has changed.

What do you want to be when you get out?
Could I say a pilot? I want to be an ordinary man. A family guy. I haven’t been that so far because I liked my gang too much.

Popa Claudiu, 45 years old

Sentence: Seven years for theft. He's served four years and seven months so far.


What's the first thing you think of when I say "outside"?
Claudiu: That, from now on, I have to look when I cross the street, to make sure I don't get hit by a car. The first time I got out, I got stumped at the zebra crossing. I was looking to my right, to my left – I couldn’t cross the street. I'd forgotten cars even existed.

How do you think you'll feel when you walk out of jail?
Like I can do whatever I want without asking permission.

Complete this sentence: This cell is…
Miserable. That’s the first thought that comes to my mind.

What do you miss the most?
My children. I have a 22-year-old girl and a seven-year-old boy. I’ve kept in touch with them. I’m from Galaţi in Moldova, and they visited me when I was in jail there. Here, I’m too far away; the last time they came to see me was two and a half years ago.

What kind of food do you miss?
Food isn't that important – we eat to survive. Freedom and not being compelled by rules are more important. Man was born free, it's just that people have invented all sorts of rules to tame him.

So you don't think much of rules?
Rules are made to be broken. They’re not good! Instead of rules, man needs to be educated to not do anything bad – to not hurt anyone.

What does prison smell like?
Like mould. Humidity.

How do you get rid of bad habits in prison?
You’re forced to; you don’t have the means to support them.

Have you learned anything positive behind bars?
No, nothing.

What does having a criminal record mean to you?
A burden you carry around with you all the time. Until you die.

Tell me a joke you heard here.  
Here, you only hear bad jokes. I can’t give you any examples – it's like they're from the Stone Age.

What is friendship?
Friendship doesn’t exist.