Open Democracy, 11 October 2013

325 Womens Prison Tirana Alb 13 (61) [Article/photo story] Albania has been leading the Balkan region in its management of women’s prisoners – a complex group to detain and rehabilitate. Now, as a new government is sworn in and politically motivated staff changes look likely, this progress – and the wellbeing of its female inmates – is at risk. 

The formation of Albania’s new left-wing coalition this June signalled change for the country on many fronts. Yet one old fashioned tendency will likely pose unintended problems for a small minority – the women in its prisons.

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“Of course we are pleased with the democratic process,” says Erinda Bllaca, a lawyer with a local human rights NGO that makes regular monitoring visits to the country’s prisons. “But a change in government here unfortunately still means administrative change too. And when staff appointed by the previous regime are let go or redistributed, this can mean a lot of good progress going to waste.”

Wedged tightly among the low-rise flats of Albania’s capital, Tirana, the Ali Demi medium-security women’s prison is a case in point.  Run for five years by a female director with a background in social work, the small communist-era complex has managed to become an example of how – with limited resources – to imprison women ‘well’.

Women are a complex group to detain and rehabilitate. Historically out-of-focus in both prison management and international standards, research and advocacy has only recently begun to make a visible difference, thanks to campaigning organizations such as Penal Reform International, state-sponsored reviews (including Baroness Corston’s groundbreaking 2007 report for the UK Home Office and more recently, Dame Elish Angiolini’s recommendations to the Scottish government), and the UN’s long overdue Bangkok Rules: standards on the imprisonment of women released in 2010. Each has helped highlight the damage done to women, their families and their communities when their needs in prison are overlooked.

This is certainly relevant for Albania. Though the country is developing fast, its women are still less likely to be economically independent, more likely to face family violence, more likely to take on the responsibility of caring for children, and are at risk of much stronger stigma than men if imprisoned – particularly in rural areas where customary law has a stronghold.

325 Womens Prison Tirana Alb 13 (39)

An inmate plays with her child in Tirana’s women’s prison, Ali Demi. The prison accommodates children under the age of three and their mothers in a special wing, with around the clock child care assistance.

This resonates strongly among those in Ali Demi. “Our research in Albania’s prisons has found that many of its women have faced layer upon layer of violence and deprivation, at the hands of their husbands, family and the community, and they will suffer differently inside prison because of it,” said Therese Maria Rytter of Dignity – the Danish Institute Against Torture, which is conducting a study into global conditions for women in prison. “Many are cut off completely by their family, without news or contact with their children, and they dread the future that awaits them when they leave. The mental toll can be much greater.”

Irena Celaj’s approach as a new director took its cues from her social work background, but also very much from Albania’s new openness – in its pursuit of EU membership – to advice and training from international organizations, as well as local NGOs such as Bllaca’s  employer, the Albanian Rehabilitation Centre for Trauma and Torture (ARCT).  The team of ten care staff that Celaj has built at the 52-women prison, including a female head doctor, psychologist and head of social welfare, and seven other nurses and social support staff, has worked closely with the prison service and outside help to counter the gender-specific damage done by detention.

“Many of the women are abandoned because they killed someone within their families,” notes the prison’s Head of Social Welfare, Ingrid Balluka. “But most also did so after a lot of abuse. Some here also took the blame for killings done by their children. They need an extra amount of care, kindness, psychological and social support to heal, to join and face the community again.”

Ali Demi’s social workers spend much of their time mediating with and encouraging visits from women’s families and children, and checking up on children in homes and foster care. Group and individual therapy is often directed at the experiences of gender-based violence, or abandonment. When asked confidentially, many of the detainees’ spoke positively about the emotional support on offer.  “You can heal here,” said one woman, in her seventh year.

Irena Celaj

Irena Celaj

New flexibilities have also proven successful. Visiting hours are much longer than the standard 30-minute regulation; and most women can be released on leave toward the end of their sentence for days at a time as they start to re-establish their outside life. A busy vocational programme and an open door policy for trainers has seen inmates become busier throughout the week, say inmates and NGO workers, with languages, computer skills, cooking and handicrafts.

The morale of the women, as a result, not only appears visibly higher, but translates into an extremely low rate of violent incidents, depression and recidivism.

Bllaca, who works in prisons across the country, calls Ali Demi a ‘happy island’. Its director prefers to term it a place of ‘dynamic security’.

Indeed the only sense of state-led neglect for the women is in their housing – crumbling former military blocks that stand in stark contrast to the new facilities being built for men, but which the women have managed to warm with flowers, paint and handicrafts.

With a change of director almost certain however – along with other staff –  a note of discord has entered the daily life of the prison. The General Director of Prisons has already been replaced, and Celaj has been told to prepare for a handover – to a likely male director.  “I worry about keeping our programmes going. But above all, I worry for the trust we’ve built,” said Balluka. “These relationships are particularly important to women, and many have no one else. They are nervous.”

“I also wonder,” adds Celaj, “if a new prison direct is male, or has a police or a law background, how well he could really understand the needs here; the importance of the small details, and the outreach we’ve been building?”

Through a series of garden courtyards, in a bright, well kept library, inmates spoke privately about their friendships with staff and their dislike of change. “Without these staff I’m not sure how it would be, but not good. I think perhaps that we would fight more with each other,” said one 23-year old. “We even miss them at the weekend, when they’re off,” another woman volunteered. “They have become friends. Our environment is more peaceful with them here.”

Nevertheless, as Albania moves into the twenty first century and closer to Europe, old practices may no longer be renewed, and the change may well be handled differently than in the past.  “Maybe the new administration will see the value of keeping on those who do their job well, and all the training we’ve put into the last five years,” says ARCT founder, Adrian Kati.  “We certainly hope so.”  52 incarcerated women appear to agree.

Life Inside: Images from 325, Ali Demi women’s prison, Albania

Ali Demi prison is physically inadequate for its fifty or so female inmates. Yet despite this, the past five years have seen the prison – under the leadership of a director passionate about rehabilitation –  become a forward-looking place of hope and healing.

325 Womens Prison Tirana Alb 13 (3)

Male security staff are only allowed to work outside the prison, in line with international standards.

 

Though the buildings are old and inadequate, staff have helped the women to create a village atmosphere.

The communist-era buildings are old and inadequate, but staff have helped the women to create a village atmosphere.

 

Four women share each room, and many use their handicraft sessions to make homey furnishings. The doors of the cells are never locked, even at night.

Four women share each room, and many use their handicraft sessions to make furnishings. The doors of the cells are never locked, even at night. Women often wait until the weekends to pay each other social visits for tea and conversation.

 

Some find quiet sanctuary in the workshop. This woman, soon at the end of a 15 year sentence, is making a new wardrobe with material donated by staff and well wishers. She's been able to leave the prison for up to a week a number of times, to acclimatize to the outside world.

Some find quiet sanctuary in the workshop. This woman, soon at the end of a 15 year sentence, is making a new wardrobe with fabric donated by well wishers. In the past year she’s been able to leave the prison for up to a week, on a number of occasions. “It helps us understand how to behave, and prepare for release,” she says. “You can easily lose connection with the outside world.”

 

Women take turns to work in the kitchen as part of a daily work programme. Those who are able work 5-8 hours each weekday day, mostly a rotation of cleaning, gardening, cooking. Most prefer to be busy.

Women take turns to work in the kitchen as part of a daily work programme. Those who are able work do so 5-8 hours each weekday, generally rotating between cleaning, gardening and cooking. Most prefer to be busy, though they earn only 100 lek (1 USD) per month. “Being employed makes everything bearable,” said one woman, 14 years into her sentence. “I feel away from my problems. It keeps them away.”

 

There's a single public phone, but women can make or receive unlimited calls throughout the day. They must pay for outgoing calls using a phone card.

There’s a single public phone, but women can make or receive unlimited calls throughout the day. They must pay for outgoing calls using a phone card. This can be a problem for those abandoned by their families, and without funds of their own. Such abandonment is more common among female inmates, than male.

 

Attempts have been made to make the small visitors' room welcoming, but it doesn't allow for much privacy. Staff have no alternative.

Attempts have been made to make the small visitors’ room welcoming, but it doesn’t allow for much privacy, and staff have little alternative. Conjugal visits can be arranged occasionally though, in a small room nearby.

 

The library features a bank of donated computers

The library features a bank of donated computers. The women’s perspectives vary when it comes to their opportunities after prison, but many with less education prefer to learn vocational skills common to women here: kitchen work and hairdressing, handicrafts and child care. Many still take English or Italian lessons though.

 

Things are changing for women in Albania," said this young woman, who was arrested while finishing a degree in political science. "It's easier for women to be educated. But I'm sure when I leave there will be prejudice. We need to change the mentality of people."

“Things are changing for women in Albania,” said this young woman, who was arrested while finishing a degree in political science. “It’s easier for women to be educated. But I’m sure when I leave there will be prejudice. We need to change the mentality of people.”