Can Europe Make It?

Dynamic security: political change bad news for the women in Albania’s prisons

Albania has been leading the Balkan region in its management of women 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. 

Jo Baker
11 October 2013

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.

“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.

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.

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. 

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