The penitentiary system in Romania currently has 44 units: 33 penitentiaries, 6 hospital penitentiaries, 3 detention centers, and 2 educational centers.
After the fall of communism in 1989, and until March 2020, our volunteers ran weekly visits to all penitentiaries in the country, offering social, medical, educational, and moral-spiritual programs. The word of God has been powerfully presented in various seminars as well as in sermons, baptism preparation meetings, and individual studies.
Hope TV is present in every cell of the penitentiaries and, where the detainees want, they can watch non-stop spiritual, educational or family programs. Over the years, hundreds of inmates have received Christ as their personal Savior and have been baptized.
It is difficult to live in a penitentiary and even harder to be a true Christian in that environment. However, by His grace, even in that place, with so many challenges at every step, they can live beautiful, clean and holy lives. But all these things changed in 2020, due to the pandemic restrictions. In only 3 months, all programs were stopped, all activities banned. For the first time in 30 years, volunteers stayed outside the cold walls. COVID-19 hit hard in the lives of the detainees.
After the period of total lockdown, we began to correspond through written letters with detainees. For the older volunteers, it was practically a return to the 1990s when the letter was the only means of correspondence with detainees. During this period, we tried to help, with everything we could, the penitentiary system that was subject to challenges and unforeseen expenses.
Thus, protective masks, gloves, plastic spoons, soap, disinfectant - all these were donated to the units in need. At the end of the summer, the Government and the National Administration of Penitentiaries also presented us with the option to start online meetings with detainees. This was a real challenge for the Romanian penitentiary system. So far, it had been obvious that there was no computer in all penitentiaries (except those of the administration).
But the Internet was completely banned in prisons. Then began an unprecedented race to equip themselves with computers to offer detainees the opportunity to meet with family, teachers, lawyers, external collaborators, and church representatives: pastors and priests. We also tried to help. Old computers, used laptops, whatever was functional, were collected and sent to prisons. But now, another challenge was beginning for our volunteers. Some of them had never used a computer and it wasn’t easy for them to learn (for example, after the age of 60 or more).
Some with the computer, others with the phone; step by step, we started to meet online with the detainees. The joy was great! But we soon realized how blessed we were when we could meet face to face. Here, on the internet, we can't sing, we can't hug, time was much more limited because their number was much smaller due to lack of space. We started working on some correspondence programs.
We also started recording sermons in our homes to send to the penitentiaries. There are times when the internet does not work and, at those times, it is good to have a recorded sermon. If we could not enter the penitentiaries, we would focus even more on the activity with the detainees' families. Thus, the volunteers visited poor families where children often were without food.
Food, clothing, wood for heating, school supplies, etc. have been donated. Thanks to the financial help received from various sponsors, even more such families can be helped: home restoration, medicines, and other things that are needed. The challenges are great.
We are involved in things we have never done before. But we are not giving up. We have a great God who gives us strength, blessings, and success.
The life experience of one of our brothers, summarized, is relevant to the entire activity in the penitentiaries.
My name is Cornel, I am convicted in the Oradea penitentiary for drug trafficking and consumption. When I was convicted, all my property and money was confiscated. I had a beautiful family. A beautiful wife who loved me and a little girl like an angel, whom I lost because of drugs. Being here in the penitentiary, all my friends and brothers forgot about me. My wife built another family. Being here and finding out these things, I felt the earth slipping underneath my feet and everything was slowly but surely tearing me apart. All this until one day, when I left the detention room at the church because I was bored in the room. Then I saw Coco (another detainee) praising the Lord with joy even though I knew him differently. I stayed until the end of the program. After that, I went to the room and I was thinking about how to get over all the problems in my life and stop thinking about revenge, but to be happy that I am alive and that I am healthy. That Saturday, after I got to the room, I prayed and said, "Lord, if you exist and if you hear me, help me get through all this and help me stop thinking about revenge." I did the same in the evening. On Monday morning, I was taken to work after a year and a half in the room. I haven't felt the urge to take revenge since I started praying. I've changed. Since that day, I attend every meeting and I have said that I want to be baptized because the Lord has helped me to overcome difficulties and He is by my side. I know that He loves me and that He loved me as I was. Since that day, I pray every morning and evening, and that has changed me a lot. I just have peace and quiet in my soul. I thank the Lord and the good God that they (sic) helped me and entered my life!
*Adalbert Ghejan is vice-president of Humanitarian Prison Ministries Association in Romania.