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Inside Europe

Romanian Prison Choir Enables Whiff of Freedom

The women in Targsor prison are offered a wide range of leisure activities. But singing in the facility's choir offers a ticket to the outside world -- at least when the group is on tour.

Piano with notes

Music gives the inmates solace

Romania's sole women's prison used to be a convent. Today, it is home to over 1,000 inmates, mainly women who have murdered their husbands. Targsor penitentiary, some 100 kilometers north of Romania's capital Bucharest, still shows signs of its past. The courtyard looks more like a monastery than a prison. And the central building is a church.

The atmosphere is quite domestic. Women in regular clothing sit on a bench doing handicraft while others work in the prison textile factory.

"We can hardly call this detention," guide Geta says. "It doesn't feel like a penitentiary at all."

Geta says detention conditions have improved a lot in recent years, especially since Targsor got a woman commander. Now, inmates have health insurance and better food. There are television sets in their rooms, a gym offering massages and a club in which the women can relax after a day's work in the prison textile factory or out in the fields.

"We have a library here," Geta says. "The inmates can paint, watch films and learn English if they want to."

The highlight, though, is the stage where the prison choir practices and gives concerts for various guests.

Trying to move on

The choir is certainly the most attractive activity here, because it is a ticket to the outside world. Camelia has a sentence for life, but she hopes she'll be released after she has served 20 years. For her, and many other inmates, the choir is like a breath of fresh air.

woman crossing street in Bucharest

The choir performed its debut concert in Bucharest

Camelia says she has managed to get out of the facility a few times, when the choir was invited to perform in various places around the country.

"We have had the opportunity to go out and we've seen that nobody hates us," Camelia says. "We're not being marginalized. We're just regarded as persons who have made mistakes in their life. Now we're trying to straighten up, to regain a sense of balance and move on with our life."

A memorable performance

The choir of Targsor prison was set up in 2005 with the support of the German Cultural Center in Bucharest. It made its debut at the Lutheran Church in the Romanian capital. Conductor Mihai Nae says he will always remember that concert with pleasure.

"Not everybody can perform there, so it's a pretty select venue," Nae says. "We were really flattered to perform there."

He said the event helped the inmates very much.

"They were ecstatic to see the world, the cities that have changed so much in all these years," Nae says. "We even went on a picnic one day."

The choir also performs in other prisons regularly, as part of various cultural exchanges.

The penitentiary in Targsor is now a far cry from what it used to be: a place which the communist authorities used to re-educate students who opposed the dictatorial regime.

Today, the only problem detainees have is time dragging on too slowly. But singing always helps.

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