I want to break free – Albania

Albania wants to join the European Union, but poverty and corruption make the Netherlands, among others, hesitate. The country has only one women’s prison. Most women end up here out of poverty; they are imprisoned for begging, drug trafficking or prostitution. Together with photographer Bernadet de Prins, twice I spent two weeks behind the green gate of Prison 325. We had heartwarming encounters, danced exuberantly and occasionally popped a tear. Our stories appeared in Knack, Vervolgdd, Opzij and de Volkskrant.

Photos Bernadet de Prins, translator Oltjona Beleshi

Women in Albania receive long sentences. This is due to an accumulation of factors; starting with that one in three women is unable to afford a lawyer. A state lawyer gets 40 euros for a case and often only shows up in court. Nor do the women have the money to bribe police officers or the judiciary – something that is common in Albania.

In an attempt to fight corruption, all judges are currently being vetted and so far only a meager forty percent was found to be “clean.” Once imprisoned, women often fail to meet the conditions for parole. There is a legal right to be released from prison after serving two thirds of the sentence, but in Albania detainees have to go back to court for this. So again, they’ll need a lawyer. The judge assesses whether the woman has a stable home front, with a job and a house. After years of imprisonment this is rarely the case.

Inside the women support each other. They spend the day in the open courtyard chatting, crocheting, dominoing and, when it’s someone’s birthday and music blares through the speakers, they dance…. “Maruananana.”

The detainees have each chosen their own pseudonym to be ahead of recognition and stigmatization. This publication was partly thanks to the indispensable contributions of the Special Journalistic Projects Fund, Free Press Unlimited of the Postcode Lottery Fund and De Coöperatie’s Matchingsfonds. Thanks also to prison expert Jan van den Brand and interpreter Oltjona Beleshi.

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