The Last Stigma

Vlad Odobescu, Michael Bird / 21 November 2016
From the buzz of crime, to the shock of arrest and the comedown of a society that discriminates against the ex-con

“'I had something against rich people, who thought they were smarter than the rest of us because they had money,” ex-con and social entrepreneur Stela Chiorea (photo: Michael Bird)

In 2005, 29 year-old Romanian Stela Chiorea was leaving jail. Most of her adult life was spent behind bars. Ten years split in three sentences. A former drug addict, she had just been diagnosed with HIV. And she was in a dilemma.

“I thought it's time to do something with my life,” she says. “But at the same time I was thinking: ‘What can I do with my life?’ I was taking steps towards an honest living. But society was pulling me back.”

Friends of Stella invited her to Italy to steal. They wired her money for the trip. As Romania was not part of the EU at that time, they even sent her the paperwork to get through the border control. She left immediately.

The world of petty crime is connected and mobile, says Stela. This is not like other forms of work migration.

“If you had a job, and were doing something legal, you would stay in the same place,” she says. “But when you're commiting crimes you cannot do that. We weren't stealing only in Italy.”

The police never arrested Stela outside of her own country. This was down to her own aptitude in sensing a threat.

“I had eyes to my back,” she says.

Petty theft is based on the circulation of information between informal networks of criminals. Someone would notice a weak spot in policing in a certain town or country, and would suggest a crime that suited the conditions. This could include pickpocketing in the square of a certain Italian city, or on a bus network.

But after two or three months, the cops would notice a pattern of gangs engaging in this crime and would crack down.

“Today [one type of crime] is working, tomorrow it's not working anymore,” says Stela. “If there's nothing to do, you need to leave that place and go somewhere else. And someone would mention Greece, for instance, as a place where it's convenient to steal from ATMs. That's how it works".

This world is connected mostly via text message and alliances and gangs can be formed and dispersed in a short time.

“If I find out that you are good at some sort of method of stealing, I would come to you and propose that we become partners,” she says. “You may meet someone right now and start doing a crime together [immediately].”

“Like a drug addiction”

Take Milan. The Italian hub of finance and fashion was terrorized for three years at the end of the last decade by a gang of children from Craiova, south Romania.

At that time, researcher at Milan-based agency of social research Codici, Andrea Rampini, studied how the group of 30 kids between eight and 14 years old spent all day pickpocketing in front of the central station, overseen by adult gangmasters. Each of the kids was stealing thousands of Euro per day.

Unlike a freelancer like Stela, this was a mix. Some kids were sold by their relatives to traffickers, others were “rented” from families, or trafficked from orphanages.

But some teenagers from Oltenia - the region around Craiova - travelled to Italy for the summer to steal in Milan and then came back to school in September with a lot of money.

“It was like a summer camp,” says Rampini.

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Milan was hit by a wave of kid pickpockets in the late 2000s

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Some of the kids were trafficked

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For many, it offered a high

“Pickpocketing all day for a 14 year old girl or boy is like a drug addiction,” adds Rampini. “They are very excited all the time - and have immediate results of their actions. They can go into shops and buy some clothes or status symbols like trainers. They can eat all day in McDonald’s. While in Craiova - they had never been to McDonald’s. And now they became something like a rock star.”

For Stela, thieving offered a similar sensation.

“Stealing gave me a beautiful and pleasing adrenaline,” she says.

To justify the crime, she cast herself as a Robin Hood figure.

“'I had something against rich people, who thought they were smarter than the rest of us because they had money,” she says. “I would hit them where it hurt them the most, so they would see how it is down here with those suffering next to them. I would take from the rich and give to the poor.”

For Rampini’s kids, much of their cash was spent on marriages, which happened when they were teenagers. He says the children shared fantastic tales about weddings, such as how the groom would arrive at the ceremony by limousine - or by a jet plane. Every day in the streets, between stealing from the handbags of passengers or briefcases of businesspeople, the kids were talking about wedding preparations.

“All their lives they had been discriminated in schools, housing and football teams. And now, for the first time, they were the strongest,” says Rampini. “They wanted to say to the world: ‘I exist, I am not a discriminated poor gypsy boy - I am someone, strong, powerful, beautiful’.”

Rampini says the gang would move from city to city. This was a Grand Tour - taking in Venice, Turin, Milan and Rome and pickpocketing in the great squares of Italy, and then further afield. Some kids had been in care institutions for children in Holland and Spain, but they had left - or escaped.

“Their career, story and paths were very European,” says Rampini. “They moved around the Schengen zone, and proved that there was no functioning way of co-operating between the social services of different countries.”

There was no dialogue between care institutions Italy, Spain or Holland, and especially with Romania, on the background of problem children.

“These kids,” argues Rampini, “are more European than European nations.”

But this could not last...

The stories that hit the headlines in the mid-2000s of gypsy thieves from Romania in the tourist hotspots of Rome, Stockholm, Venice, London or Paris are petering out.

The child-trafficking network in Milan was crushed by a joint police operation between cops from Italy and Romania - and the gangmasters were locked up for slavery. The kids were sent back to their families or to social services in Italy - but soon left or escaped the institutions.

Eight years on, some of Rampini’s kids returned to Romania, but there were few opportunities for them in Craiova. In Italy, some worked on farms, or collecting scrap iron, one is still studying, another became a pimp, others are married, and some are still on the streets in Milan. For most, their lives have not developed in a stunning direction.

While Stela was serving her last sentence in a Romanian prison, she used to see convicts leave and return after three days. In the mid-00s, some would come back three times in a row.

Recidivism is high in Romania - although there is no official figure, it is understood to be over 60 per cent.

One issue is a lack of services inside the jail that help convicts develop skills that sustain them after they leave prison.

“The prison system is not built for rehabilitation, but for the control of prisoners,” argues professor in criminal justice at the University of Bucharest, Ioan Durnescu. “The [system] does not supply education, or advice on how to get jobs.”

Prisons in Romania do provide work. Men often labour on construction sites and women manufacture clothes.

“This is good, but this is a way of keeping people under control,” says Durnescu. “Work should be organised in a way that would support prisoners after release.”

Stela says life was tough inside. But outside, it was worse. Ex-cons remain one of the most stigmatised social groups worldwide. This is especially felt in Romania.

“The mindset where this guy is a former convict, so he will steal from me and I won't hire him” is one of the “main barriers stopping the reintegration of former convicts” in Romania, says Maria Nicoleta Andreescu, executive director at human rights NGO APADOR-CH.

In vocational sectors where ex-cons could get jobs - such as on construction sites or as a taxi driver - anyone with a criminal record risks exclusion.

“Almost everyone leaving prison is vulnerable to rejection,” adds Durnescu. “Society creates a class of exiles from the job market.”

They mostly find jobs through families or networks. This makes them vulnerable to being paid cash-in-hand, or joining the hustle economy, where people invent jobs to survive, such as selling flowers or arranging parking spaces. This contributes to the swelling of an underclass.

“We care more about life of dogs on Bucharest streets than people who serve prison sentences,” says Durnescu. “I see in the media how much a dog in a shelter receives - I have not seen that amount for an ex-prisoner.”

The stigma of being an ex-con also creates its own vicious circle - where former prisoners, who have served their time, believe there is no hope for them, and return to crime.

“When all you get from the people around you is negative - of course that makes you bad - people are making you bad,” says Stela.

By preventing access for ex-cons to the local job market, the Romanian Government is tacitly encouraging those with criminal records to seek jobs in the EU, where it is less restrictive for ex-cons to find work.

Around 11,500 Romanians are in prison in the EU. This is one third of the size of Romania’s own prison population. It’s not a crime wave - as only one in 256 Romanian abroad are in prison - a proportion the same as Latvia, and almost half as many as Lithuania.

But no more than a few hundred of these prisoners have been transferred back to Romanian prisons.

The Romanian state is arguably ‘offloading’ the business of rehabilitation of its own citizens onto its EU neighbours.

This convenient situation was not a planned policy by the authorities.

“I would not suspect our government of any strategic decision,” says Durnescu. “I just think it is careless, [the Government thinks] this group is not important, has no public support, brings no votes, so why should we bother?”

“Ex-cons have the capacity, power, intelligence - but they are afraid to make progress”

Stela was raised during the Communist regime, in a Roma family from Pitesti, a city west of Bucharest famed for manufacturing cars and automobile parts.

She saw the Ceausescu dictatorship as the best period of her life, because life was "simple and calm". As a teenager, she had a job in a biscuit factory and she used to make decent cash from small deals, where she bartered with grain and corn. At 14 years of age, she bought her own house.

The Revolution brought a shock to this society. Romanians thought the world now opened out for them. They saw opportunities everywhere. Capitalism was imported into Romania. It told everyone they could be rich. They should be rich. That it was good to be rich. But nothing major changed. People were disappointed. So they tried to create their own opportunities - and many turned to crime.

“I believe that democracy made people crazy, especially the young,” she says. “What's the advantage in having access to everything, if you - especially as a kid - only see only bad things on TV - that someone raped his sister, or that he tried to kill his brother? In Ceausescu's times you wouldn't have any of that. Maybe these things happened, but they weren't visible.”

So in 2009, Stela pledged to make herself a better person. With the help of an NGO, she quit drugs and started working with former users.

She opened a car wash where hired ex-convicts and users who couldn't find opportunities elsewhere, and helped them build self-confidence. Some had never experienced paid work in their lives.

One of her car-washers speaks fluently four languages, but feared making a change in his life.

“A lot of them have the capacity, the power, the intelligence, but they are afraid to make progress,” says Stela.

The ex-con is now a social entrepreneur - and has opened a bar and community centre in Ferentari, south Bucharest. She is striving to set an example of what is possible with drive, intelligence and will.

But she tells her colleagues they should not see the car wash as the only chance, and one of her former employees is now in England, working in the IT sector.

“I tell them - ‘Now you know what it means to have a contract, to be a part of society, to have a schedule, and responsibilities. But I don't want you to stay here, it would be a shame not to go further. Fight for your dream!’"

Part of The Black Sea Eurocrimes project financed by Journalism Fund