The five of us are in a car on our way to the penitentiary in Pozega, the only female penitentiary in Croatia: Luiza Bouharaoua from a local NGO which has for years been working with prisoners in Croatia; Marina Paulenka, a photographer; Helena Janecic, a cartoonist who has held workshops in the penitentiary; Mateja Moric, a student of social pedagogy; and me. During the road trip, Marina and Luiza share anecdotes from their previous visits to the penitentiary. Luiza is a project manager at Skribonauti, a local NGO that has been working with prisoners for the last couple of years doing various art workshops, and Marina did her master's thesis on Pozega's penitentiary, photographing the female prisoners in Pozega. I met Luiza due to my interest in the topic – I wrote a couple of articles and did a radio piece and interviewed her on Skribonauti’s work – and she invited me to go to the Pozega penitentiary.
Marina spent a year and a half traveling between Croatia's capital Zagreb and Pozega, so she is familiar with the route. Croatia is notorious for its bad roads, bad transport infrastructure and bad connections between various cities in the country, and the Zagreb – Pozega route is no exception – long, expensive, and with just a few lines connecting the two cities – making it almost impossible to travel to Pozega and back in the same day. Transportation is slow and ineffective and the railroad was destroyed in the process of privatization.
It's my first trip to Pozega and I'm absorbing all the anecdotes: about the women there, the bureaucratic prison system, the problems my companions encountered and still do. Marina, Luiza and Helena are familiar with the trip. I am anxious. The conversation mainly revolves around the dreaded prison bureaucracy, of going back and forth trying to maneuver around it, of Marina’s photography work and Luiza’s work with prisoners in Croatia’s prisons and penitentiaries. Luiza has stories to tell.
One story in particular highlights the draconian laws about depicting Croatian prisoners. As a part of their program, Skribonauti conducted film workshops. One of the prisoners made a short film about his free weekend out of the prison when he went back home to visit his friends and family. During a boules game (a popular pastime in Croatia’s region of Dalmatia), he conducts a small survey – he asks his friends and family how they feel about the fact that he is in prison. We only see the friends and members of his family’s faces because he is behind the camera. But we can hear his voice since he is asking the questions, so the prison authorities asked to cut out that (essential) part of the short film. In the end they had to re-film it so the prisoner’s girlfriend asks the question. His voice was not allowed to be heard.
When we finally arrive after a long journey, we have less than two hours. The trip lasted longer than we intended; Marina wanted to make a quick stop to see one of the prison guards she had befriended and we arrived a bit late. The penitentiary personnel does not allow us to extend our stay and our window of time is abruptly shortened. We now have less than two hours to talk with the prisoners, introduce ourselves and watch a short film one of us prepared.
Two of the prisoners are not satisfied with the fact we chose the introductions first, because that has eaten up a lot of our time and now they can't watch the whole movie. They tried to signal that they wanted to watch the film first and have the introductions later. So now they have to go, they tell us, clearly annoyed. They have choir practice. A Christian choir, of course. The various programs conducted in the prisons and penitentiaries in Croatia have been taken over by Christian groups and Luiza and I cringe when Marina tells us about the hall drenched in red velvet once used in Yugoslavia for film screening and which is now, in a Lynchian twist, being used for Sunday Mass service.
When asked about why she started the photography project in the penitentiary in Pozega, Marina responds she did it “out of curiosity, having heard the life stories of women from her hometown through which she gained interesting insight.” She wanted to use the visual language of photography to communicate with the world.
“I went there out of my own ignorance. I wanted to tell my version of the story. Incarcerated women in Croatia are a taboo and I wanted to see what it felt like to be a mother – a woman in prison, since in Croatia, a prisoner who is pregnant can give birth while incarcerated and spend up to three years with their children in the penitentiary.”
She continues that she “wanted to tell [her] story through the stories and experiences of these women, to provoke reflection about this invisible world – to make it visible, tangible, and possible for a future observer to identify with the women.” During the work, she says she went through “various psychological moments, facing a reality we are mostly unaware of due to the safe bubble we live in”. It wasn’t easy to face the fates of these women, simply because she was, as she claims, “coming from the outside world”.
Paulenka’s photographs show baby bottles, flower vases, brassieres hung after showering and hair dryers, the daily life in the only female penitentiary in Croatia. There is a reason no people were photographed. Croatian law forbids the prisoners to be filmed or recorded in any way that could show their identities, which makes it particularly difficult for journalists and photographers to show their stories. So Marina had to hide the women’s identities, but “in spite of all the possibilities photography has to offer regarding hiding a person's identity, the authorities kept finding new ways to interpret the law, so in the end I couldn't show any part of the human body, shadows or silhouettes...“
In the beginning she had to establish trust, not just with the prison guards, but also with the women themselves who were afraid when they saw her camera. There is a huge stigma connected with prisoners in Croatia. We cannot see them; they are behind the prison walls, and the current law makes it impossible to tell the prisoners' stories, cocooning them even further. I experienced this myself when I traveled to the prison in Lipovica to conduct a journalism workshop. I heard stories from men whose names I cannot write because that would be in violation of the law. I saw a prison magazine they write and edit which I cannot show to anyone outside. We filmed interviews with film directors which the prisoners conducted, but in editing we will have to subtitle their questions because their voices must not be heard.
After a certain period of struggling with the prison officials, Marina focused on photographing traces of everyday life and situations – clothes hanging, cigarette butts, flowers in vases. Communicating with the prisoners was difficult due to the constant presence of the police officers and the fear the women felt.
Their fear is not surprising. The stigma surrounding female prisoners is greater than with men, so the official story for the family and the local community is often that they are traveling somewhere “on official business”, or that they are ”on vacation”. Ivana Zanze, from local NGO RODA (Roditelji u Akciji - Parents in Action) which conducts projects focusing mainly on prisoners who are parents and their children, confirms this. “Female prisoners are generally ashamed of the fact they are in prison”, she says. “They don't talk about it and when they leave the prison walls, they want to leave that part of their lives behind them and forget all about it. Once they leave the penitentiary, they usually don't recidivate.” She also stresses that “a large number of children do not know their parents are in prison and when it comes to the fathers, this fact is especially easy to hide.” The research RODA conducted showed that 13 percent of incarcerated mothers in the Pozega penitentiary hadn't told their children where they were.
Life in the penitentiary, Marina claims, “is a copy of the traditional life in Croatia, rooted deeply in patriarchy”. Almost all of the prisoners work (for a meagre salary); they also work on maintaining the penitentiary (cleaning, cooking and ironing, washing clothes).
This is the reason Marina chose the title “Other Home”. In her work she dealt with the representation of women in photography in the context of prison surveillance and prison architecture of surveillance. She says that women “in the penitentiary have to be extremely tolerant, they have to compromise in order to adjust, the same as in the family home“. This act of surveillance reflected on her, too – she was constantly under surveillance while working in the prison, her every step monitored, which made it difficult for her to communicate with the incarcerated women.
She continues that the penal institutions are “a permanent cause of stress for the women“. They often suffer abuse, are victims of domestic violence, and also suffer from an array of mental issues as a consequence of the abuse. Only family members can visit the women, and since the penitentiary in Pozega (located in the region of Slavonija) is the only female penitentiary in the country, all female prisoners are sent there. The distance is often too much for some families who live far away. The distance, combined with the difficult economic situation a lot of people face, make it impossible for some families to visit. There are up to 20 women sleeping in one room, and Paulenka warns about the bad conditions in the penitentiary, claiming that some call it the worst in the country. “This place in the small town of Pozega in Slavonija is not adequate for the women, neither happy”, she concludes.
Less than two hours have passed and the visit is over (although we didn’t have enough time to watch the whole film). We say our farewells and head back to Zagreb, another long drive. During the ride back to Zagreb, although we are tired, the conversation is just as bubbly as it was on the way there. We are discussing our short stay in the penitentiary and what could we do to help these women. Luiza will start a book club. Every week with the women she will read a short story written by a Croatian author and they will invite the author of the story they like the most to come to give a talk in the penitentiary. A lot has already been done. Due to donations and a collaboration between Skribonauti and a local squat in Zagreb, several of the poorly stocked prison and penitentiary libraries have been filled with books and there are various programs being conducted to help prisoners during their time inside and prepare them for life outside. This was noted by one of the prisoners in Pozega, who commented during our discussion on the importance these books and these programs play in their lives. But I still feel we need to do more. A step in the right direction would be to change the law and allow these prisoners to be seen and heard in the outside world. Allow them to tell their own stories.
Matea Grgurinovic is a Beijing-based Croatian journalist writing mostly about social issues.