Dr. Ioan Bala, Director General, National Administration of Penitentiaries, Romania

In early December, Dr. Ioan Bala, Ph.D., was invited to the United States under the auspices of the Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program. While in the United States, he examined models for combating international crime including new legislation, special courts and investigative bodies.

A recognized European prisons expert, Dr. Bala is member of the International Corrections and Prisons Association (ICPA), the European-Middle Correctional Roundtable (MECR) and the International Network to Promote the Rule of Law (INPROL). He is also the International Advisor for Prisons, Romania, at the Salford University Centre for Prison Studies.

Since 2000, he has taught a number of subjects at West University of Timisoara, including Criminology in the Department of Social Work and a Sociology of Deviance course in the Faculty of Law.

Correctional News interviewed Dr. Bala via telephone when he was in Columbia, S.C., on Dec. 8, 2011. Virgil Cioflec served as the interpreter. The interview has been shortened and edited.

Q. What is the purpose of your visit to the United States?
A: There are a couple of goals that he is trying to achieve here. One is to familiarize himself with the American way of dealing with crimes and infractions within penitentiaries here. Also, ways of monitoring organized crime and activity within both sides of the prison walls. Cooperation between Bureau of Prisons — and prisons themselves — and other law enforcement agencies working on various task forces. And also ways of combating corruption in the penitentiary system.

Q: Are cell phones a big problem in Romanian prisons?
A: It is one of the main problems and very important problems they are facing there, and they are looking for legislative answers and also technical answers to spot and to jam unauthorized phone conversations.

Q: How many prisons are in Romania? Is the system overcrowded?
A: There are approximately 31,000 inmates in the whole country and 47 penitentiaries of all sorts. There are three national juvenile detention centers and approximately 1,200 minors in the entire country. They are not mixed with the hardcore criminals. The focus is on education, on giving them a trade, and on addressing whatever psychological issues they may have. They have a problem with overcrowding, yes.

One of the reasons he is here in Columbia, S.C., is to approach ways to learn of private-public partnership in the penitentiaries — to build, design and manage and run prisons.

Also, on a shorter term, he is looking for projects that can quickly build and set up detention camps for a situation when you have a massive influx of prisoners you have to take care of, which may be a future problem for Romania. There was a decision made 48 hours ago by the Council of Europe that decided that all prisoners within the European Union are to be repatriated into their countries of origin — and Romania has approximately 11,500 of such citizens who will be repatriated — so that will increase the inmate population by 33 percent.

Also, he is interested in methodologies of training the penitentiary staff. He is trying to find inspiration and compare other models.

Q: What types of prisons has he visited on this trip?
A: He visited a federal prison in Baltimore and a state penitentiary in South Carolina.
He was very interested in a concept called direct supervision. They implement it some in Romania, but he would very much like to implement it throughout the whole Romanian system. He is convinced and bought by the arguments of direct supervision overall. That is something he would like to explore more when he gets back home, and conversely, here.

He is also interested in legislation used here for jamming confidential phone conversations and also dogs, they also have that, for detecting lithium in cell phones. He wants to see and wanted to see how these training operations go on here.

Also, ways to determine where each inmate belongs based on the custodial score, if you will. That they get based on a number of things — their behavior, their activity.

In Romania, they are four levels on how they divide them. Everybody who gets 15 years to life without parole, they are automatically placed in maximum security. The ones with sentences between five and 15 years are in a closed regimen; semi-open regimen with those who have one to five; and an open regimen for those with anything under one year.

But even if somebody has a current sentence that is not that serious and they have a long criminal history, or those traits, they can be assigned to more secure levels even if their current sentence does not warrant it. Of course, the inmate can appeal such decisions by the prison management. That is something you don’t have here. Every municipal court has judges assigned to certain prisons, so that judge is in charge of every complaint by that inmate at a particular prison. If that judge’s decision does not appeal to the inmate, the inmate can appeal it even higher to the local courts, which will come to a final decision. It might seem like a flexible system. It is not a very efficient system, the one we have right now.

Q: What are you most proud of in your time as the director general?
A: He is very proud of setting up a number of training centers for the staff. And the one thing that has changed, and he is very proud of, is that he does not have a single staff member that does not have some professional training. That is, the correctional officers as you call them here, they have to have a minimum one year of studies in the corrections officer academy. As for the managerial staff and commanding officers, these are all people who have at least a college degree and training in the field. It is people who know what they are doing, basically. Compared to similar neighboring nations, you can say that the level of training in the Romanian prisons is very high. They have been asked to be on numerous prestigious associations and committees in this field in Europe, so it shows the difference between now and the previous time when you did not need much to be able to work in a Romanian prison.

Along the same lines, he created a system where within one particular prison, and also between prisons, it is a competitive system, where everyone gets recognized and promoted on their own achievement — whether it is a person or an institution.