Moldova has one of the highest incarceration rates in Europe as well as the highest rate of inmates serving long prison sentences. Penitentiary Nr. 17 in the town of Rezina on the banks of the Dniester River is the most secure prison in the country and home to 103 of Moldova's 110 'lifers', or people on life sentences. Many of these man were incarcerated in the 1990s, a decade in which the country experienced a brief civil war and a chaotic progression toward independence that was marred by rampant corruption and social breakdown as the social structures of Soviet society were dismantled. In Penitentiary Nr. 17, men in the 40s have already spent half of their lives behind bars. Many of them have slim chances of ever being released. Yet for Luminita Tacu and Mihai Fusu, two theatre producers and directors, the men of Penitentiary Nr. 17 are not just hardened criminals but potentially gifted actors who just need a bit of training to explore their talents. The pair saw a play performed in the prison in 2015 and decided to encourage the administration to let them come and teach the inmates to act. Poignantly, they decided to work on Hamlet, with all its passion, tragedy and redemption. When they offered the acting course to the prisoners, 11 signed up to be included.
Working with professional actors from the National Theatre and the Arts Centre Coliseum, an arts charity founded in 1997, they set about getting the inmates out of their cells and onto the secure exercise yard. During several months of intense rehearsals and training, the prisoners were able to discover a completely different type of activity in their free time that allowed them to reconnect with their emotions and live beyond the harsh realities of the prison.
"We want to show society that the detainees are not as bad as people think" says Ion Cerchez, the head of the prison, approvingly. The notion of rehabilitation through arts, and theatre in particular, is quite new to Moldova, and the organisers of the production see this as an opportunity to challenge stereotypes about prisons and incarcerated criminals in the country. People in Moldova mostly consider the subject of prisoner rehabilitation taboo. Corrupt institutions and a lack of funds for prisons reenforce the stereotypes of incorrigible criminals and perpetuate cycles of crime.
Yet prisoners like Maxim, who participated in the prison production of Hamlet, have a message for the outside world from which they have been cut off for decades. "It's necessary that people understand what brought us to prison, what sort of country we're living in and what kind of justice we have" he says. Maxim and the other inmate actors hope that through their work in the theatre troop they will get an opportunity to show people on the outside the prisoners are still humans - with emotions, talents and a heart, despite the crimes they have committed.