New policy aims at transformation of Greek prisons

Crime and punishment, and crime in the place where punishment is done. Murders, escapes, rapes, drug deals, dirty deeds, sometimes inhuman conditions of detainment, criminals serving heavy sentences in the same cell with others who are in debt to the State. Greek prisons present a grim picture. The Justice Ministry is attempting to reform prisons so that they are no longer «modern hells and the source of corruption of young minds» as Justice Minister Anastassis Papaligouras recently described them. The new reform policy starts with new penitentiaries and separation of prisoners serving long terms for grave crimes from those sentenced for lesser offenses. Detention center Papaligouras’s visit to the Avlona detention center, for an event put on by the young inmates, revealed the problems that reign behind the heavy sealed doors, and also the young detainees’ hunger for contact and learning. «Prisons must not be schools for fraud but for learning,» the minister told Kathimerini, expressing his desire for change. Kathimerini went inside the cells to meet the inmates. Following the event at Avlona, detainees, official guests, teachers and prison workers gathered in the courtyard to plant an olive tree, a symbol of peace and reconciliation. There the young inmates felt free, they smiled, made jokes and tried to let us know, with a touch of irony, what a good time they have in prison: «We have a good time. We play soccer, PlayStation, we watch ‘Fame Story’ and Tatiana, to find out the gossip. And we’ve got a swimming pool. Do you want to see it?» But the conversation got serious when the young people explained why they are incarcerated (most for theft or robbery to get their fix). «I realized in here that there’s no way prison will stop you using drugs [referring to the drug users’ slogan: Go to prison to get off drugs]. Not that they’re available here, but that you don’t have to go to the point you end up in a cell,» says 23-year-old Yiannis, who has been in prison for two years. He had already finished junior high school and his army service when he was arrested for robbery. «I though I might get away from it and for some time I did. I was living with my father in Athens. He was really upset when he found out. I’m sorry for upsetting him, but I’ve learned a lot of useful things in prison. I’ve used computers, done a cookery course, and worked as a painter for a daily wage.» Michalis, 20, of Thessaloniki, had left school early because he had other «interests» – drugs. «My family had no illusions,» he said. «They were expecting me to go to prison at any moment. They tried hard to change me, but they couldn’t. I’ve been in here for two years and what I’ve learned best is how to control myself and to think about other people. I try to forget where I am through activities – school, football and television.» Vassilis, 21, is more reserved and answers in monosyllables with his head bent. He expects to be released in four months (he was a drug user who robbed stores). «I had given up school and got into drugs. Prison has taught me a lot. In that respect it was a good experience,» he said hurriedly and left. The words of these youngsters and those in the play they wrote about prison life were memorable: «It isn’t the money. I missed my girlfriend. When I get out of here I’d like to have a loving embrace waiting for me.» Anastasia Papaconstantinou-Malami, from the Apostolos Pavlos Christian welfare cooperative is a long-time prison visitor. She will never forget her visit to Ward 7 at Averoff Prison and her contact with the prostitutes imprisoned there. «The yard was almost empty. Only one new arrival was there; poorly dressed with scars on her face, and a wild, confused look. She approached me. ‘Hello, Mother, let me kiss your hands,’ she said with unexpected gratitude, ‘because in my whole life this is the only thing I have ever been given [the organization had brought clothes and underclothes]. Everybody wants to get something from us streetwalkers and then all they do is lash out at you.’ I asked her, ‘Have you got a mother, Penelope?’ ‘If I had a mother do you think I’d have sunk to this? I had a stepmother and they sent me to work as a servant in a good house. But the boss didn’t behave right. Later he handed me on to his son, and then to lots of others. Now I’m a streetwalker. There’s no worse life… ‘» Papaconstantinou-Malami recalled another woman’s description of her first day in prison: «When the steel door shut behind me, I thought I was going to the grave, that the world had ended for me.» «Life is prison is painful,» said Papaconstantinou-Malami, «and there are far more reasons to turn in on yourself than to better yourself. One woman told me: ‘This is real hell. Don’t waste your time. Nobody is going to reform.’ But some of them manage to.» Another category of women prisoners are those who have been arrested for passing bounced checks or who owe money to the IKA social insurance foundation. The Apostolos Pavlos group helps some of them get out of prison, but some fall back into debt, like Elpida T, the wife of a well-known doctor, who tried to start a business, but failed and ended up in prison. «One of the prison visitors recognized her and paid off her debt,» said Papaconstantinou-Malami, «so Elpida got out of prison, and came to thank us.» But she had already gone into debt again.