Increasing inspections at Greece’s prisons, making the terms of furlough stricter, transferring dangerous criminals to facilities outside cities, relocating the capital’s Korydallos Prison and introducing more programs to help inmates are all part of an ambitious prison reform program being overseen by the general secretary for crime policy at the Citizens’ Protection Ministry, Sofia Nikolaou.
“Our main priority is to tighten the regime for transferring detainees to rural detention facilities in order to stop escapes,” Nikolaou tells Kathimerini, revealing that more than 200 convicts have absconded while on furlough in the past four years.
Prisons were placed under the jurisdiction of the Citizens’ Protection Ministry to halt the operation of gangs within these facilities. How do you evaluate your actions in this area?
From the outset, our priority was on the one hand to crack down on lawlessness in detention centers and on the other to give convicts incentives to integrate smoothly back into society. We have set up a new Crisis Management Directorate to improve the level of security and respond to violence, while we have also set up a 24-member detention facility oversight body that will carry out spot checks at all the country’s prisons. Imagine that when I took over, I found that for the entire country there were only four inspectors, who were in fact transfers from various different positions of the state apparatus that were irrelevant to the prison system.
Are the frequent violent clashes at Avlona Prison an indication of the problems with this policy?
I will not disagree that Avlona Prison is a very tough facility. The problem isn’t just with the facility itself but also lies in the nature of the prisoners, who are all young men up to the age of 24. I remind you that within a week of assuming my post, I decided to remove the leadership of this detention facility as it had failed to implement our priorities aimed at maintaining security – not just for the detainees – but also for the corrections officers themselves. Detention centers will no longer be institutions of “criminal education.”
In the runup to the summer elections, New Democracy had accused SYRIZA of turning prisons into a ticking time bomb. What was the situation when you took office?
I’ll start with the simplest thing. Guards have to ring a bell every afternoon when it’s time for the prisoners to go back to their cells. When we took over, I took it for granted that this self-evident measure – as provided for in the rules of operation of the prisons – was being carried out. Yet in Korydallos they had not rung the bell throughout the four-year period of SYRIZA’s rule. The result was that inmates were able to move around all day and night and do whatever they wanted, since supervision was lax. This is how prisoners at the country’s biggest detention facility were able to create a makeshift casino and a hot tub, where they could relax.
Inspections have certainly increased since you took over, but they are still turning up drugs, makeshift weapons, cell phones and other contraband. How do you explain it and what do you plan to do about it?
Unfortunately, security at prison entrances is not at the desired level. We are already planning to provide them with new equipment to address this issue. Also, many of the improvised knives are made inside the prison, so controls within their walls need to be improved. Furthermore, we are planning to build a separate detention facility that will hold prisoners with disciplinary violations. We have had cases of correctional officers being savagely attacked and having to go to hospital. In any case, inspections are now almost daily. Indicatively, the last 100 inspections have turned up almost a kilogram of cannabis, 191 cell phones, knives, iron bars, skewers and more.
An agreement has already been signed with the Defense Ministry for a plot where a new prison will be built to replace Korydallos. How will the project be financed and built, and what is the timeframe?
The procedures for relocating Korydallos Prison are moving at a rapid pace. The project will be financed through public-private partnerships and is expected to be completed within three years.
What other legislative changes are in the works?
Our main priority is to tighten the regime for transferring detainees to rural detention facilities in order to stop escapes, which have exceeded 200 over the past four years. We are also tightening furlough rules, as there have been increasing cases of detainees not respecting the terms of their leave.
Moreover, we are changing the procedures for inmates to be admitted to the Korydallos Prison Psychiatric Hospital. The psychiatric clinic receives about 3,000 prisoners a year, who for the most part claim to have suicidal thoughts so they can be transferred there. The result is that it has been turned into a “headquarters” for gangs planning new criminal activities. From now on, only sick prisoners will be admitted to the psychiatric ward, on the orders of a psychiatric unit director and not simply with a pathologist’s certificate.
The opposition has criticized the move to put prisons under the purview of the Citizens’ Protection Ministry, arguing that it will undermine prisoner support programs. What are your plans for these programs?
Allow me to tell SYRIZA that not a single – and I emphasize that – educational program, reintegration initiative or second-chance school is being closed or downgraded. In addition, we are planning the creation of new programs, such as the parent-prisoner academy, which aims to improve relationships between children and parents. We are also improving school education and vocational training opportunities in detention centers in cooperation with the Ministry of Education.
What is the situation with overcrowding at prisons? What initiatives are you planning?
There are currently almost 11,000 inmates at the country’s prisons. According to official statistics, almost a quarter of them are migrant traffickers. At this rate, their number will exceed 3,000 by mid-2020. This is why we are planning a series of meetings with the relevant authorities, so that these prisoners are properly distributed among other European Union member-states and serve their sentences in foreign prisons. Furthermore, two additional wings with a capacity of 120 inmates are already in operation at Nigrita Prison in Serres. The relocation of the Korydallos Prison compound will make a decisive contribution to this goal, while a new detention facility is also in the works in Drama.
One of your first initiatives was to transfer prisoners from Korydallos to facilities in other parts of the country. How many have been transferred so far and under what conditions?
The Korydallos compound had been turned into an HQ of hardened criminal groups. They had formed gangs and controlled the prison. So far, 313 of these felons have been transferred from Korydallos to other facilities. In addition, Korydallos is supposed to be only for prisoners being held in pre-trial detention, which means for a maximum of 18 months. Therefore, individuals who are convicted of their crimes cannot stay there except under very exceptional circumstances.