Convict rehabilitation program successful

The Athens Bar Association, within the «Inclusive Society» program of the European Union’s «Equal» initiative, has taken part in a collective effort to help ex-prisoners successfully integrate into society by seeking ways of expanding existing channels of communication between prison and society and, above all, creating more of them. There were several aspects to these activities, all related to the issue of opening up prisons to the community. Every admission to prison should function as the starting point for a systematic preparation for release. For if long sentences increase the danger of institutionalization, then re-entry into society without the right preparation or support can create problems that are likely to lead the ex-prisoner right back behind bars. The members of the association who took part in the program have a great deal to be proud of, whether as legal advisers or for their pro bono work for the prisoners. Although hesitant at first, the latter came to play a leading part in the program. We offered our services to 90 male and 60 women prisoners and another 95 ex-prisoners. However, the program did not aim to take responsibility for reintegrating all prisoners into society. That responsibility rests elsewhere. We were carrying out a short-term program with an expiry date (October 2004). These programs are not designed to solve the problem but to provide a temporary solution. Nor are they a panacea. In fact, they are often used as to ease consciences. The difference here is that this was the first time so many organized groups had access to prisons, and that the program, at least as far as the Bar Association and its associates were concerned, transcended the do-good nature that characterizes many European Union programs. For example, one woman prisoner told the press that her participation in the computer training program was the most creative and pleasant thing she had experienced during her term. Male prisoners who took part in group sessions with a psychologist from Doctors Without Borders said, «In the group we no longer felt we were prisoners.» A lawyer with the legal aid group saw one woman prisoner 18 times over the period of a year until she was released, including her appearance before the parole board. Legal aid lawyers are still providing pro bono services on a voluntary basis for prisoners with pending issues. Prisoners are making daily calls to Doctors Without Borders for help although they know that the program has ended. Therapists in the state drug rehabilitation organization, OKANA, say prisoners who participated in their program were stronger and more optimistic, some had applied for further rehabilitation programs, others had re-established contact with their families and all had gained in self-esteem. Twenty-three women prisoners received 400 hours of training in the use of computers and were granted certification from the Center for Online Training and Certification in Europe (ECDL). We wanted to set up a productive typing laboratory in the women’s prisons where inmates could type up part of the backlog of draft court rulings. We provided 400 hours of training in electronic printing for 22 male prisoners and updated the existing printing press with electronic equipment. Due to the special circumstances in prison, the best method of training was by means of simulating production units in which prisoners could experience the way a business operated. Prisoners declared themselves to be very pleased with the experience. On release Reception Centers for Ex-Prisoners, a pioneering concept in Greece, were based at the Doctors Without Borders polyclinic (at 5 Paioniou, in the center of Athens), with two branches elsewhere in the center in Averoff and Kapnikoptiriou streets and at Zefyri Municipality’s social center in Ilion, western Athens. These centers began operating on February 17, 2003 and have so far been used by 95 ex-prisoners. Former prisoners have been continually supplied with information regarding available jobs, business opportunities and vocational guidance, as well as counseling support. The same services were provided to about 150 families of ex-prisoners from the Roma (Gypsy) population with visits to their settlements by members of a Zefyri Municipality working group consisting of a lawyer, social worker and sociologist. These are only some examples of the work carried out within a much wider program but give an indication of the valuable experience that has shown us how a prisoner can be helped to deal with incarceration and the effects it has on him or her. However, no program, no lawyer was able to help a prisoner who took part in the program but did not want to be released because he had nowhere to go. Here the only solution is a systematic organization of services and infrastructure to deal with the particular case, which as far as I know is not unique in the Greek prison system. I should also emphasize the fact that the prison in question and its services and staff were most cooperative and dealt with any complications that arose. We believe that developing humane and equal relationships of cooperation with respect for the work done by these services and their staff creates the conditions for providing links with the world outside the prison. Reforms on paper Unfortunately, I must also mention the fact that the EPANODOS («Return») program, in which the authorities had set great store in drafting crime-fighting policies, has not yet gone into operation. The program, set up in 1999 with the law on the prison code, has existed on paper since November 2003, as have prisoner social support committees that include members of the Athens Bar Association, provided for in Article 81 of the code. The same applies to Article 42 on prisoners working outside the prison, Article 59 on day release, Article 63 on serving a term in sections, and Article 64 on community service, all legislative amendments designed to integrate inmates back into society. Meanwhile, the established practice of granting recognition of days not actually worked because of a lack of job availability in prisons is not applied to all prisoners, meaning some cannot earn work points for early release. We saw cases of prisoners with health problems for whom there were no jobs, therefore their release was delayed, creating an even greater health problem. That is, a vicious circle. (1) Dimitris Paxinos is president of the Athens Bar Association.