‘We are like abandoned animals,’ say ex-prisoners describing horrors of life behind bars

Stealing a mobile phone landed C., then 30, in prison for two months. «The court originally ruled that I had to show up at the police station at regular intervals,» he said. «At one point I moved house but didn’t know I had to inform the public prosecutor. In any case the police had my new address, which was on my new identity card. Still, when a notice from the public prosecutor’s office arrived at my old address, they went looking for me and I ended up in prison, as I had no money for a lawyer.» C. appealed for release after eight days through the social services. For a month he had no news. «When I went to the secretariat to ask for the protocol number of my application, they knew nothing about it,» he said. «I went to the warden but by the time things got sorted out and I was freed, two months had gone by. I had lost my job in the meantime and now people look at me with suspicion. They don’t believe I was imprisoned for such a small thing.» «In prison,» he continued, «you feel like an abandoned animal. There were four of us in the cell. Fortunately we were all clean. If you don’t clean your cell, you can catch all sorts of diseases.» We met C. at the office of Onisimos, the Association for the Support of Prisoners, where he had gone to apply for financial support until he finds a job. There we also met a prisoner who was out on compassionate leave for a few hours to seek medical care. He was 26 – and optimistic. «I was imprisoned for four-and-a-half years for thefts,» he said. «I had got mixed up in drugs. I did three-and-a-half years in Korydallos and five months somewhere else. I was recently moved to a juvenile facility with other prisoners who are technicians like myself, to repair and renovate the premises. We don’t feel as if we are in prison. I’m off drugs now and hope to get out of here.» He describes conditions in Korydallos as a «small, densely populated village. «Things aren’t easy, and there are rules,» he said. «You have to be careful, every minute. After the deaths of the three prisoners, I hope the Justice Ministry will open new prisons. Prisoners should be separated according to their crimes. You can’t have someone who is inside for failing to pay a debt sharing a cell with someone who has committed cold-blooded murder.» Another inmate convicted on drug charges discussed the special problems faced by addicts. «I first went to prison at the age of 15,» the inmate said. «I grew up there. Then everything else happened. Now I am in for theft. There were addicts in my cell. How can you be helped like that? In prison, people who never knew what drugs were start using them. There are rehab programs but it isn’t easy to stop. Drug addicts need to be given a second chance by the courts, which are suspicious because many addicts join the rehab programs just to get out of going to prison.» An ex-prisoner at Onisimos who is almost 50 years old is alone in the world. His father was Greek and his mother Eritrean. He looks like an African so got to know the tough side of prison experience. «My last sentence was for trying to steal a video recorder,» he said. «After three-and-a-half months I was granted a conditional release. Three months later they arrested me for not having an identity card on me and found that I had not made my visits to the police station. So I was back in prison again. It isn’t easy to be locked up in a cell with lifers. It’s like being a sheep locked up with a tiger, a lion and a hyena.»