Letter from Thessaloniki

It is highly improbable that Albanian, Romanian or even Greek prisoners have spent any time in an English public school. Therefore, it would be most unusual if these prisoners felt comparatively at home in a prison, as Evelyn Waugh once wrote in «Decline and Fall.» It is a well-known fact that conditions in Greek jails are shameful. Here are some figures: More than 13,000 prisoners are crammed into jails built for 7,500 and there are a further 5,000 held in police detention cells. This is according to a prison rights group, which issued an announcement last week stating that more than half of the prisoners at 21 of the country’s 24 correctional facilities were refusing meals. The protest began in order to press demands for better prison conditions and more flexible rules on early release. The Justice Ministry, in contrast, provided a rather different set of figures, stating that Greece’s prison population is 12,192 in penitentiaries designed to hold 8,243. Another fact is that the building of «fortress Europe» in the age of labor flexibility – and widespread social insecurity – has accelerated the influx of foreigners into Greek prisons. Describing the alarming situation as «a complex problem,» Justice Minister Sotiris Hatzigakis hastened to herald a series of reforms to be introduced by the end of the year. In the meantime, Greece’s Ombudsman Giorgos Kaminis also expressed his concern about the various problems in the country’s jails. «The country’s correctional system is seriously ailing,» he said. He highlighted overcrowding and drug dealing inside prisons as the chief problems. There are horrifying stories about the ever-worsening rehabilitation process in the nation’s prisons and hair-raising accounts of inmates’ daily routines. The idea that most people have of prison life consists of images from worst-case-scenario movies, «Midnight-Express» nightmares. However, I have met visitors to prisons – who used to believe that prisoners are mainly kept in their cells – who commented on how surprised they were to see men moving around without any apparent restraint. «Nowadays, there is usually lots of orderly movement in so-called ‘modern prisons,’ as inmates go about the activities of normal life: working, eating, education, recreation, etc.,» someone who has served time told me. All the same, Greek prisons can in no way be likened to an English public school, as Evelyn Waugh did, doubtless in jest. On November 3, with the latest prisoners’ protest, some innovative demands were presented. Here are some, as formulated by the prisoners themselves in English: – Abolish juvenile prisons. Instead, adopt open structures to take care of and protect the teenagers and the young. – Full, permanent and 24-hour medical treatment and respect for the patients. Creation and improvement of adequate hygiene spaces (showers and toilets). – Immediate integration of the Korydallos Prison psychiatric and medical clinic in the National Health System. – Immediate transportation of patients to public hospitals with ambulances and not in police vehicles, where they are tied up with their hands behind their back. – Increased free visits in humane conditions, respecting the personality and dignity of the prisoners and the visitors. – Private places to meet with one’s companion. – Free circulation of political and educational press, with no exceptions. Declaring that they are tired of the false promises by all justice ministers over the last 10 years, they stated that they have now started a mass hunger strike in order to press for «our rightful demands.» For once the state reacted very quickly, promising immediate relief. Promising. Sadly this has happened before, though thousands and thousands of miles away, in another «civilized» society. When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced his plans in January 2005 to reform California’s prisons, his announcement brought much needed relief to Californian taxpayers, whose overstretched, scandal-prone prison system was screaming for an urgent overhaul. But three years later, California still maintains the second-highest prison population in the US (171,444 in January 2008) and the highest recidivism rate (a staggering 70 percent). In this country, though, numbers are never precise because our Ministry of Justice for the last couple of years has avoided regular announcements of statistics. According to the Initiative for Prisoners Rights group, here are some recent figures: Immigrant prisoners number 4,500 (around 40-42 percent of the total prison population). Those kept in «immigrant reception centers» are not included. Around 4,600 are imprisoned under the narcotics law (there are no figures on how many of these are for trafficking and how many for simple possession). More than 750 are serving life sentences (25 years maximum, according to the Greek penal code). It is difficult to calculate how many people die or «commit suicide» in prison. Seldom do these cases come to light, but according to official statistics the figure is around 50 persons each year. Conditions are also inhumane for people suffering from AIDS. Usually 20 or more people are packed in a cell for 5-6 inmates, and they are only allowed out for three hours a day in a tiny yard. Now in all fairness, and regardless of what happens in Greece’s prisons, it’s hard to begrudge honest-sounding and measured rhetoric about an issue that historically has attracted so much belligerent posturing. Nevertheless, honest-sounding or not, detention centers are meant for dishonest individuals, aren’t they? Here is a not-so-ancient story: The Greek philosopher Diogenes spent his days walking the streets of Athens with a lit lantern, looking for an honest man. As the story goes, he never found one.