Letter from Thessaloniki

It sure was a disgusting place, evil to its very core, and the men who ran this Russian prison must have had the phrase «Sadistic for the Sake of Sadism» tattooed on their foreheads. Some nights ago, a Greek TV channel screened Jean-Claude Van Damme’s latest straight-to-video opus, «In Hell,» in which Van Damme stars as Kyle, a Russia-based American whose wife is raped and murdered in their home. The rapist is captured, but the Russian judicial system fails to prosecute. Filled with rage, Kyle murders the rapist in the courthouse and, as a result, is sentenced to life in a dreadful prison. The film was brutal: realistic enough to be disgusting at times and gritty enough to make you feel uneasy while watching it. Yet, there is worse. According to published reports, prison reality in Greece seems to surpass by far what was portrayed the film. «The present situation at the detention facilities of the Alien’s Bureau in Thessaloniki is horrifying,» stated a recent article in the daily Agelioforos. «Hundreds of foreigners who should either be deported or in prison are inhumanly squeezed in provisory inadequate detention facilities,» the daily noted. «I thought of committing suicide,» reports Michael A., describing the decrepit conditions of the «provisory» detention facility he was squeezed into along with another 10 inmates in a cell built to house five. «But you can’t kill yourself when you are in a tin of sardines, can you?» Others said that they would «dream of serving time» in a regular prison, rather than wait for weeks in that packed detention place, without a lavatory or running water. «I was hired to do a job as a policeman, not as correction’s officer,» claims one policeman. «I have empathy for people and, in my opinion, no one is above the law. All the same, when I think that at any given time anyone of us could be in the wrong place at the wrong time and end up in prison, or even worse in such a place as ours, I get mad.» Prisons nationwide are overcrowded and it is getting worse every year, according to a prison report released some weeks ago. Yesterday, Kathimerini reported that 146,337 illegal migrants had been detained last year while trying to enter Greece – more than 5 million in a decade, as journalist Stavros Lygeros reported some weeks ago in the same paper. A great number wind up in prison. Greece lies on a main smuggling route for immigrants heading to Europe, with tens of thousands entering the country every year. Many are drug traffickers smuggling in cannabis and heroin, terrorists or into money laundering. The authorities say that Greece needs help to cope because it sits on Europe’s easternmost frontier. Yet there is also political migration, motivated primarily by interests that should be respected. There were the millions of political migrants fleeing Russian-imposed communism to Western Europe throughout the Cold War. Later there were the post-colonial and «guest-worker» migrants – many Greeks among them – who poured into Western Europe in the boom years of the 1950s and 60s. There were also the hundreds of thousands who escaped the Balkan wars. And finally, in the 90s, the millions of economic migrants seeking a better life. No one knows exactly how many of the shifting population of migrants reaching the eastern Aegean isles actually make it to the promised land of Greece, but what is sure is that the frequent inability to obtain residence permits or asylum has shown that, unable to work legally, many have been forced to turn to criminal activities. According to a newly published study conducted by the National Center for Social Research (EKKE), 92.78 percent of offenses connected with the submission of forged paperwork in 2007, including health insurance stickers and medical certificates, involved migrants. The survey also showed that the percentage of murders committed by migrants is back on the rise after a brief lull. Having peaked at 41.3 percent in 2000, the rate fell to 31.6 in 2005 before rising to 36.3 percent in 2007. Almost four in 10 robberies were also carried out by migrants in 2007, up from 22.2 percent in 2000. The same report noted that: «On the part of public servants, one can discern wariness and prejudice toward migrants, which is reflected in abrupt and racist behavior (…) This confrontational approach has a negative impact on society, because it sends the message that migrants are a problem.» Two days ago, some 300 members of the neo-Nazi group Chryssi Avgi – Golden Dawn – unrolled a huge Greek flag and banners in Omonia Square in central Athens, calling for the «departure of foreigners from Greece» and claiming that «foreigners equal crime.» The venue was the city’s old Court of Appeals, where 500 immigrants have been squatting for several weeks. The latest crime statistics show that the number of foreign inmates in Greek prisons have long surpassed their Greek counterparts. Last year, a total of 1,500 foreign prisoners obtained release following a proposal by the Greek prison administration. Of that total, 1,000 were Albanian nationals. Media reports said most had dealt drugs, but some committed murder or theft. Other European countries, e.g. the United Kingdom, in a bid to tackle the prison crisis of overcrowding, have offered financial incentives worth up to 2,500 pounds to return home as part of a package. «Our detention centers have been transformed into… small penitentiaries. They were originally designated to host a small number of detainees for a couple of days and now we have 50 to 60 for extended periods. And you know why? Because the overcrowded prisons refuse to accept them,» a police officer told the Agelioforos. So, if you are looking for some great action scenes, some moderately impressive gory effects and a gritty, dirty atmosphere… don’t watch some action film – visit a Greek detention facility. Now, who may be blamed for all this? Well, if some stinging attack should be launched, then it should be against the government’s criminal justice and prison policy.

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