SOCIETY

Creating a different reality behind prison walls

A small path separates the men?s from the women?s wings at Korydallos Prison: flower planters choked in weeds, high walls and bars, guard towers and vigilant policemen. A young woman, hands cuffed behind her back, is brought out of the prison accompanied by four men in uniform as her parents wait outside beyond the gate to kiss her before she is taken back in to serve her time.

We entered the men?s wing. ?Are you lawyers?? asked the guard at the entrance. ?We?re a journalist and photographer from Kathimerini. We?re visiting the Second Chance School?s art class,? I answered. The great door shut behind us with a clang and we proceeded into the depths of the prison, accompanied by the director of the school, Giorgos Zouganelis.

We walked through a small garden, where the ?guys,? our guide explained, are brought when they are out on an ?excursion.? The exercise yard, he added, where they stretch their legs and shoot hoops every day, is much smaller.

We reached the wing of the prison that houses the school. The dimly lit hallways were adorned with works of art by students past and present. I stood in front of one with a foreign signature, depicting two women by the sea and some lines of Yiannis Ritsos?s poetry. I looked through the window in the classroom door and saw the teacher surrounded by about 10 desks. The students were bent over their work, hair cut short or completely shaved, wearing sweat pants or jeans with sports shoes.

Most were young and Zouganelis explained that the average age of the inmates at Korydallos is 28. The school, he explained, ?is aimed at all inmates, whether awaiting trial or doing hard time, who have completed elementary school and want to continue their education. We offer all the required classes, from history and math to computer studies and art. We?re like a melting pot that gathers students from all the wings, serving different sentences and of different nationalities. It doesn?t matter here whether you?re an old-timer or newbie, what crime you?ve committed, or whether you?re a Greek or a foreigner. They are all students. Everyone respects this credo and we haven?t had a single problem in the six years that we have been in operation,? said Zouganelis. ?We have a verbal contract with the guys and they respect it.?

There are 2,200 inmates at the prison, about 60 of whom attend the school. Some even manage to get their high school diploma, which fortunately does not say that it comes from a prison school. In fact, a few weeks ago a student at the Avlona Prison school in northeastern Attica received an award from the Hellenic Mathematical Society.

We entered the classroom and were introduced to the students. I observed their hands, rough and red, as they tried to draw a straight line in an exercise where they had to reproduce a photocopied picture of an Egyptian Fayum mummy portrait. Many were having trouble with the task and the teacher gave them plenty of praise and instruction.

I sat next to Sergei, from the Caucasus, a pale 34-year-old with a mohawk who is serving 16 years for armed robbery. ?When I was out I wanted to go to school but I never had the time,? he told me. ?I did all sorts of odd jobs. Now that I?m in prison, I signed up here because I want to learn. I want to keep my mind occupied so I don?t go crazy. I like drawing. A few years ago we had an exhibition at the Piraeus Municipal Gallery and the theme was ?The Odyssey.? I drew Odysseus with Circe.?

Chrysovalantis is 35 and is awaiting trial. He got married at a very young age and now has four children and seven grandchildren. He was drawing a mummy that looked like the death mask of Philip of Macedon. ?I always wanted to learn how to draw,? he admitted. ?You need to keep your mind sharp around here and the school has really helped me a lot. You make one mistake and society sends you to a place where you have to live with other criminals and where you end up honing your criminal talents. Instead of cleaning up your act, you get into even more trouble. I choose the company I keep and sit inside my cell a lot reading the Bible. The less I mingle with the others, the better.?

?Beautiful pictures?

Vangelis, 27, was born in Albania but raised in Athens. He is serving a nine-year sentence on a drug charge. ?No one on the outside knows what it?s like in here. You hit rock bottom and, of course, you have a lot of regrets. You have all the time in the world to think about what you have done, again and again. This school gives me hope. It makes me feel like I am outside again. When classes end, it?s back to hell for me. When I paint, I conjure up beautiful pictures in my mind and then I put them down on paper.?

Nico is an Albanian who grew up in London and hardly speaks any Greek. When I asked him what he was in for, all he said was, ?Long story!? He was painting a reproduction of a photograph in which he was holding his 3-year-old son in his arms. ?I really miss him and my wife,? he told me. ?They live in London and can?t come to see me. Even phone calls are very expensive. When I paint him, it?s as though I?m touching him. I?m also learning Greek at the school. I don?t have anything better to do anyway.?

The art teacher, Katerina Karousou, has earned her students? respect and admiration. A graduate of the Athens School of Fine Arts, she said she applied for the post ?because if being a teacher is a social service, there is nowhere where you feel it more than here.?

?You have a real power to give something to your students,? she added. ?Not just comfort, but something very real. At first I would go home in the evening with this incredible sense of sadness. Now that I?ve learned how to gauge their moods and their peculiarities, I can handle the situation much better. They are not inmates; they are students. In class we forget what they?ve done and that gives them immense relief. They?re very straight with me and I appreciate it. Sometimes I need to push them hard to learn something, but at the end of the day they like it. Most paint landscapes, which represent freedom to them.?

We visited another two classes, for music and theater. These are called ?projects? and they?re elective, taking place once a week. In the music class, the students were watching videos and playing percussion instruments. Meanwhile the theater students were writing a scene for a play, contributing one line each. They have studied Dario Fo and classical Greek comedies, as well as watching television.

We left Korydallos with heavy hearts. ?Here at the prison school, we cultivate a sense of equality and brotherhood,? said the director before we parted company. Freedom is all that?s missing. I looked through the car window as we left the prison behind us and saw the exercise yard with the basketball hoop. An iron ball is painted on the wall, looking as if it were crashing through it.