It wasn’t the first time I had passed the gate of Korydallos Prison, near Piraeus, but it was the first time I had ever seen a bright side to life at the penitentiary.
The area where the prison’s Second Chance School operates does in fact look more like a school than a prison. It’s a cheerful exception within the facility and the otherwise suffocating atmosphere that permeates the mood of its 2,300 residents – 1,800 inmates and 500 correctional officers.
My visit to the prison was occasioned by a table tennis tournament between the Korydallos Second Chance School and its counterpart in Agioi Anargyroi, western Athens, to celebrate the end of the 2014-15 academic year. I encountered laughter, lots of loaud banter and a referee keeping a watchful eye on the action.
The students quietened as they picked up on the arrival of Hara Koutsomichali, the prison’s director, accompanied by the warden and the general secretary of the Ministry of Justice’s prisons directorate, Eftychis Fytrakis. The inmates discussed their concerns with Fytrakis, with one of them proudly announcing that he is graduating this year.
Korydallos Prison’s Second Chance School was established in 2005, giving all adult inmates the opportunity to enroll, with the minimum requirement being their successful completion of elementary school. Last year, the prison also inaugurated a vocational training institute, offering courses in graphic design and design.
Last year, 17 inmates received a diploma, 41 were promoted and 13 missed the school year due to their release, while only two inmates voluntarily interrupted their studies.
The program has been a success, and this was evident not just in the statements of the officials who spoke at the tournament – Second Chance School director George Zouganelis, the director of the institute of vocational training, Vangelis Kaliousis, and Fytrakis – but also in the faces of the students.
“Our goal is for the students to successfully reintegrate themselves in society. Some of our former students are now enrolled at universities and vocational training institutions in the free world,” said Zouganelis. “Our aim is to offer inmates an opportunity to educate themselves. You know what’s impressive? In normal schools, there is a lot of violence. Here, there is none,” he added.
“These students are much more creative than most of their other free counterparts,” said Kaliousis, admitting that when he first took the job as director of the vocational training institute, he had reservations. Now all he feels is pride, especially when he gets a chance to announce that one of his students has received an award for creating the best logo design in the international Erasmus Plus competition.
“Research and creativity cannot be locked behind bars,” he said.
“I’m here to learn from you,” said Fytrakis, addressing the students. “The experience gained from the Korydallos Second Chance School is valuable and our vision is to bring this program to every prison across the country.”
Koutsomichali told Kathimerini about the school’s activities and the problems the institution faces on a daily basis.
“Our biggest problem is the psychological pressure the staff is under,” she said. “They are constantly being threatened and often come under physical attack. The working conditions are ugly and they haven’t been paid overtime since November. Yet in our meetings the only complaint they have is that they don’t have any days off,” said Koutsomichali.
I asked her what it is that gives her courage and her response was surprising.
“When someone who has been released from prison comes back after a while to thank me, it makes us feel useful, helpful,” said Koutsomichali.