Photo © sakhorn/Shutterstock

Photo © sakhorn/Shutterstock

Greece's overcrowded prison system provides poor protection for prisoners against the coronavirus epidemic. At the moment, there are no cases reported in prisons, but late intervention is likely to prove useless and harmful

09/04/2020 -  Elvira Krithari Atene

Additional reporting by Panagiotis Argyrou

COVID-19 has forced millions of people around the globe into self-isolation and quarantine; however, millions were already living in isolation. People detained in Greek prisons are among those who must now face the pandemic with limited or no access to protective means, while living conditions in prisons have always been hygienically decadent. In that case, getting out is probably more effective than staying in, experts say.

According to general lockdown measures, the competent authorities have prohibited prisoners' permissions of short-term leaves (March 16th) and visitations (March 19th), while appointing quarantine areas in prisons, along with other supportive measures.

Up to this day, there are no confirmed cases of infected inmates. However, the much-anticipated decongestion, required by both human/prisoners’ rights organisations and prison staff, has not yet been implemented, despite reports about the Ministry planning the release of 1,500.

Great needs, little outreach

Prisoners’ requests usually do not make big headlines in the domestic mediasphere, leaving it mainly to political and activist networks to voice the adversities of daily life in prison. The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified prisoners’ appeals regarding detention and increased their needs for supplies. “If the coronavirus gets in here, consider us all doomed”, Vangelis Stathopoulos, 41, an inmate in Larissa’s prison, central Greece, told OBCT.

Immune boosters and light medication, such as paracetamol, as well as antiseptics and even lice treatment and cleansing products, are much needed these days by female detainees in the detention centre for migrants in Petrou Ralli, Athens – said in its call the initiative “Women’s House for Empowerment and Emancipation ”, stressing the absolute scarcity. As the pandemic progresses, people in prisons throughout the country denounce lack of protective equipment against coronavirus, such as masks and gloves, as well as disinfection in their overcrowded cells, yet they are little heard.

Small protests have taken place in at least 4 Greek prisons. “People are probably waiting for the decongestion measures to be implemented and they are also terrified (of getting infected)”, Stathopoulos says, in an attempt to explain the absence of vigorous revolts despite the prevailing fear.

At the central penitentiary of Korydallos in Athens, the biggest in the country, detainees in both male and female wings published letters to authorities asking for decongestion, while women once refused getting in their cells during the midday lockdown. In their announcement, they noted that they are afraid of being completely abandoned, and made a plea even to the newly elected president of Greece, judge Katerina Sakellaropoulou, for urgent release – especially for those with shorter sentences, the ill, the old, the pregnant, and the mothers.

Too many, too troubled in too little space

“Decongestion should have already happened, long before the pandemic”, says Petros Damianos, the headmaster of the prison school in Avlona’s juvenile detention centre. The living conditions in Greek prisons have been deplorable for years, mainly because of overpopulation and poor infrastructure, with proven effects on inmates’ health.

Damianos tells OBCT how Avlona’s young detainees are currently even more packed, due to the construction works that started in September, that forced half of the population to move to fellow inmates’ cells. In Larissa’s prison, according to Stathopoulos, 788 people share a building that has a capacity of 450. “Protection means for COVID-19 are bought with own expenses, provided that one can afford them. Not everyone can and not everyone is able to follow sanitary rules”, Stathopoulos says, highlighting the presence of vulnerable groups in prison, such as drug addicts, with already weak immune systems.

While no COVID-19 cases in prisons have been reported so far despite several allegations, mental health has been reportedly affected. Prison schools are closed, following the Ministry of Education mandate, but students in prisons do not have the opportunity to follow online courses as the rest of the studying population in the country.

“We, as teachers, are ready to give online courses”, Damianos says, and adds: “I have asked for permission, for at least the students who will take the final exams, to get access to online tutoring using the school’s computers. In fact, this would be better than staying in their cells, hygienically speaking, as the classroom is more spacy. They need school not only to be granted the same opportunity as any other student that competes for university positions this year, but mainly for psychological reasons. First comes contact and communication, then knowledge”, the headmaster says.

Psychological distress is not only caused by the feeling of being trapped without having means to react to the pandemic, but also by worrying for people outside. Like the detained mothers whose children are often in the care of their grandparents, who worry about what will happen to them if their carers get infected, as female detainees point out.

The ban on leaves and visits in prisons earlier in March was among the first measures taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but according to prison watchdogs (such as this ) no countermeasures have been taken to compensate inmates for this deprivation. “Not only has it affected people emotionally”, Stathopoulos says, “but it also seems pointless, as there are still incomers, such as prison guards”. Damianos noted that at the prison where he works everyone is checked for fever before getting inside; however, with people often being asymptomatic, this could mean little.

Waiting for release

With a total population of over 11,000 inmates, Greece has a record of convictions from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). According to the ECHR’s annual report for 2019 , Greece has committed repeated violations through the years, especially related to Article 3 and its provision against inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. That being said, it seems that detainees' concerns over the system's capacity to address the pandemic are not groundless.

From the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) to the Hellenic Criminal Bar Association , European and Greek organisations agree that decongestion would be an essential measure to fight the pandemic. However, the decision for the release of 1,500 does not seem enough, nor has it been carried through.

“The first measures taken are also the only ones to this day”, says to OBCT Yorgos Kakarnias, a lawyer who has represented prisoners that have appealed to the ECHR against the Greek State for the prisons’ conditions. “Due to pressure coming from inmates but not only, the Ministry told media that it would release 1,500 people. With 10% of the detainees released, the situation will not change dramatically. There were rumours that the Ministry would wait for COVID-19 cases in prisons before ordering the release. If so, it would be a wrongful choice”, he adds. Vangelis Stathopoulos also point outs that the release of 1,500 “would mean an average of around 40 people in each prison. That wouldn’t make any real difference”.

Despite the permanent need and several government attempts throughout the years, the prison population has never fallen below 10,000, which is the capacity of Greek prisons according to the Ministry of Justice. “The ECHR has a permanent case law about inhuman and degrading treatment in Greek prisons, due to overcrowding, poor health and safety conditions, lack of adequate medical care, heating and air-conditioning, etc.. This situation multiplies the degree of inmates' exposure to pandemic”, concludes the lawyer.

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