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Greek prisons groaning under austerity cuts

29 september 2012, 14:00
0
A 24-hours general strike in Athens. ©AFP
A 24-hours general strike in Athens. ©AFP
Austerity cuts imposed in Greece have created an explosive situation in the country's overcrowded prisons, where sanitation and food services are in disarray, insiders warn, AFP reports.

"Conditions have deteriorated enormously, anger is growing, there will be deaths," says George Constantinou, a 56-year-old convict serving 20 years in the northern Greek prison of Grevena for cocaine trafficking.

"Most of the prisons aren't running because the convicts refuse to work," he addes.

Under Greece's correctional system, inmates help out with food and cleaning duties to earn reduced time on their sentences.

But over the past two weeks, this arrangement has all but collapsed owing to a combination of budget cuts and a coordinated movement by inmate crews to draw the government's attention to their plight.

At present, 12,313 inmates populate Greece's 33 prisons, which were built to handle 9,300.

The mobilisation seeks to pressure the justice ministry to speed up the construction of new correctional facilities and reform penal legislation to permit the release of lower-level offenders.

"The inmates are without cooked meals. Garbage collection and maintenance have been neglected, the situation is becoming very dangerous," says Dimitris Apostolakis, the prison warden of Diavata prison near Thessaloniki.

"The prison is running below acceptable levels," he adds. "What am I supposed to do, take a whip to them?"

Constantinou, the Grevena inmate, says he only has "sausages, onions and hard-boiled eggs" to go on.

He shares a cell built for three with another four people.

The justice ministry claims the movement is active in only a third of prisons and is now petering out.

Part of the congestion problem is caused by Greece's legislation, which takes a heavy hand to narcotics smuggling and illegal immigration.

It is compounded by a slow justice system that can leave pre-trial suspects in prison for months before their case is brought to court.

At Diavata, more than half the inmates are foreigners awaiting trial and the situation is similar in Grevena prison, says Constantinou.

"Most of them are Albanians, followed by Pakistanis, Kurds or Arabs," he says.

"Many are here on human-trafficking charges. All it takes is for them to be caught with an undocumented migrant and they end up here."

Officials have been trying to deal with prison congestion for years, and have taken steps since 2009 to release 1,600 inmates serving lighter sentences.

But the budget cuts have been a tough blow to manage.

From 950 million euros ($1.2 billion) in 2010, the justice ministry has been left to manage with 550 million euros this year, part of sweeping state cuts imposed on Greece in return for EU-IMF loans.

"Two years ago we used to get 3.40 euros a day to feed an inmate," said the Diavata prison warden, whose salary has also been cut by half. "This is now down to two euros."

Early on Monday, riot police were sent to high-security Korydallos prison near Athens after inmates set fire to their mattresses and refused to return to their cells for hours.

"We've tried to warn the authorities but the only words on everybody's lips is 'crisis' and 'troika'," says Constantinou, referring to the three international creditors -- the EU, IMF and the European Central Bank -- loaning to Greece.

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