Can Europe Make It?

Greece is creating prisons fit for the era of austerity

The new Type C maximum security prisons Greece is about to introduce will inaugurate a new model for Europe in which our understanding of “crime” and “punishment” means little.

Yiannis Baboulias
8 August 2014

A protest in Athens against the opening of new prisons. Demotix/Aggeliki Koronaiou. All rights reserved.

There’s hardly a good time in history for being incarcerated. Stories around human rights violations, crowded cells, unfair treatment, sexual assault and much more that’s happening around the world, are constantly in the news. But a mix of already crumbling infrastructure, laws around parole and pre-trial detentions becoming ever more punitive, a shifting ideological landscape and austerity, make 2014 Greece a particularly dire place for criminal justice.

Looking at Greece’s overpopulated prison system (12500 are currently in a system designed for a maximum 9800) one would think it to be a particularly dangerous country. But this goes against reality: With the exception of a brief spike in muggings and break-ins between 2011 and 2013, Greece is a safe country and crime is on the decline. Looking at the type of crime committed, there’s little change there as well. Only begging has shot up, 250% in the past two years.

In this context, it makes little sense that the New Democracy/Pasok coalition government pushed through during summer recess, a law that allows for the creation of Type C prisons in the country. These maximum security institutions, sometimes self-contained and sometimes housed in separate wings of regular prisons, will host only those condemned for the most dangerous crimes: terrorism, organised crime and engaging in “disruptive activity” while incarcerated. The Ministry claims this is because it has to deal with rising crime and more dangerous criminals.

Looking at the stats they themselves provided, their claims fall short. In a newsletter sent out by the Ministry of Citizen Protection, it’s made abundantly clear that crime is indeed on the decline. It’s worth asking: if this is so, why are Greece’s prisons packed to the brims and what is the need for these new maximum security establishments that NGOs have labeled “Guantanamo-lite”?

The reactions it has caused are telling. The radical left opposition party SYRIZA has condemned the government’s plans, calling them inhumane and completely unjustified. Ex-coalition partner DIMAR, has taken a similar stance, noting that “it essentially signals the creation of ‘white cells’ that promote disciplinary action, complete immobilisation and conditions akin to torture”. Apart from the two ruling parties, no NGO, union or professional body supports Type C prisons. 4500 inmates across the country went on hunger strike for 10 days to protest their opening, to no avail.

In this climate, the government is facing accusations of politicising incarceration. They have repeatedly blocked reports on the condition of Greek prisons and instead brought forward this proposal that will drain much-needed funds away from the “conventional” justice system, while contributing next to nothing to the decongestion of existing infrastructure.

The creation of detention camps for immigrants (that are now also overflowing with inmates held for little reason other than finding themselves in Greece) was a clear sign that the Greek justice system was entering a new phase, one that only concerns itself with the crimes du jour, in a brutal and indiscriminate way that aims only to detain and hide the problem, rather than rehabilitate.

Now, along with Type A, B and C prisons, they will make up the new model of incarceration, tailored for these times of politicised austerity: one that goes after political dissent and terrorism, indebtedness and immigration.

Crime and punishment

With Greece’s GDP down a quarter from where it stood in 2008, debts towards the state from unpaid taxes and bills have gradually risen and are now in the billions. New punitive laws have been introduced, that can see private individuals sent to prison for owing as little as $6700. The creation of minimum security Type A prisons, alongside Type C, aims to aid this pursuit of debtors, in a thinly-veiled re-introduction of the abominable Debtors’ Prison.

Rumours of such institutions were floated in 2013 as well, but the reactions had forced the ministry to deny the existence of such plans, before introducing them a year later. While Type B prisons are essentially conventional institutions, Type C prisons come with a variety of innovations. The ministry will decide if one is to be sent there, taking powers away from the court of law. Inmates will get no leaves of absence and won’t be able to undertake community service time.

Since these are dangerous criminals, extra security measures might be justified. But the state’s track record with applying the “terrorism” and “organised crime” labels is too spotty. Attending a demonstration with a covered face can get you charged under counter-terrorism legislation. For months, the government has been trying to paint an anti-gold mining group in Northern Greece as a criminal organisation. Two anarchists arrested for armed robbery, were sentenced under the counter-terrorism law despite the fact they had committed no act of terrorism, based solely on their ideology.

It should go without saying that for those who did commit terrorist acts, even if they caused no more than property damage, the sentences are draconian. All these people are candidates for Type C prisons and the power to send them there lies with the Ministry and not the courts. Another terrifying aspect of Type C prisons, is that you can also be sent there even if you’re in pre-trial detention for these charges. 

We contacted DIMAR’s MP Maria Yiannakaki, who has been one of the most vocal opponents of the government’s plans and increasingly political agenda, and asked what this means for prisoners. She said “Its aim is the physical and moral annihilation of these people and conflates the criminal with the crime. It essentially brings back the death penalty through the back door. It promotes something unheard of in our legal discourse: the penalty on top of a penalty. You get a sentence issued by the courts and then the minister of justice can top it up”. “It completely negates any chance of rehabilitation”, she concluded.

Yiannakaki seems to have a point. Part of the government’s plan is to have the police guard these new prisons, rather than correction officers. This is already happening to a certain extent, because of how dramatically understaffed most institutions are and it has already resulted in alleged brutality against prisoners in at least one occasion. It should be no surprise considering the Greek police’s track record of torturing arrestees, colluding with the neo-nazi Golden Dawn and exercising brutal force against demonstrators. It’s beyond worrying that they are now asked to perform an extra function, one that they are not trained for.

Clio Papapantoleon, a lawyer and vice-chair of the Greek Association for Human Rights, noted in a piece for Enthemata “ Opening maximum security prisons to ‘lock-up the bad guys once and for all’  is an obsession. If we wanted to be honest, we would admit that no one will be sleeping better because this law [went through]. If the state wants to be serious and if it really wants security,[…] they need to look again at what “crime” and “sentence” mean”. For Greece, the definition of these two words, the very foundations of legal science, has never been so blurry.

A new “model” for Austerity Europe

Not only is it impossible for Greece to live up to the standards of incarceration set by other European countries, but this model of tailoring the justice system around perceived threats that only serve the promotion of the austerity agenda, seems to be ripe for export. In fact, Spain has been paving the road towards this for some time and, according to Belen Fernandez writing on the perceived Muslim terrorist threat in the country for AJE, they have legislated “a law [that] prescribes fines of up to 600,000 euros ($809,307) for unauthorised gatherings and protests in certain locations and of up to 30,000 euros ($40,465) for “obstructing authority in the carrying out of administrative or judicial decisions, such as evictions”.”

The countries of southern Europe, the continent’s new Borderlands, are providing their justice systems with the tools to crackdown on dissent, coupled with increasing militarisation of the police. Greece is already thinking about bringing in drones to use during demonstrations, counter-terrorism operations and to patrol the country’s borders. The Ministry of Citizen Protection has promised the police heavier equipment too.

But it should be obvious that the rationale of confrontation that New Democracy is following serves no one in the long term and the fact it’s becoming the norm across Europe, is a chilling prospect. But it’s only logical, as austerity was always about more than just belt-tightening. As citizens have to adjust to their new, precarious existence, so the state must change in order to keep them in line.

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