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During the first months of the pandemic, the spread of the virus in Greek prisons appeared to have been limited. Today it is estimated that one in three inmates has contracted coronavirus, despite the fact that correctional facilities were operating under a strict lockdown. What went wrong?
On October 22, 2020, the Secretary-General of Anti-Crime Policy, Sofia Nikolaou in a paper to the Head of the Planning Department of the National Public Health Organization (NPHO), urges the organization to conduct tests at Corfu Prison after the detection of two cases of coronavirus in inmates. “Any negligence, we estimate, will provoke strong reactions from inmates with concurring unpleasant situations (riots, deaths) that are difficult to manage,” she wrote in her letter. The NPHO initially scheduled and then attempted to cancel the visit of the unit but after a reaction from the prison warden, it finally tested only the inmates who were in the same ward as the two cases. Seven tests were positive , increasing the number of cases in this prison to nine.
The iMEdD Lab in collaboration with the MIIR (Mediterranean Institute for Investigative Reporting) and 10 journalist groups of the European Data Journalism Network, led by the Deutsche Welle, collected data from 32 countries showing how many cases and deaths were reported in prisons, how vaccinations progressed and what measures were taken to limit the spread of the virus. Here is the page of the investigation.
A few days later, a prison officer of Diavata Prison of Thessaloniki, tested positive for coronavirus. This is the time when the country enters the second wave of the pandemic with the number of cases in Thessaloniki soaring to levels higher than in Athens. Sofia Nikolaou sends a new request to the NPHO to proceed to Diavata and the organization sends a unit 15 days later, on November 6. Only 30% of the inmates were tested (160 individuals ) and 65 new cases were detected, i.e., 40.6% positivity rate. “They keep us locked in the wards, 10 people within 20 sqm, which is normally allotted to 5 people, unable to attend to our personal hygiene,” protest the inmates in Diavata, a prison that in October 2020 had an occupancy rate of 149.7% (it housed 536 inmates while it has a capacity of 358 places) and in which the personal space for each inmate (throughout the prison not just in the cell) corresponded to 3.1 square meters, i.e., less than the area occupied by a double bed. Over the next six days, the number soared to 108 (100 inmates and eight prison officers) and on November 12 was recorded the first (officially recorded) death of an inmate from coronavirus in Greece. It was a 69-year-old man who was serving his sentence in Diavata. A few days later a second inmate dies of coronavirus in Diavata. He was 81 years old and suffered from a serious underlying disease.
The issue of the prison situation comes before the Parliament. On November 13, 2020, the Deputy Minister of Citizens’ Protection, Eleftherios Oikonomou, submits data on the cases for the record. According to reports , there are documents in the Parliament’s records stating 110 confirmed cases in prisoners (100 in Diavata, one in Nigrita, Serres, and 9 in Corfu – other reports refer to 10 cases in Corfu) and 33 in employees. “No one can know if and how many cases we have on a weekly basis in Prisons, not even during this critical period, as, despite our repeated calls and public interventions and despite the recommendations of the experts, screening tests in Prisons are not carried out on a regular basis, while cases have been recorded where mass tests are not carried out even when there has been a confirmed case. e.g., in a worker,” was the statement of the Greek Federation of Employees of Correctional Facilities back then.
The iMEdD (incubator for Media Education and Development) and the journalists of the MIIR (Mediterranean Institute for Investigative Reporting) Nikos Morfonios and Janine Louloudi undertook to collect and process the data specifically related to Greece on capacity, overcrowding, cases, deaths, access to health care and vaccination, along with interviews with prisoners, experts, scientists and institutional actors in the course of the pan-European survey.
In the majority of the analyses, we have used data from the beginning of the pandemic until the first days of July 2021. We made this choice so that we could compare the situation in Greece with other countries for which we have data for roughly the same period. In the second part of the research that is to follow, we will focus on what happened during the fourth wave of the pandemic by detention facility (analyzing data up to February 18, 2021).
The graphs were developed by iMEdD Lab and are available under a Creative Commons license. Therefore, they are available for public use by reference to the source. The inclusion of an iMEdD Lab graph in a web page or article does not imply that the iMEdD Lab endorses the content of that page or article.
Our research shows that since the beginning of the pandemic, about one in three inmates in Greek prisons has tested positive for coronavirus, a rate much higher than the spread of the virus in the general population. This is despite the fact that there are doubts as to whether the recorded cases reflect reality.
According to official data from the General Secretariat of Anti-crime Policy, up to February 18, 2022, 3,541 cases and 14 deaths of inmates have been recorded. Analysis of 25 countries’ data shows that Croatia has the highest case rate (including cases from the fourth wave in November 2021) in the prison population. Specifically, 20.9% of the prisoners who were tested were found positive. Slovenia, Estonia, Belgium, and Catalonia (Spain), follow with a high percentage of cases, as 10-15% of inmates have been infected. Greece is in 7th place with a total of 870 cases by July 2, 2021, i.e., 7.9% of the inmates.
Overpopulation is the most important reason for the high spread of the virus in Greek prisons. Our research shows that Greece in January 2020 ranked 7th with the most overcrowded prisons in Europe. In fact, at Ioannina Prison, the occupancy reached 200%. At the same time, a number of chronic problems and policies have had a negative impact on the management of the pandemic. For example, not enough diagnostic testing was done in time (by March 2021 only 21,000 tests had been carried out on inmates ), suspected cases were isolated with healthy populations, the introduction of vaccination was delayed and severe shortages of doctors and nursing staff persisted. At the same time, the investigation shows that the inmates’ vital space is limited to such an extent as to directly raise concerns about the violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, on the prohibition of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment.
“Many prisons are overflowing, not allowing for physical distance measures,” says Filipa Alves da Costa, a public health advisor for the World Health Organization’s Health in Prisons Programme. “Thus, when someone carries the virus, it transmits much more easily.”
“When I contracted the coronavirus in December 2020, about half of the inmates were also sick,” said Vangelis Stathopoulos, an inmate at Larissa Prison, a facility with 554 places for inmates, that housed an average of 730 during the pandemic. “They put us in a wing with 60 people, in a space of about 110 sqm. Which was very dangerous. They were actually playing with our health. They were rolling dice on whether you would be seriously or mildly ill,” he added.
The problem of overpopulation in Greek prisons and the overcrowding of inmates is not new. The country has been repeatedly condemned by the European Court of Human Rights, for detention conditions that offend human dignity, and is under international pressure to reduce the number of inmates to a level equivalent to the capacity of its detention facilities. With successive laws proposed by four ministers of different governments and implemented in the period 2014-2019, there was a temporary improvement in the situation, especially in the three-year period 2016-2018, as noted in an article by Associate Professor Nikolaos Koulouris. The best known of these is Law 4322/2015, the so-called “Paraskevopoulos Law” which is, however, one among many other similar legislative initiatives. Specifically, according to the available official data, in 2015 prisons in Greece were 117% full, with 11,569 inmates in 9,886 places of detention. In the first eight months of the law’s implementation, the number of inmates decreased by 1,937 to reach 9,632. This particular law, despite its limited temporal validity, has been the subject of fierce political debate. The cycle of similar regulations that followed in 2017 and 2018 closed in August 2019 and since then there has been no other such initiative. “Already in the first months of 2019, it was noticed that the decrease in the number of inmates was not sustained. When this kind of legislation ceased to be applied, the number of inmates started to increase again,” Professor Koulouris told us over the phone. “The strain could have been much greater if the justice system had functioned properly. For a year and a half, during the pandemic, we had long periods when the courts were closed. The return of the justice system to its normal rhythm of operation and, from November 2021, the toughening of sentences, which implies the imposition and actual serving of longer sentences for a range of offenses, is expected to lead to a greater strain on the prison system in the upcoming years.
From the available data, it appears that during the pandemic the occupancy rate of Greek prisons not only did not decrease, as was dictated by the need to create hygienically acceptable conditions for inmates and staff but, on the contrary, increased. Specifically, while on January 1, 2020 (before the pandemic) the occupancy rate was 107%, from April 2020 to May 2021 it increased to over 110%, reaching 113.1% in July 2021. Of the 34 correctional facilities, 25 had an occupancy rate of over 100%. The detention facilities with the highest occupancy rate on January 1, 2022, were those in Volos (201.9%), Komotini (188.3%), and Tripoli (181.1%). “During an educational visit of students of the Department of Social Policy of the Democritus University of Thrace, in January 2020, at Komotini Prison, we were informed about an indescribable situation. People in the wards could only stand upright between their beds. They couldn’t even walk inside the ward. And when the wards opened and the doors were unlocked, they would take the beds out into the corridor so that they could move,” Mr. Koulouris recalls.
The prison population declined by up to half a million people worldwide between March 2020 and June 2021. During the first wave, many countries across Europe released people in unprecedented numbers to reduce pressure on prisons. “It’s what experts have been telling them to do for years, but it was politically dreaded,” says Catherine Heard, director of the World Prison Research Programme. “I believe that COVID has given many countries an excuse to quietly reduce the number of their inmates.”
Heard estimates that the prison population might have decreased by up to half a million people worldwide between March 2020 and June 2021. Countries such as Slovenia, Belgium, France, and Italy, all of which were operating above capacity from the beginning, have reduced their inmates by up to 25%.
However, Greece decided not to adopt this policy, despite the instructions and interventions for the early release of vulnerable inmates, or inmates who have served most of their sentence, both by international organizations such as the World Health Organization and by Greek bodies such as the Hellenic League for Human Rights , the Greek Ombudsman, the Athens Bar Association , Amnesty International, etc.
In Greece, almost at the same time as the first case appeared, the General Secretariat of Anti-crime Policy implemented a series of preventive measures that, as many experts told us, had the primary objective of protecting the inmates by “removing” the prison from society. Visiting hours in open space (with no separation between the visitor and the inmate) was completely abolished and those in closed space were reduced to a minimum, exit permits were cut, transfers were restricted and even the items that relatives bring to the inmates (books, clothes, etc.) were kept in quarantine for seven days.
“What was implemented in Greece, and in my opinion created very serious issues for the rights of inmates, is that in response to COVID-19, visiting hours were cut, inmates’ temporary licenses ceased, all activities within the institution, such as education and other rehabilitation programs, ceased,” notes Giannis Petsas, a Doctor in Penitentiary Policy. “That is, in my opinion, all the measures used for the rehabilitation of inmates were banned (…) They got completely isolated,” added Dr. Petsas.
“Some of the most severe and prolonged restrictions were seen in the countries with the worst prison overpopulation rates,” says Heard. Lack of space makes it impossible to implement distancing measures and alternative measures are hindered by lack of staff. “If there is no staff to move people around the prison,” she says, “there is no choice but to keep them locked up in their cells for most of the day and night.”
“Prison life, in general, has become very miserable,” told us Iphigenia Kamtsidou, member of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture of the Council of Europe (CPT) , referring to the prisons of Europe. The CPT is the European committee that monitors compliance with the rules and standards that prevent torture as well as degrading and inhuman treatment of all people deprived of their liberty. In March and July 2020, the Committee issued two statements to remind the relevant Authorities of the rules in place to protect those deprived of their liberty and to stress that no emergency can override the obligation of a Council of Europe member state to respect human dignity, to prevent torture, degrading and inhuman behaviors. “The first thing that is being examined is whether there is physical or psychological violence and generally degrading treatment against some inmates. Next, it is investigated whether the conditions of detention are such as to ensure human subsistence. That is, whether there is enough space in the detention areas, whether hygiene rules are observed, whether there are rehabilitation programs so that inmates can return to a normal social life after completing their sentence,” she explains Ms. Kamtsidou.
When we asked the General Secretariat of Anti-crime Policy in July 2021 about the measures taken in prisons, we were told that there was no restriction of movement inside the premises except when there were outbreaks in some wards that were subsequently quarantined. “There was a pause in visits during the periods when there was an upsurge in the pandemic. There was also an interruption of the inmates’ temporary licenses in order to safeguard the health of all. An electronic visiting room was created in all Prison facilities. That is a place with computers where inmates could communicate by video with their loved ones. The measure has been extended everywhere and has been very successful and beneficial for all.”
For Ms. Kamtsidou electronic communication is not a cure-all. “It is true that most states have tried to make up for this deficit by offering inmates electronic communication with their loved ones. But this is difficult, especially in the poorer states, where families either do not have access to the internet, or do not know how to use the platform, the means of electronic communication, or both; so many inmates have found themselves cut off from their families and therefore they have found themselves in very difficult conditions of imprisonment,” she notes.
Adriano Martufi, who researches prison conditions in Europe at Leiden University, believes that a potential risk is that prisons may attempt to use video calls as a replacement for face-to-face visits in the long term. “We have evidence that some prison administrations have said: “Well, now you have Skype, you can live with it –there’s no real need to allow you to meet your family or your lawyers in person”,” says Martufi. “We don’t yet know how systemic this change is, but the danger is that it may stay with us even after the pandemic is over.”
Beyond video calls, Catherine Heard sees little effort being made to mitigate the impact of the restrictions. “I can’t think of anything really significant that happened,” she says. “There was a huge missed opportunity, for example, to provide reading materials, recorded information, or access to online courses. There were a lot of things that could have been done, should have been done, but we’re not done.”
“The bad thing about this is that they were completely isolated, but in essence, they were not isolated because Greek prisons have a huge overpopulation problem, which was further exacerbated by a state law on prison farms,” notes Dr. Petsas.
Indeed, law 4760/2020 brought changes to the temporary licensing procedure and put a brake on the transfer of inmates. Specifically, Article 3 changes the requirements that allow the transfer of an inmate to both prison farms and the Central Prison Warehouse. Part of the Press described the law as “photographic,” passed in order to prevent Dimitris Koufontinas, convicted for his involvement with the 17 November terrorist group, from staying in the Prison Farm of Kassaveteia, Volos. However, this law also had collateral consequences. In the midst of the pandemic, it left the prison farms empty, and the remaining detention facilities overcrowded. Kassaveteia Special Prison Farm, in January 2022 had an occupancy rate of 31.8%, in Ayia, Chania the occupancy rate was 30.3%, in Kassandra, Halkidiki 28.2%, and in Tiryntha, Argolis 13.9%. At the same time, in the majority of the country’s detention facilities, inmates were isolated, piled together, deprived of basic rights and quality of life.
When asked about the management of the overpopulation of prisons, the General Secretariat of Anti-crime Policy responded that “regarding the reduction of the number of convicts or other ways of decongestion by reducing sentences, etc., these are actions that concern the Ministry of Justice and the relevant authorities. The General Secretariat carried out mass transfers from overpopulated Detention Centers to others with vacancies. For example, more than 1,000 long-term convicts were transferred from Korydallos prison to other prisons in the region. Thus, Korydallos was converted into a prison exclusively for detainees.” They then pointed out that the General Secretariat’s plans include the construction and operation of six new prisons.
The detention conditions in many of Greece’s detention facilities do not ensure humane subsistence, a fact that has also been noted in a previous CPT report in 2015 . Analysis of data on Greek prisons shows that in some facilities each inmate has less than 2 sqm of vital personal space in the total area of the prison. Specifically, in the juvenile detention facility of Volos, from the beginning of the pandemic until July 1, 2021, each inmate was assigned approximately 1.9 sqm of vital personal space in the entire prison. Next comes Tripoli with 2.1 sqm and Kos with 2.3 sqm. In 25 correctional facilities out of 34, each inmate has a living space under 4 sqm. “In Larissa prison, the cells are wards of 8 and 10 people, so if someone gets sick, it is quite logical that in a very small space of 15 sqm, which are the wards, everyone will probably get sick,” Stathopoulos tells us. According to the CPT recommendations, each cell should be a minimum of 6 sqm if it accommodates one inmate, while for each additional inmate 4 sqm should be added to the cell area. For example, in a cell of 4 inmates, the minimum floor area should be 18 sqm. “This space is important not only for the periods of the pandemic, as it is very small anyway and does not protect against the spread of the virus but also in general, because every person, even in prison, must have a minimum of privacy so that they can live as well as possible. When you don’t have this space, and you are visible to others at all times, then basic human rights are being violated,” explains Dr. Petsas.
The truth is that there are even fewer square meters available for each inmate in prison. The even more unpleasant truth is that even the General Secretariat of Anti-crime Policy does not know exactly how many cells exist in the country’s prisons, how much floor area they cover, and how many inmates inhabit each cell. In response to a question addressed to the General Secretariat regarding the total number of cells per detention facility, we received the following reply: “We took the total floor area per detention facility and divided it by the 16 sqm that each cell should be since each detainee should have 4 sqm (based on the CPT standards. We would like to inform you that in the SPACE I questionnaire [editor’s note. It is the annual report with statistical data on the penal systems of the Council of Europe] we have reported, as of 01/31/2020, a total number of 2,747 cells with the following comment: The number of cells was calculated on the basis of the CPT minimum standards for 4 sqm surface area per inmate).” That is, the 2,747 cells do not correspond to actual data. Following our reply, they noted that a relevant document was sent to the Directorate of Technical Services so that we could receive an official response on the number of cells and places in the country’s detention centers (our relevant document has File no. 13019/23-07-2021) and have it forwarded to us. At the time of writing, we have not received a response.
For many inmates, there are many factors that put them at increased risk for serious COVID-19 disease, including conditions such as HIV and a history of smoking or other drug use. Marginalization, poverty, and inadequate access to health care often burden these populations even before incarceration, and prison conditions often exacerbate these factors, according to the WHO. “In prisons, we consider people of 50 years of age as old, even though within a community they wouldn’t be,” says Filipa Alves da Costa, a public health advisor for the World Health Organization’s Health in Prisons Programme.
The shortages of medical and nursing staff in Greek prisons make the management of the pandemic extremely precarious. We asked Vassilis Dimakis, an inmate in Korydallos prison if during the pandemic they had sufficient access to doctors. “There were doctors, but they would come here more scarcely. The restrictions on free movement were also implemented, and some doctors used this restriction to visit less often. However, we didn’t and we don’t have a permanent doctor. Some afternoons there may be an orthopedic specialist, their hours are from 3 pm to 5 pm, and then they’ll just go. No doctor stays here, we don’t have a resident doctor here at night. We are two thousand people who are not being attended to. If anything happens, there are so-called employees who work as stretcher-bearers. They take the person if they manage to pull it through, and deliver them to the hospital.” When we asked him what happens in prison when someone gets sick, he told us that all the sick people are in one room without any disinfection, without any care. “People come in together, with a high viral load, and they all hang out together. It’s the same with the quarantine ward. They have cells in the 4th wing, where when someone comes in from the outside, they spend days in quarantine, and then they enter the prison here. They’re all together, there’s no protocol, maybe they take a temperature measurement, just the formalities.”
From interviews we conducted with prisoners and people who either work in prison or have knowledge of how prisons operated during the pandemic, it appears that in many facilities suspected cases were quarantined along with inmates who were in preventive quarantine (e.g., after a transfer). The lack of space and overcrowding led to the cataclysmic spread of the virus in prisons such as Diavata or Ioannina, a prison of 66 places which, while at the beginning of the pandemic had no cases, on July 7 it reached 49 cases, or 392 per 1,000 inmates (the reduction per 1,000 inmates facilitates comparison between prisons).
In Greece, there was more spread within prisons than in the rest of the country. By July 2, 7.9% of all inmates were infected with the virus, while correspondingly 4.1% of the country’s general population was infected with the virus. This means that the spread inside prisons was 1.9 times bigger than outside of them.
The case is the same for Northern Ireland, Italy, England and Wales, Slovenia, Belgium, and Catalonia. On the contrary, within prisons, there was a lower spread of the disease (compared to the general population) in Uganda, Austria, Spain (except Catalonia), Ireland, Switzerland, Albania, Germany, and Scotland.
If we look into deaths in prisons, then in all countries there seem to have been fewer deaths inside prisons than outside the prison system. The same applies to in-prison mortality, with only Bulgaria having a higher in-prison mortality rate than the general population.
Overall, in 13 regions of Greece, the spread within prisons was higher than in the general population and in 9 regions it was lower. Ioannina and Patras seem to have had many more cases in prisons compared to the general population outside prisons. In Ioannina, it is estimated that almost 4 out of 10 inmates were infected with the virus (39.2%) while only 3% of the population of the Ioannina regional unit had contracted the virus (13 times more cases in prisons than in the general population of the region). In Patras, the corresponding rates are 33.9% compared to 3.8% in the general population, i.e., 8.9 times more cases.
In theory, one would expect infections in prisons to be equal to or slightly higher than the general population of the area. For example, in Chania, 1.9% of the prison population and 1.9% of the general population are confirmed cases. In Heraklion and Grevena, also the same percentage of prisoners and the general population were diagnosed with COVID-19 (2.1% and 3.9% respectively).
Ioannina and Patras had more than 300 cases per 1,000 inmates (392 and 339 respectively), between March 1, 2020, and July 1, 2021. Next is Larissa (278) and the inmates’ special health center of Korydallos (272), where we estimate that there are recorded cases that had been transferred from other wards.
In the first three facilities, it is estimated that occupancy during the pandemic was consistently above 100%, with Ioannina having almost twice as many inmates as planned, Patras 137%, and Larissa 129%. Patras, Larissa, and Thessaloniki also had the most cases in absolute numbers (208, 200, 106).
Greece has the 5th highest COVID-19 mortality rate with Kosovo, Bulgaria, Hungary and Croatia leading the way. Specifically, in Greece, up to July 2, 2021, we had a total of 870 cases and 5 confirmed deaths, with mortality (how many of the confirmed patients with COVID-19 died) estimated at 0.6%. Mortality decreases to 0.43% in November 2021 (8 deaths in 1,876 cases) and 0.4% in February 2022 (14 deaths in 3,541 cases). In the graph below we use data from July 2021 to draw comparisons with the other countries.
The mortality rate is around 5% in Kosovo, Hungary and Bulgaria, but in the majority of countries it is below 0.1% and many countries report no deaths from COVID-19 among inmates. These rates are low when compared to mortality in the general population. For example, in Greece by July 2, 2021, 3% of confirmed cases of COVID-19 died from COVID-19. On the contrary, in prisons, it is recorded that only 0.6% of confirmed cases resulted in death, despite the fact that Greek prisons are overcrowded (thus the virus is more easily transmitted), the population is suffering, they do not have permanent doctors or, according to complaints, treatment is not provided to inmates on time. This suggests that the recording of data may be incomplete.
“COVID should be a wake-up call for us to invest in better prison conditions and reduce the use of incarceration,” says Catherine Heard. For this wake-up call to be heard, public interest and political will are vital. “It’s time to rethink our perception of inmates as second-class citizens,” says Martufi. “We cannot allow anyone to be left behind. It will be worse for everyone.”
“I’m in a cell designed for five people –now there are eight of us. It is impossible to keep our distance,” a person on hunger strike told a Croatian news agency at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020. “We can’t see our wives and children and, God forbid, some of us may never see them again. We practically feel like death row inmates, waiting for the coronavirus to enter the prison.”
As part of the investigation, on the above issues of the management of the pandemic in Greek prisons, we also requested an interview with the Secretary-General of Anti-Crime Policy, Ms. Sofia Nikolaou, when she held this position. Ms. Nikolaou refused.
Research and graph development: Thanasis Troboukis (iMEdD Lab)
Research: Nikos Morfonios, Janine Louloudi (MIIR)
Contributing Reporter: Kelly Kiki (iMEdD Lab)