In Greece, austerity builds its own gulag

Korydallos Prison Hospital ward

Austerity loves prisons. From the United States, where debtors prisons are seeing a return, to Australia and the United Kingdom, where immigration prisons choke with people and atrocities, austerity loves its prisons. In Greece, austerity has built its very own gulag, out of prison hospitals, immigration prisons, prisons within prisons, and the free floating fear of going to prison for indebtedness, inability, or any of the other `failings’ that are part and parcel of being human.

But this year, the State may have to start paying its debts, not to multinational agencies and stock brokers but rather to ordinary human beings.

The Korydallos Prison Complex is Greece’s main prison. The Korydallos Prison hospital is the only prison hospital in Greece. In February, hospital inmates went on a hunger strike, which included refusing medications. The vast majority of the Korydallos hospital prisoners are HIV positive. Their complaint was simple: inhuman overcrowding. Korydallos prison hospital is meant to have no more than 60. It currently houses over 200. Prisoners’ testimony, and leaked photographs and videos, describe the place as a hellhole. They’re right. People come in and get lost in the crowd and often die there: “There’s a 23-year-old who’s already been here for a month without getting a check-up. We enter the hospital with a medical condition or a disability and leave with a chronic illness. Do you know why you don’t hear of deaths in prisons? Because when someone is near death, they move him to a public hospital. That’s where his death is recorded.”

Many of those in the hospital are awaiting trial. Many others are in for minor offences, and many others are in for survival economic offenses: “We’re human beings. Many of us are in prison for financial crimes; we haven’t done anything violent. We don’t understand why we’re being treated like this.” Austerity loves prisons, and Greek austerity loves a good gulag.

On June 26, the European Court of Human Rights decided that Greece had violated the rights of Mariana de los Santos and Angela de la Cruz, two women from the Dominican Republic who had been arrested as undocumented residents. The two lodged a complaint concerning the conditions of their imprisonment in Thessaloniki and in Athens. In Thessaloniki, the cell was overcrowded, and the amount of money allocated was insufficient to purchase a meal. In Athens, along with overcrowding, “they described numerous sanitary and hygiene problems, particularly the fact that there had been only a single shower and a single toilet for all of the female detainees.” Overcrowding, hunger, debt, and no facilities: austerity loves its immigration prisons.

On June 23, prisoners across Greece started a hunger strike that went on for over ten consecutive days. Along with overcrowding and the general architecture of despair, the prisoners were, and are, protesting new laws that create a new kind of maximum-security prison, called type-C prison. These are designed to house the `most dangerous of the dangerous,’ but that’s a fluid concept. It includes “terrorists”, who more often than not are young militant anarchists; members of “criminal organizations”, such as the Golden Dawn, and “prisoners who lead mutinies or hunger strikes like the one under way at the moment.”

Prisoners call C-type prisons the Greek Guantanamo: “a Greek ‘Guantanamo Bay’, a prison within a prison, without leaves, without visits, without tomorrow”. The gulag is national and global: “We start a mass hunger strike in all prisons across Greece. We claim our rights, and we fight to remain humans, instead of human shadows locked up and forgotten into despair.”

Prison guards are also on strike because of overcrowding. According to the guards, the current average on any given shift is one guard to 500 prisoners. Austerity hates workers, loves prisons.

From the cleaning women of the Greek Ministry of Finance to the Kordyallos Prison hospital to the immigrant detention prisons to all the prisons, the cry is the same: “We claim our rights, and we fight to remain humans, instead of human shadows locked up and forgotten into despair.”

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In Greece, from debt to prison to death

Once upon a time, in 2010, a crisis was discovered in Greece. It was called a public debt crisis. Actually, it was orchestrated by very private interests, including a few American hedge funds and some German interests. The list of financial sector beneficiaries is very long.

Anyway, the Neoliberalists of the European Union sent the Troika to the rescue. The Troika established a dictatorial rule of austerity measures that indebted the population itself. Workers and small business owners suddenly had to pay the exorbitant interest rates established by the market. Actually, there were no structural problems in Greece, but the European leaders closed their eyes on the arrangements made by the Greek ruling class with the help of Goldman Sachs … as long as they produced profitable returns for the investors.

In 2013, the Greek government of Antonis Samaras passed a series of laws to make the population pay into a new, “modernized” tax system. For instance, previously had had no local taxes. The law changed all that. The net result of the new laws was to criminalize anyone who owed at least 5 000 € ($6 890) to the State.

Waves of new inmates hit the already overpopulated prisons. A recent video filmed by a prisoner at the Aglos Pavlos Prison Hospital, in the notorious Korydallos Prison, unveiled the revolting conditions. For instance, the camera is directed at a man lying on a bed, he shows his gangrenous legs; and the voice says: “They will cut off both of his legs. He comes for 8 months here because he owes some money to the government. He cannot walk. He came with two feet and he will go out with no feet.”

This video made the news and drew the attention of Liliane Maury Pasquier (Switzerland, SOC), the rapporteur on “Equal access to health care” for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, or PACE. She expressed grave concerns, noting that 200 sick inmates, many with highly contagious diseases, lived in a place made for 60 people. She added: “In such conditions, it is impossible to ensure that prisoners receive appropriate treatment, not to mention the fact that overcrowding obviously contributes to the spreading of contagious diseases, thereby endangering the lives of all prisoners in the hospital.”

In 2013 the Parliamentary Assembly adopted Resolution 1946 (2013), “Equal access to health care.” The Resolution states that inequalities in access to care particularly affect vulnerable groups, including the poor and those in detention. As the video demonstrates, the Troika has continued to apply its austerity measures with dire, and fatal, consequences for the population, and especially prisoners.

The cynical and methodical process of dehumanization in Greece is also orchestrated by the state. A 90 years old woman with Alzheimer left her home and became disoriented. Policemen found her and took her to the police station in order to help her find her family. Instead of her family, they found that she was registered on the computer as owing 5,000€ to the tax administration. They transferred her to jail where she went into a state of panic and became more disoriented. Finally, her niece was informed of her whereabouts. However, she was not released, thanks to other laws that labeled her a criminal. Moreover, the overload of work has kept her in detention. She suffered from various injuries for falling from her cell’s bed. Her mental condition meant nothing to the State. This is not an isolated case. Another elderly woman was recently arrested for owing money she didn’t even know she owed.

Who are the real criminals? Impoverishment is normalized. Prison is used to fragment Greek civil society and to eliminate all kinds of opposition to the growing inequalities.

The origin of this destruction is erased as the President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, recently declared that the “sacrifices” of the Greeks “open the gate to a better future for themselves.”  He should read the report of Lilliane Maury Pasquier who requested “immediate improvements” in hospital facilities in prison. After visiting Greece she decried the negative impact of austerity measures on access to health care in general.

Once again, prisons contribute to the fabric of inequality and dehumanization in a debt economy. They are brutal tools of power.


(Video Credit: Les Observateurs France 24 / YouTube)