By Peter Stevenson
JUSTICE Minister Ionas Nicolaou yesterday announced 18 of 35 new measures to improve conditions at the central prisons including the stepping down of the acting director – at his own request – plus the installation of a unit of the rapid-response unit MMAD to keep order.
Also seven guards and a warden have been suspended and the process to suspend another two guards has begun after Sunday’s fourth suicide in seven months, plus a gang rape last Thursday, the second reported prison rape since 2011.
Earlier Nicolaou had told the House Human Rights Committee that in 2013, some 50 attempted suicides took place at the central prisons, compared to 35 in 2012 and 20 the previous year. The vast majority of these went unreported.
“The President has stressed the government’s decisiveness to put an end to the unacceptable situation which exists at the prisons and upgrade the level of the correctional facility so it can meet European standards,” Nicolaou said at a press conference yesterday afternoon. He had met President Nicos Anastasiades at the palace in the morning to discuss the escalating problems at the prisons and what solutions could be put in place.
Nicolaou announced the 18 measures that would be become effective immediately.
He said that following his own request, acting prisons governor Giorgos Tryfonides would be returning to his duties as a police officer but declined to elaborate further on who would replace him.
A special team of officers from Nicosia CID will investigate the two most recent suicides, on on Sunday and one last month. The other two happened in July and August last year.
The disciplinary investigations into the two recent cases will be dealt with by legal services and will be completed within the next 30 days.
A unit of officers from MMAD will remain at the prisons and will be responsible for checking cells, common areas and personnel areas.
The prison’s CCTV system will now be the responsibility of MMAD and will be redesigned to stop any tampering and the archives will be kept under stricter guard.
There will be stricter checks on prisons guards when they enter and exit the prisons which will also fall under MMAD jurisdiction. In an attempt to stamp out any corruption, Nicolaou said, prison guards will need to declare any personal wealth of their own or their relatives.
Inspectors will also be assigned to their relevant wings instead of the administrative building for better communication with the inmates.
A psychiatric wing will be created and any convicts deemed to require psychiatric assistance will be moved there. A group of psychiatrists will then evaluate any convicts who may have tried to harm themselves.
Nicolaou said stricter checks would take place on convicts who show any signs of depression.
“Convicts will also be placed in wings alongside others who have committed similar crimes and are serving similar sentences which is expected to lead the decongestion of the prisons,” he said.
Convicts serving time for non violent crimes such as financial offences will be moved to the safer environment of the open prison.
The catalogue of items deemed dangerous will be reviewed and a special training programme for prison guards will be set up with the help of MMAD officers, the health ministry and the ombudswoman in cooperation with University of Cyprus.
There will be immediate compliance with the reports of the Commission on Prevention of Torture of the Council of Europe and the Ombudswoman, Nicolaou said.
The final measure is aimed at strengthening the mechanisms external inspection of prisons by increasing the powers of the Ombudswoman to be able to carry out random checks, and review the functioning prisons council.
A riot that broke out at the central prisons on Sunday was not related to the latest convict suicide, which took place earlier that day, police have said. According to reports a number of inmates gathered in the central prison courtyard late on Sunday afternoon and hurled insults at prison guards. Officers from the rapid response and anti-terrorist units were called to the prisons to restore order.
At around 4.15pm a 40-year-old Iranian convict serving a long-term sentence hanged himself in his cell but according to an officer from the rapid response unit the riot was related to the alleged gang rape of a 22-year-old Romanian convict on Thursday.
The 40-year-old Iranian was the fourth convict to have committed suicide in the last seven months following those of a 27-year-old Kurdish Syrian in December who had only a month left to serve but was facing deportation, a 26-year-old mentally disturbed man in August and a 42-year-old arson suspect in July.
In 2011 following his rape by a 50-year-old convicted sexual offender, a 19-year-old was released from prison following a presidential pardon. Normal procedure is to keep prisoners under the age of 21 in a separate wing. In this instance the older convict was seen talking to a prison guard outside the teenager’s cell, suggesting the guard had turned a blind eye. The rape happened around 2am.
Anastasiades on Sunday visited the 22-year-old Romanian convict who was allegedly gang raped on Thursday. He was accompanied by Nicolaou and Health Minister Petros Petrides.
“I could not remain indifferent following the new atrocity at the central prisons so I came here to give courage to the young man who suffered what he did and also to send out a message: There will be zero tolerance shown towards anyone caught doing wrong regardless of position or whether they are a guard or a convict,” he said.
The president said that he discussed the matter with Nicolaou and the chief of police. “In the coming days people will begin to understand what implementing the law really means,” he said.
Anastasiades also sent out a message to anyone in bed with the underworld, saying the police would be relentless. Any officers who believed they could play games with the system would be at risk of losing their jobs, he said. “I am angrier than you can imagine,” Anastasiades added.
“Whole departments will be dismantled and I’m saying that so people will comprehend that they serve their country and the public who pay them otherwise they can go home and believe me some will be going home,” he said.