By Angelos Anastasiou
FURTHER developments have surfaced regarding the ongoing crisis in Cyprus’s penitentiary institution, raising questions as to the quality of psychiatric care provided to inmates, while Justice minister Ionas Nicolaou and Ombudswoman Eliza Savvidou lambasted prison staff for complicity, negligence and dereliction of duty.
The situation reached a critical point this week when a fifth hunger striker committed suicide, while the police anti-riot squad MMAD sent in a unit to prevent riots.
Dr Louis Kariolou, the Central Prisons resident psychiatrist was notified by the Health ministry of his transfer on Tuesday, a decision he described as “time-wise misguided.” Although he had submitted a transfer request himself three months ago, Kariolou said that current critical circumstances at the Central Prisons “did not favour” his transfer.
He claimed to have informed both the ministers of Justice and Health of the problems as soon as they assumed their duties, stressing the need to overhaul the legal framework with regard to the prison’s administrative structure. Otherwise, he warned, he would request to be transferred. Kariolou was advised that he could be transferred as soon as a replacement had been fully trained.
In a letter to Health minister Petros Petrides following Kariolou’s transfer, the Justice minister requested that he temporarily remain at his post in order to oversee his replacement’s training and formal assumption of duties.
In response to former acting prison director Giorgos Tryfonides’s comments on Tuesday’s suicide of a 28-year-old Bulgarian inmate, Kariolou said that Tryfonides may not offer psychiatric evaluations as he is not a psychiatrist. The prison chief had claimed that the inmate was examined by a psychiatrist shortly before committing suicide and was sent back to his cell as he had been judged to be in good mental health.
“The medical records for this case are fully up to date and can be evaluated by the Health ministry and the state’s psychiatric services”, Kariolou said.
“Someone determined to take his own life, even if two policemen are guarding him on a 24-hour basis, will find that one second he needs to do it,” he added.
Despite such conflicts and – according to the doctor – Tryfonides’s regular meddling into his area of responsibility, Kariolou claimed that their professional co-operation was good.
“The minister has formed an opinion of me based on hear-say, without asking for my views”, he complained. This was in response to Petrides’s assertion of “poor communication” between Tryfonides and the psychiatrist, which has been offered as justification for the transfer.
Kariolou has been calling for clarification in role and task allocation, and for a psychiatric clinic to be created for inmates so that the quality of care could be enhanced.
Justice minister Ionas Nicolaou on Wednesday confirmed that the government has come to a final decision on converting wing 23 of the Athalassa psychiatric facility into a mental health clinic for detainees, especially when symptoms “manifest with self-injury.” The conversion is planned to be completed within 15 days. The new wing will only admit serious cases of mental illness, while milder cases will be referred to the in-house health centre.
At the prison on Wednesday, Ombudswoman Savvidou and a delegation from the lawyers’ association held successive meetings with a representative committee of prisoners and the prison’s administration to record their views and help resolve issues. Savvidou described the meetings as “constructive” and noted the need for daily communication with inmates to ensure issues are addressed, citing problems like water cuts and power cuts, and announcing that such issues will be resolved immediately to alleviate frustration.
Savvidou had earlier reported identifying instances of psychological and physical abuse, sexual harassment and rape within the prison, and arguing that the administration’s hostile stance towards inmates has been adopted following the 2009 Kitas scandal, when supposedly-incarcerated lifer Antonis Kitas had staged a spectacular escape from a private hospital where he was allowed to be treated with nominal police guard. Kitas was arrested after about a month on the lam and the ensuing investigation prompted the resignation of Justice minster Kypros Chrysostomides and police chief Iacovos Papacostas, as well as the suspension of prison governor Michalis Hadjidemetriou, along with several prison officers. The incident heavily tarnished the police force’s image, reducing the body to little more than a joke in the public’s eyes.