By Jean Christou
FOREIGN convicts at the Nicosia central prisons are to be transferred back to their own countries to serve their time, while those jailed for misdemeanours will be deported, Justice Minister Ionas Nicolaou said on Tuesday.
Nicolaou said the move was part of sweeping changes to the prison system aimed at diminishing overcrowding and the problems associated with it, such as suicides.
In addition, remaining prisoners will be reallocated within the prison, depending on the length of sentence and level of risk, with those imprisoned for financial debt being moved to the safer open prison
Also, a new medical wing will be opened within a month, comprising ten cells to deal with those inmates who may be suffering from psychological problems and can be better monitored. Those already deemed at risk are to be given a full psyche exam immediately.
Staff training is also part of the changes, the minister said during his presentation of the Guide for the Prevention of Suicide in Prisons. The plan was drawn up by the justice ministry in cooperation with the Ombudswoman’s office, and will involve the police academy, and the rapid-response unit MMAD, and experts from the University of Cyprus.
Nicolaou said the new strategy was a response to the spate of suicides and attempted suicides at the prison between last August and January this year, which prompted calls for changes at the overcrowded facility.
He said the cause in most cases of attempted suicides has been identified as the living conditions, plus relationships with prison staff.
“It would be naive to believe that we can prevent some cases of suicide or attempted suicide, and this applies not only at the central prison but everywhere in society,” said Nicolaou.
“However what we can do is take the necessary measures that will not only improve conditions in prison, and its operation, to minimise or treat as early as possible the high-risk cases.”
He said the new guide gives simple and practical guidelines for the care of prisoners and the training of all staff. “Undoubtedly confinement and restriction of freedom does affect the psychology of prisoners, often leading to feelings of hopelessness and fear for the future,” said Nicolaou.
He said the risk of suicide was usually high during the early stages of imprisonment “the first 48 hours” or a few days before sentencing by the court. “Factors such as the young age of the detainee, family and mental status, history of emotional problems, may increase the risks.”
Nicolaou said from now on, all new inmates will be given a psyche test within 24 hours of arrival.
He also said from now on any threat of suicide or self-harm was to be taken seriously and reported.
“In these cases staff will ensure the continuous monitoring of the prisoner who should not be left alone, and the staff must avoid any behaviour that might worsen the mental health of the prisoner,” he added.
Living conditions have also been improved with longer periods of hot water, electricity 24/7, open visiting hours for all prisoners, more phone calls, more entertainment and sports.
“Overcrowding, violence, lack of activities, exile from family and social networks, and unacceptable living conditions can and do affect the mentality and psychology of prisoners,” said Nicolaou. “Prison should not be a mechanism to take revenge on offenders but a way to help them to social reintegration.”
Nicolaou said investigations were ongoing into the previous suicides at the prison either in terms of disciplinary action or criminal action against staff members responsible.
“Negligence and abuse of power can cost a human life,” said Nicolaou. “And we are not prepared to tolerate the kind of conduct that occurred in the past.”
He said 67 members of staff had already been retrained and the programme was ongoing.
“Unfortunately for years staff did not receive any education or training beyond the basics, and sometimes not even then,” the minister said.