From a dysfunctional branch of government, Nicosia’s Central Prison has been cajoled into a working facility. THEO PANAYIDES meets the young, clever and technocratic woman who has turned it around
Wait, let me show you, says Anna Aristotelous, getting up quickly and going to her desk to retrieve the letters. She has a whole box-file full of letters, adds Athina Demetriou, the senior prison officer who’s the director’s closest associate – and the inmates sometimes write songs or poems for her too, or send cards. Anna returns with a selection of thank-you letters, most of them hand-written on plain paper. “This one’s from the father of an inmate,” she notes. The content is much the same in all of them: thank you, you’ve helped us, God bless you. I browse one at random: “From the undersigned inmates of Block 1.A at Nicosia Central Prison,” it begins in English, then later: “We wish you health, happiness and success at everything you do”.
To be honest, I don’t even know why it’s called Nicosia Central Prison – since, after all, there’s no other prison in Nicosia, or indeed in Cyprus. That’s the main peculiarity of this job, notes Anna (who’s been prison director since October 2014, though only in an ‘acting’ capacity for the first few months), the fact that you have 610 men, women and (essentially) children all packed together in the same place, with nowhere else to go; you can’t solve a problem by transferring difficult inmates to other prisons, as happens abroad. When she took the job, admits Anna in her undemonstrative way – having arrived from the Ministry of Justice, where (in collaboration with Athina) she’d been responsible for drafting the strategic plans for the prison – the place was in something of a shambles. Or, as she says diplomatically, it was “a difficult period, when no-one really wanted to take over”.
I arrive for the interview on a muggy Friday afternoon, the sky dark with clouds. “They’re waiting for you inside,” says the cop at the gate, warning me that tape recorders are OK but my mobile phone has to stay in the car. The place looks properly forbidding, its high walls topped with tangles of barbed wire; I enter through a pair of metal doors – the second one opening only after the first one shuts – and follow a senior warden to the director’s office on the first floor. A young man with a pleasant face and flamboyant manner makes me a Cypriot coffee while I wait; the warden talks to him in that gruff blend of Greek and English invariably reserved for the foreign help. I can’t help wondering what he’s done, or indeed if he’s even an inmate. He seems so friendly with everyone, including the warden; maybe he’s just some Erasmus student on a Criminology course. “Where are you from?” I ask him.
“Brazil,” he replies surprisingly.
“How did you end up in Cyprus?” I’m too embarrassed to ask ‘How did you end up in prison?’.
“Drugs,” he replies softly, with a sweet smile.
That same kind of easy, relaxed interaction continues even after Anna appears, a slim woman with blonde hair in a bun. Another inmate calls out to her from the other side of the main fence, while we’re taking photos; he’d like a phone card to call his mother, and Anna gives instructions to supply him with one. Phone cards usually have to be bought, but she’ll make an exception when an inmate is poor (or “poor and hard-working,” she says, implying that they’re part of a reward scheme) – but the larger point is that this is obviously a prison where inmates aren’t afraid to call out to the director, even when it means interrupting her. “We had some visitors from a prison in England,” notes Athina later, “and they were impressed by the fact that the director could walk by herself inside the wings, and talk to the prisoners without any fear”. Anna herself confirms this: “I don’t feel unsafe. There’s an atmosphere of respect.”
The two women are a team, Athina seemingly more of an ideologue while Anna is the doer and battering-ram, both of them clever, technocratic and young. How young, exactly? “That’s something many people are curious about!” says Anna and laughs, avoiding the question (she looks to be in her mid-to-late 30s). What was she like as a kid – at 16, say? “I was very studious,” she replies after a pause.
“I bet you were a perfectionist, even then,” half-jokes Athina.
“Yes,” she agrees, then to me: “Yes, I was very studious”. She carried the flag at parades, an honour usually accorded to the school’s top student. She went on to study Law at Leicester, followed by a Master’s in European International Law and an MBA, then worked as legal counsel at the office of the Chief of Police before her move to the Ministry. She seems very focused and attentive, without any obvious ego – ego only gets in the way – though also without much small talk. She ‘umm’s and ‘ahh’s quite a bit, and has to be prompted by Athina occasionally; it’s like she doesn’t want to commit to a sentence (or a course of action) till she’s thought it through. She seems practical, imperturbable, the opposite of reckless. Her main relaxation used to be a two-hour session at the gym every weekday, though she doesn’t have time nowadays. At one point I ask if her job as prison director has affected her personal life:
“In what sense?”
Well, I fumble, it must be harder to let your hair down now, knowing that you’re something of a public figure.
“You can’t dance on tables,” offers Athina.
“I don’t do that anyway,” she shrugs.
Work is a large part of her life, it seems. I ask if she’s ever tried drugs (we’re talking about prisoners with drug problems at the time) and she looks completely flabbergasted: “Drugs? Never!” she gasps, and both she and Athina laugh uproariously. (Anna, I suspect, is the last person in the world who’d try drugs.) Instead, her work functions as a kind of drug – and the hours have been brutal, especially in the first year when the prison was rife with challenges. “In the first year we didn’t leave before midnight or one or two a.m., almost every day,” she recalls.
“We were working 16, 18 hours a day,” puts in Athina.
“Actually no – not ‘almost’ every day. Every day! In the first year, at least.”
“Weekends too, certainly. Now we leave around eight or nine or 10pm. Without a break.”
It’s important to understand the magnitude of what’s happened here. The ‘difficult period’ she mentions, when she took over in late 2014, was more than just a question of bad governance. At the time, there were 13 suicide attempts every month at the Prison, plus two or three incidents of self-harm each day. In the two years since, there has been “only one real suicide attempt” – which, she points out, is a much lower rate than in the general population. (Prisons almost always have a higher rate, for obvious reasons.) There have even been four cases of depressive inmates who were fine in jail but killed themselves after being released, “because we’re so alert about this issue, and carry out so much prevention”. Anna trots out an impressive statistic: there are currently 102 foreigners (non-Cypriots make up almost half the prison population) who are eligible to be transferred to their home countries and do the rest of their time there – yet 75 of them have opted to stay in Cyprus, even though they have no family here and know they’ll be deported when their time is up anyway.
What’s the secret behind this success? It appears to be a combination of persistence – what Athina calls her boss’ “perfectionism” – and a new mentality, or penal “model”. On the latter point, Anna is relentlessly on-message, laying down her philosophy within seconds of my tape recorder being switched on. “There is the punitive model,” she declares, “which has been proven to be outdated and doesn’t help in rehabilitation – and there is the rehabilitation model, meaning a humanistic approach and respect for human dignity… The aim is rehabilitation – trying to make [the inmate] as good a person as possible, so as to ensure his smooth re-integration in society”.
In the recent past, the Central Prison was a punitive place. Inmates tended the football pitch but weren’t allowed to play football. The basketball hoops had been cut down. Prisoners only had hot water for a few hours at a time, and the power went out so they couldn’t watch TV in their cells at night. They could only use the phone to talk to their families twice a week, for 10 minutes at a time. Food was both poor and rationed, actually weighed (to make sure it was the prescribed amount of milligrams) before being fed to the inmates. Halloumi, for instance, was forbidden – unless you were one of the inmates who received preferential treatment, creating divisions and powerful gangs. Corruption was rife – and indeed, admits Anna openly, “corruption is a constant problem in every prison all over the world”.
That particular problem may or may not have been solved – though, even here, they’ve had some significant success since she arrived: two guards have been caught trying to smuggle drugs, and three parents have also been arrested (one mum had hidden the drugs in her underwear). In all other ways, the prison has been totally transformed. Water and power are uninterrupted, prisoners can now use the phone (with a phone card) all day, common areas have been turned into gyms with TV and table tennis. Every prisoner gets a personal interview when they arrive, to diagnose their particular needs – and they’re housed according to those needs, not which cells happen to be available. A system is in place to make guards accountable. Food has been upgraded, without spending more (the budget is just used more efficiently). And everyone – Anna assures me – gets equal treatment.
No wonder the inmates are writing thank-you letters. The only question, really, is whether Anna’s philosophy (explicitly based on the ‘Scandinavian model’) errs too far in the other direction. Even the penalties she imposes look to rehabilitation, she tells me, thus for instance an inmate who once owned a café making crepes was ‘punished’ by having to make crepes for the entire prison. “My pleasure,” he apparently said when the punishment was handed down; but then, was it really a punishment? After all, do the public – and especially victims of crime – really want jail to be a pleasant experience?
“Anyone can end up in jail,” replies Anna firmly. “Prison isn’t about putting up labels and saying ‘Criminals’. Anyone can end up in jail, for all kinds of reasons”. Deep down, one’s opinion may depend on whether one sees prisoners as Other – people who’ve done evil – or people who’ve faltered, as you or I might falter. Some of her inmates are only there because they couldn’t pay a fine. One man, who was due to be released on a Friday, asked if he could stay through the weekend, as he didn’t have money for food on the outside.
Even for hardened criminals, though, just the deprivation of liberty – hearing that cell door being locked every night – is punishment enough. “What any one of us would want, if they ended up here,” she affirms, “would be respect for human dignity, viewing the other person as a person and treating them as you’d like to be treated”. What does she actually feel towards the prisoners? “They’re like all of us, they’re not something different,” she replies. “They’re people with feelings, you don’t know what drove them to do what they did – especially the youngsters, who are mostly in for burglary and so on. I’m certainly not condoning their actions. My job, however, is rehabilitation.”
Has she changed since she took over the prison? Anna nods, looking slightly sheepish: “Yes of course. Something’s changed significantly”. This job makes you more human, she admits, “more human and yes, more sensitive”. Even so, it doesn’t seem like sensitivity (in the sense of being sentimental) is her greatest strength; her genius seems to lie in persistence, perfectionism and a fearsome, machine-like efficiency. She tells me a story of how things used to be, the civil-servant mentality that reigned when she first arrived: if a light bulb blew, guards would often file a report claiming they’d fixed it when they actually hadn’t – at least till they realised that this new director would actually go on the scene and check if the bulb had been fixed. This, I suspect – even apart from the bigger changes she instituted – is the kind of thing that kept her and Athina working those 18-hour days.
Some may belittle what’s happened in the Central Prison over the past two years. Inmates were unhappy, the EU was on our case (the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture gets mentioned more than once), the government was embarrassed, vested interests didn’t really care one way or the other, so they brought in a technocrat to do what the Europeans wanted. This, I suppose, is one way of looking at it. But a far more inspiring way is that a quiet revolution has taken place, an arm of our dysfunctional public sector has been trained and cajoled into working properly – and it was all accomplished, almost single-handedly, by two young women! I’m halfway to my car when it occurs to me that I never asked Anna Aristotelous the most obvious question, viz. what it’s like to be a woman in such a macho environment – but in fact her gender is irrelevant; as staff and inmates can testify, her work speaks for itself. The gruff senior warden walks me to the metal doors, chatting pleasantly. “Big changes,” he affirms, “big changes” – then claps me on the shoulder and walks back inside, to the clamour and din of the prison.