Cyprus Mail

Nicolaou orders probe into prison suicide

By Poly Pantelides

JUSTICE Minister Ionas Nicolaou yesterday ordered the appointment of criminal investigators to look into the suicide of a 27-year-old Nicosia Central Prisons inmate and pledged broad changes to the legal and operational structure of the island’s correctional facility.

The minister confirmed to state broadcaster CyBC last night that he has asked the Attorney-general to launch an investigation into the conditions of the 27-year-old inmate’s incarceration and suicide.

“The instructions of the Attorney-general will be to investigate these events and to determine whether any culpability arises.”

Last Thursday, a 27-year-old convict was found hanged in his cell, less than a month after a 42-year-old man in prison pending trial for arson had also killed himself in his cell on July 18.

Before his imprisonment, the 27-year-old and his family had been under the watch of welfare services and under psychiatric observation. He was convicted of killing his sister with a laptop at their Nicosia home, six months after he had stopped taking his medication and seeing a psychiatrist. He was sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment for manslaughter and, according to unconfirmed reports, had previously attempted suicide while in prison.

The latest inmate suicide last week sparked a spontaneous protest by prisoners.

Guards used tear gas to break up the crowd while at least three guards and three prisoners were reportedly injured.

Last week, acting prison governor Giorgos Tryfonides was dismissive of the prisoners’ grievances but Nicolaou said yesterday there were “indeed issues with [convicts’] treatment”.

“We can’t hide the problems as we have over the years because [they] have accumulated over time and, because of indifference, have brought us to where we are today,” Nicolaou said.
A ministry official met with representatives of the inmates yesterday to discuss their gripes with the operation of the prison.

According to Nicolaou, these related to issues like use of air conditioning where units have been installed, designated shower times, and use of fans.

The minister said yesterday some matters merited further investigation while dismissed other reports as exaggerated.

“When for example it is said that [people] get given water drop by drop, that is an exaggeration,” he said.

Speaking on the evening CyBC news programme, the minister inadvertently confirmed that the acting governor alleged in his report that the inmate protests were orchestrated by certain prison wardens who want to see him removed from his post.

Asked to comment, Nicolaou said he wanted to hear the allegations from Tryfonides in person before commenting on the issue, adding that if such suspicions exist, they will certainly be investigated. He said he will meet with the prison governor by the end of the week.

Nicolaou also noted that a committee of experts is being set up to provide proposals to the government within a year on modernising the legal and operational set-up of the prison system.

Independent bodies have previously flagged problems in the over-crowed central prisons, Cyprus’ only correctional facility, and have also criticised authorities for failing to seriously investigate violent incidents.

The independent authority on torture prevention said in its 2011 report prisoners lived in “subpar” conditions in the central prisons, police holding cells and the Athalassa psychiatric hospital. Instances of psychological abuse included “efforts to enforce order through unjustifiably taking away guaranteed rights” or keeping migrants constantly locked in their cell.

“Humiliating” practices such as forcing prisoners to cut their hair and shave were enforced and in one known case an “elderly man” was put in isolation for refusing to comply, the report said. And there are not enough showers and toilets to serve the prison population, it added.

Last year, the ombudswoman’s office investigated a rape claim by a 19-year-old, reporting “unjustifiable and unacceptable negligence”.

The issue was more or less forgotten after the alleged rape victim was granted a presidential pardon, but at some point during the investigations the ombudswoman’s officers were prevented from entering the prisons.

The investigations took place after she had published a damning report speaking of a steady rise in prisoner complaints regarding physical abuse by members of staff, to which Tryfonides objected.

Even further back, a Council of Europe report by the anti-torture committee based on a 2008 delegation visit said prisoners run a “serious risk” of ill-treatment.

Both the ombudswoman’s office and the Council of Europe said there was insufficient healthcare coverage.

One person who got in touch with the Cyprus Mail yesterday over recent incidents said they were “extremely concerned” for the welfare of a relative held in the central prisons.
“I am terrified he will not return home alive under these conditions,” the source said.

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