By Angelos Anastasiou
ALMOST too much has been said on the current situation in Cyprus Central Prisons over the last week. Contraband, corruption, a seriously controversial prison director, criminal negligence from prison staff, cruel punishment and discrimination toward inmates are just some of the issues that have surfaced.
As one would expect, not all of it is true – and for good reason. People lie when they have something to hide or something to gain, and in this story they had both.
We talked to a prison guard – we’ll call him Michael – willing to speak out on the issues raised this week, though most of them date back months and even years. And speak out he did.
“The inmates have many grievances, but the one thing we keep coming across over and over is phone time,” he says.
Incredibly, inmates are allowed just ten minutes of phone time a week. At the heart of much of inmates’ frustration, the ten-minute rule has been in place for decades, and no one has seen the need to update it – until now. ‘Facilitating more communication time of inmates with their families’ was part of the overhaul of the system announced on Wednesday by Justice Minister Ionas Nicolaou.
Scarce supply and high risk raise prices, so mobile phones in prison may well end up going for over €1,000 apiece. Prison guards have been accused of contraband – introducing phones into the prison and selling them to inmates – but the charge remains unsubstantiated.
“There’s no such form of corruption that I’m aware of; I want to believe that prison guards don’t smuggle phones in to sell to inmates.
“I suppose there could be someone who has done it, but it’s certainly not a widespread practice. It’s not easy to, anyway – I don’t see how it can be done, logistically,” Michael tells us.
But if it were found to be done, we ask, would it be tolerated? “Well, I only know of one case where a guard was paid to smuggle something in for a convict – under the previous prison administration. He got fired for it.”
Michael’s conviction begs the question of where the accusations came from. “Look, you have to understand, convicts aren’t the innocent victims they’ve been painted as this week,” he says wearily.
“Their easiest – rather, the only – target to hit is the prison staff.” When an inmate gets caught with a mobile phone he knows it’s not a good idea to give up his supplier, so he is more than likely to avail himself of the only other option: one of the guards did it.
Suggesting that snitching on fellow inmates isn’t a good idea is one thing, but it is quite another to say that it is preferable to falsely accuse prison guards of the kind of corruption that could get them fired. It sounds almost like acknowledging a power struggle that’s too close to call. Michael raised his eyebrows as if to signify understatement.
“Oh, absolutely. Like I said, convicts aren’t as victimised as they’ve been painted. Some of them are much smarter than me and you combined. Some of them are vindictive and dangerous. Some of them refuse to work or clean up, and sleep in instead, leaving the weaker ones with the chores. But what they all have in common is that they wanted to get rid of the director, which isn’t unrelated to the latest developments.
“The prisoners hated him,” he says with a chilling emphasis on the verb. “The death threats he invoked when he resigned are true and credible, and they were made more than once.”
Former acting prison director Giorgos Tryfonides has been awarded the role of villain in the prison crisis. So quick were fingers to be pointed as soon as the crisis exploded that it seemed almost like a bulletproof pretext for critics to throw long-prepared accusations at Tryfonides.
“If he could take away the air the inmates breathe, I’m positive he would,” Michael jokes with only half a smile. “A firm stance would maybe have been understandable – like I said, the inmates aren’t angels – but this guy went too far. You know, after an inmate serves one-third of his sentence, he is allowed to be moved to the open prison. But Tryfonides would look at each case individually and authorise some requests, rejecting others; he’d say ‘the police spent all this time and resources to get him here, and I’m supposed to let him go?’”
Some of Tryfonides’ reported decisions seemed so outrageous that they were hardly decipherable, like the arbitrary water-cuts he imposed, or his obsession with inmates’ regular shaving and haircut.
One might suspect that he was being selectively hard on misbehaving inmates, but Michael has another theory. “You see, the previous director was too nice. He wanted to keep everyone happy and granted as many favours as he could. And he wound up in prison for it.”
Tryfonides’ predecessor, Michalis Hadjidemetriou, was suspended following the escape of lifer Antonis Kitas in 2008 from the private hospital where he was allowed to be treated under lax security, and recently convicted to two months in prison for dereliction of duty. “Tryfonides replaced him and went to the other extreme right from the start,” Michael says.
The ‘other extreme’ theory notwithstanding, it appears that the now-former acting director’s decision making might have been erratic. What could explain his authorising only some open-prison cases? “That’s down to who inmates know – who can make a call on their behalf. A friend or relative, a politician or an MP makes a call and asks that ‘his boy’ is taken care of.”
Influential relatives and MPs intervening to get a rule or two bent hardly qualifies as news in Cyprus. But the assumption was that prisoners couldn’t gain political influence because they don’t carry votes. As it turns out, they do – just not their own. And, of course, if ‘open-prison’ strings can be pulled, there could be a host of other areas open to similar manipulation.
Tryfonides may have been one of the major chapters of the story, but the spark that lit the fire were the alarmingly frequent incidents of suicide in the prison. Five suicides in the space of six months caused public outcry and even earned the government a scolding from the Council of Europe.
Michael says he can’t speak to the underlying causes of the suicides, or the fact that four out of five were committed by foreigners.
“Look, I’m not a doctor,” he says. “Some of them appear to have had mental issues, I don’t know. But we got blamed for how suicides could have happened on our watch, especially after the first one or two. Let me tell you, it’s inevitable. Did you know inmates drape their cell bars with curtains to keep the light out, so they can sleep? They have shoelaces, sheets, razors – and all they need to commit suicide is a split-second. If someone wants to do it, they will.”
A doctor though he isn’t, Michael has identified some possible deteriorating factors. “Inmates’ requests for the notorious psychiatrist visits that everyone’s talking about weren’t all sincere. Some just wanted to enjoy the ride to the hospital, and others were after pills that can be used as currency in prison. Of course, the doctors aren’t stupid, but the increased visits clog up the system, to the point where it’s hard to tell what’s real from what’s fake.
“Or, for example, take the third suicide – the convict from Syria. He had heard on the radio that the area where his family lived had been bombed and asked that he be allowed to call them. He made the call but for some reason couldn’t get through, so he was returned to his cell. He asked to try again but wasn’t allowed to. Later that night he took his life.”
While Michael argues that prison guards were wrongly targeted in the midst of the crisis, he’s not claiming that they execute their duties flawlessly. He acknowledges that corners are being cut, and that the proverbial book often gets tossed out the window.
“Sure, of course – for practical reasons. The prisons are wildly over-populated, and as a result inmates have to be placed in wings they’re not supposed to be in. There’s just no other way. Also, we’re heavily understaffed, not just because of budgetary constraints but also because the prison administration has allocated about 105 – out of the 400-strong prison staff – to office duties, meaning they’re exempt from the shift schedule and work office hours only. I can’t imagine that the prison’s office workload would require more than 40 people, but again, it’s who you know, who can make a phone call on your behalf and so on.”
Still, our penitentiary system isn’t without hope. A new director is being installed, and Michael is certain that the job can be done properly in future, as long as those in charge want to do it.
“With everyone breathing down our neck and the minister personally involved, I don’t think we’ll have any problems in the near future. After that… I guess the prison needs someone moderate, not too nice and not too bad, at the helm. The old officers that surrounded Tryfonides need to be let go, fresh blood needs to come in. The real challenge is getting people who are educated on how a modern prison works.”
Speaking of officers, by the way, “the promotion system isn’t reliable either. The exams for promotion to warden are almost funny – just ludicrous. Which means that the director and his officers can get anyone they want promoted through the staff evaluations they prepare. It’s completely arbitrary,” Michael says before his eyes flash for a moment and he pauses briefly. “Again.”