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Our View: VIP prisoners, a utopian central prison – is this really the way to go?

A wedding inside the prison features on the show

The Nicosia Central Prison was given a full episode on the Netflix series Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons, made by Raphael Rowe, who had served 12 years in British jails, for a murder he did not commit. Rowe spent six days in the Nicosia prison in December 2021 as an inmate and was surprised and puzzled by the lax way in which it was run. The episode was titled The Utopian Prison because the filmmaker, who had made documentaries in more than 20 prisons in different countries as part of the series, had never witnessed anything like it.

Seeing what goes on in the prison, it is more like a holiday camp than a correctional facility, a place where inmates have a pretty good time. It does not look like they are being punished when doing time, even though there are convicted murderers, paedophiles, robbers among them. They have bingo and Greek dancing classes, which are attended by both male and female inmates, while prisoners can win prizes such as extra blankets, quilts and sweets. They hardly spend any time in their cells, even after they finish work at the different prison workshops, hanging around in communal areas playing backgammon and chess.

The Central Prison had a reputation for guard brutality and had been known as one of the most brutal in Europe, said Rowe. Wardens administered daily beatings to prisoners and there had been a spate of suicides before the regime change in 2014. Everything appears to have changed when Anna Aristotelous took over as prison director – the beatings stopped, the food improved both in terms of quality and quantity, events were organised and prisoners enjoyed unprecedented freedom within the prison facilities. Rowe described what he encountered as “surreal and bizarre”, adding that “it’s been easy to forget I’m in a maximum-security prison.”

While the brutality of the guards had to stop, it would seem Aristotelous, playing the benevolent director has gone too far in the opposite direction. Serving time in the central prisons is no longer much of a punishment for criminals. One Cameroonian prisoner said, “she doesn’t treat us as prisoners but as VIPs.” Aristotelous told Rowe her lax approach was aimed at helping prisoners “change, reform and reintegrate back into society.”  She claimed the “human approach” was the reason the reoffending rate “has dropped to 15 per cent from 50 per cent under the punitive system.”

It is simplistic to attribute the fall in the re-offending rate to Aristotelous’ human approach as there can be many other factors. What really emerged from the documentary was that being sentenced to time in the Nicosia central prisons is not really punishment for convicted criminals, which cannot be right. As Rowe told Aristotelous, “their victims expect them to be punished.”

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