Maximum security in times of austerity

A new type of maximum security prison reflects undemocratic austerity where law must provide security, but not justice.

Thousands of prisoners in Greece went on hunger strike to protest new maximum security cells [AP]

It’s one of those stories that go provocatively under-reported. In Greece, 4,500 prisoners went on hunger strike for ten consecutive days, protesting a governmental plan to build a new type of maximum security prison that will look a lot like the infamous white cells.

They are called type-C prisons and they are supposed to host the most dangerous criminals, but in reality this is just the codename for an ongoing deep and wide reform of the Greek judicial and penal system amid the financial crisis.

Wide because it expands the pool of virtual prisoners to many of those who are unable to pay taxes and risk finding themselves in prison according to law (they would be directed to type A prisons). Deep because it establishes a state of exception from fundamental rights for all those who are considered “dangerous” by the state.

‘Greek Guantanamo’

Prisoners already call C cells “the Greek Guantanamo” and “a jail inside a jail”. According to the new law, which the government brought to parliament in its less scrutinised summer session, inmates and even indictees of type C offenses will be denied parole and furloughs, the right to communication and visits from family or lawyers will be severely restricted, and no conjugal visits will be allowed at all.

Certain kinds of surveillance measures, such as CCTV, will be implemented in C prisons, and type C cells will be created in every prison all over the country. They will be run by a special unit of the police and not by a judicial authority, while high-ranking retired police officers will be able to serve as directors for the first time in Greece’s judicial history.

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The so-called “dangerous” offenders are divided into three subcategories: Terrorists, who are normally militant anarchists, young men and women who took arms against the state; members of criminal organisations like the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party; and prisoners who lead mutinies or hunger strikes like the one under way at the moment.

Actually, under this new law that is expected to pass through parliament on July 3, the hunger strike that took place in the last 15 days would be impossible to organise and maintain since the leaders of the movement would be transferred immediately to these new type of prisons.

Unsurprisingly, the corrupt politicians who brought Greece to this mess and the big tax evaders, businessmen who have milked the public sector with frauds and big subsidies, will be exempt from this new form of imprisonment. “Regular” criminals will be locked in type B prisons.

Lawyers and human rights activists monotonously repeat that the quality of custody reflects how civilised – or uncivilised – a society is. Introducing new forms of discrimination against certain groups only amplifies the impression that crisis-hit Greece is on a course of underdevelopment on all levels.

Human rights have been steadily disintegrating in the country for the past ten years and that has a lot to do with detention conditions. The total capacity of jails in the country is 9,500 prisoners but more than 12,500 detainees are already in custody, sometimes in terrible conditions. Almost 60 percent of them are considered to be poor, but the state doesn’t spend more than $2.73 per day for each prisoner. Another 2,000 indictees are kept for months in police departments due to overcrowding in jails, and thousands of immigrants are stacked in detention centres waiting for legal status for an undefined period of time.

Recently, two women from Africa won a case against Greece in the European Court of Human Rights for inhumane treatment in a Greek jail. In March, the United Nations issued a report on the effects of austerity and the quality of fundamental rights which were found to be in retreat, and concluded that there was a causal relation between them. The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment at the Council of Europe issued an announcement stating that the country was doing nothing to improve conditions for immigrants and inmates, which continued to degrade year after year.

Austere security

Recently, the Greek government decided to take its security dogma even further by announcing that it will deploy drones along its sea borders in order to tackle immigration, but would also use them in demonstrations and protests. In Greece, one can get jailed for throwing a molotov cocktail under the anti-terrorist law; and there’s a long tradition of biased persecutions against certain political groups like anarchists. New legal definitions such as “terrorist suspect” have been introduced, extending custody up to 36 months, practically convicting people before they are even proven guilty.

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The state of exception now fills the whole of the judicial cycle from arrest to conviction and beyond. It appears to be the technique of choice to force rapid and exemplary punishment: exercise zero tolerance to those who wish to challenge the system. It also legitimises the image of the penal state which disciplines and marginalises large social groups like immigrants, annarchists, drug addicts, bankrupt taxpayers and so on.

The question of whether Greece has finally turned into a police state is not new. It was first raised in 2003 when white cells were introduced in an effort to reform the system of prisons before the Olympic games of Athens.

Prisoners revolted back then but in 2004 more measures were taken, this time providing more power to the police and creating a strong surveillance network in Athens.

In November 2008, the first massive hunger strike in prisons against poor conditions led to a temporary improvement of the situation. Now under the austerity programme, the government is taking another step closer to authoritarianism. Instead of adopting alternative punishment methods like confinement at home, or addressing the causes of delinquency, it regresses to authoritarian methods creating, what professor of Law Costas Douzinas, has called “a law with no justice”.

The age-old question on whether society is threatened by terrorism, more than democracy is threatened by authoritarianism, is brought to the fore once again, only this time in the context of the financial crisis. Austerity was not a democratic way forward, so how could one expect that the legal system would not follow down the same road?

Matthaios Tsimitakis is a journalist based in Athens. 

Follow him on Twitter: @tsimitakis