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Greek prisoners’ hunger strike for reforms, 2008
Many prisoners’ rights, human rights organization and European Union states have previously criticized Greece’s prison system and its jail conditions. The Council of Europe reported that the average waiting period of a detainee in pre-trial detention is 12 months—nearly three times that of other European Union states. The Greek prison population was 12,191, whereas the jails were designed to hold 8,243, making Greek prisons the most crowded detention sites in all of Europe. Eleutherotypia, a Greek newspaper, reported that, on average, one person a week died in prison in 2008. Critics also pointed out that many prisoners were imprisoned for drug dealing and addiction. They said that improper care of drug addicts—i.e. sudden withdrawal without a proper rehabilitation system—in the prisons added to the number of prison deaths.
On November 3, 2008, approximately 13,000 prisoners in 21 jails (there are a total of 24 jails in Greece) started a hunger strike. Many prisoners formed a prison committee that would coordinate the action and communicate with the higher authority. The strikers boycotted prison meals to protest the overcrowded and unhygienic jail conditions, lengthy detention periods, and rigid early release procedures. Ioanna Drosou, the spokeswoman for Initiatives for Prisoners’ Rights—a human rights blog outside of prison— said that the prisoners would launch full-scale hunger strikes within the next few days. Some strikers ate food brought by their relatives. It is not so clear how many strikers followed this or participated in full-scale hunger strikes throughout the whole campaign. In a women’s jail, all participating inmates refused to drink water as well. Reports said 19 inmates at a prison in central Greece sewed their mouths shut.
The Initiatives for Prisoner Rights blog (www.keli.gr) claimed that 32-year-old Nicolas Badakis was the first victim of the strike. After being found unconscious, taken to a local hospital, and released the next day from hospital care, Badakis returned to his cell. He died in his cell in the Grevena prison in northern Greece the following day.
Aside from the prisoners carrying out the hunger strikes, many protesters outside the prisons supported this campaign. On November 10, 2008, hundreds of people attended a solidarity concert in Athens that Initiatives for Prisoners Rights organized. On November 14, protesters threw eggs at Giorgos Alogoskoufis, the Greek Minister of Finance, during his speech at the London School of Economics. The protesters also scattered leaflets and shouted slogans.
On November 12, the Greek President Karolos Papoulias said that the condition of prisons were “a measure of the quality of [Greek] democracy,” but did not specify whether he actively supported the strike or notr. The local Amnesty International office, the Lawyers’ Association, Democratic Rally (an organization), the Coalition for the Radical Left (SYRIZA) and other left-wing parties, as well as former 1967-74 (Greece’s military dictatorship era) political prisoners openly supported the hunger strike.
On November 18, Mikis Theodorakis, an internationally acclaimed composer, sent a letter to the Initiative for Prisoners’ Rights that said, “What goes on behind the bars of every Greek jail should embarrass every citizen of this country,” stressing the importance of “securing decent and humane living conditions so that every detainee can have the opportunity to think and try to improve himself so that one day he can return to his family, to society.”
On the same day, the Ministry of Justice declared that they would reduce the number of prisoners from 12,315 to 6,815 by April of 2009. This would release nearly half of the prison population.
On November 19, Justice Minister Sotiris Hatzigakis submitted reforms that satisfied 14 out of the 16 demands made by the prisoners. Initiatives for Prisoners Rights said the declaration failed to meet all of the demands, and that they are still fighting for better jail conditions and prison rules.
On November 20, 2008, the Ministery of Justice declared a compromise declaration. According to the declaration, prisoners who had served 1/5 of their prison sentence for 2-year sentences and 1/3 for longer sentences would be released with no exceptions. The maximum pre-trial imprisonment limit would be reduced from 18 to 12 months. The minimum sentence for drug-related convicts and conditional release would be reduced by 3/5. The strikers then accepted water and prison meals.