Greece: children behind bars and the need for alternatives to incarceration

Baby suit reads ”Prisoner since birth? NO WAY!” poster of the Campaign ”NO BABIES BEHIND BARS” by the Initiative of Prisoners’ Rights in Greece

Rosa Kovani

Nomatter how many times you relive this experience it always seems impossible to grasp. Children and babies that have not committed any crime serve their sentences like every other prisoner. Last Wednesday’s visit at the Women’s Correctional Centre in Eleonas as part of the campaign ”NO BABIES BEHIND BARS” was a traumatic experience for everyone involved. The section allocated to mothers of young babies and toddlers was, as always, unbearable. The faces, the touching and tears penetrate the mind and resurface when least expected – every time your eyes close or when the mind starts to wander off at the end of the day. How can anyone forget the little boy who managed to get away from his mother and followed us around the prison as we were leaving? The door suddenly shut and the boy was trapped on the wrong side banging his tiny fists against the thick glass. And  there stood I, unable to hear the sound of his voice or the thumping of his fists fighting the glass. My knees felt weak and when I turned around to leave it felt like the hardest thing I ever had to do.

And I can’t help but wonder how these children feel behind bars, when I, a passer-by, was overwhelmed by these emotions after staying there only for a little while? I wonder how the hours go by inside the bare cells…How do the mothers find the strength to put their babies to bed at night and what lullabies are whispered in soft voices? I think of the excruciating pain of the final farewell as the child leaves for another institution at the age of three. How can anyone give birth to a new life inside a prison? Why was it made possible for children to live behind bars?

A desert of abandonment and neglect

The effects of incarceration are easily perceptible through observation. Most children have speech difficulties, tension, they never smile or laugh, while others seem very inert. Some children face serious health issues that cannot be effectively treated or kept under control from afar. There is no program of creative activities to pass the time and there are no pre-school teachers available. Also, there are no public nurseries in Theva where children could enroll. The allocated yard which they do not always have access to during the day, has a small playground. The ground was finally replaced with more appropriate, for the circumstances, softer pebbles, thanks to the activist group Xe-blogarisma and even some flowerbeds made their appearance.

What changed since our last visit two years ago? The serious issues of inadequate heating and water seem to have been resolved or at least improved and healthcare provision is at a much better state but still insufficient (especially when it comes to hospital transfers and the presence of medical staff on site at all times). The number of prisoners has been significantly reduced as a result of a law that came into force last spring. This is where the positive aspects fade and a desert of abandonment and neglect begins. This desert is seen in the inappropriate conditions and the penalization of poverty and mental illness that are relieved only through solidarity and volunteerism- the Support Network of Incarcerated and Decarcerated Women, created by the retired principal of the Educational Centres ”Second Chance” Mr. Pirounakis, to name an example.

Inadequate law reforms

Eleonas Correctional Centre currently houses ten mothers and eleven children along with two pregrant women. There are many more prisoners whose children are older than three years old and as a result they had to be removed from prison. There are also those with stable families and a caregiver at home willing to look after a baby so that the child will not have to go through the torture of imprisonment.

The recent law reforms regarding incarcerated mothers with young children has proven to be inadequate because it only benefits mothers serving sentences longer than 10 years who also have children up to 8 years old. According to official documents, only 9 prisoners in Eleonas applied for decarceration based on the current legal provisions but it’s important to note that the prison houses a total of 341 female prisoners. The nine women now await for the final verdict of the Court of First Instance.

A few days ago, the women in Eleonas sent a leter to the Minister of Justice and asked for a change in the legal regulations in order to benefit more prisoners.

The fulfillment of their request is a minimun duty on the part of the Ministry. It truly is incomprehensible to punish and incarcerate babies or deprive children and teenagers of their families.

Alternative solutions to incarceration- just to answer to all those people always wondering what would happen to prisoners’ sentences- are plenty and vary according to the severity of the crime and the suitability of the environment of each prisoner. Restrictions, ankle tethers, house arrest and confinement in open-access prisons have been successfully used in many other countries.

Please sign our petition to support the campaign ”NO BABIES BEHIND BARS”.

translation: BlackCat

source: (originally published on the newspaper Epohi)

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