All photos via Twitter user Kolastirio Kordalou
Athens's Korydallos prison hospital is making sick people sicker. Reports have portrayed the facility—the only prison hospital in the country—as severely lacking in doctors, nurses, and medicine. It's also hugely overcrowded, housing around 200 prisoners in a space built for 60, causing appalling hygiene and living conditions that have led to the rapid spread of infectious diseases among inmates.
For the past month or so, the majority of prisoners being held in the hospital have been refusing food and medication as part of a protest against the conditions. And in February, photos and videos were posted to the Kolastirio Kordalou (Korydalos’ Hellhole) Twitter account that illustrated exactly what those conditions are like.
I called Michalis, a 45-year-old inmate who’s spent the last four months being treated in the prison hospital. He told me that when he was last hospitalized in Korydallos, between 1998 and 2003, standards were much higher. “Back then, there were 16 to 17 patients, four in each room. As soon as you entered, you had medical tests. Today, if and when you get tested, it’s too late,” he told me.
“For example,” he continued, “there's a 23-year-old who's already been here for a month without getting a check-up. We enter the hospital with a medical condition or a disability and leave with a chronic illness. Do you know why you don’t hear of deaths in prisons? Because when someone is near death, they move him to a public hospital. That’s where his death is recorded."
Michael has been HIV-positive for seven years. The last time he was sent to prison was for financial crimes. This time it’s drugs. He spoke quickly, trying to give me detailed answers without getting distracted by the fuss around the prison phone booth. I asked him about living conditions in the hospital.
“I live in 25 square meters [270 square feet] with 19 others,” he said. “Overall, the prison hospital houses 209 people, aged from 22 to 84 years old, excluding those who come and go. The majority—170 people—are HIV-positive.”
He went on to explain how the conditions have directly impacted patients’ health: “Tuberculosis and hepatitis are everywhere. There are so many types of tuberculosis that the virus has mutated,” he said. “It’s become so durable that it cannot be limited or treated by medications. From midday onwards, there’s only one doctor and a nurse to treat us. If more than two people are sick simultaneously... you’re dead.
“We only get to walk in the yard for one hour in the morning and one in the afternoon—we spend 22 hours closeted. We can't open the windows because the rooms are so crowded with beds. So we've started this hunger strike. And if necessary, we’ll continue with a hunger and thirst strike. The hospital staff are on our side—they know very well that they too are in danger; they have families, they have children."
The day I spoke to Michalis, inmates at the Korydallos hospital had already reached the ninth day of their hunger strike. Now they’ve also stopped taking their medication. During our phone call, I asked Michalis what they hope to achieve with the protest.
"We call for control, preventive healthcare, and de-crowding,” he said. “We recommend that patients with chronic diseases are released after they’ve done two-fifths of their time.
“On the other hand—for people who are going to trial—if the offense is punishable with a sentence of fewer than ten years, we suggest they’re released on bail. For example, there are detainees here awaiting trial for stealing a bottle of vodka or a bicycle. Does keeping them here make sense? They’re at risk. Moreover, they should impose the lowest sentence possible for people with low life expectancies so that they can die at home.”
The Ministry of Justice has suggested that the sickest inmates be released, but prisoners say that it won’t change anything in the long run. And they’re right—it sounds a lot like a token gesture to distract from the real issues at hand. Apart from that, the only other reaction from the Greek authorities has been the prosecutor’s decision to give the prisoner whose photos were published on Twitter a disciplinary action.
Depressingly, while they might have given a stark insight into the conditions inside the prison hospital, the photos haven’t inspired as much outrage as the Twitter page’s administrators were hoping for; a call to rally outside the building in solidarity with the inmates only attracted ten people.
"However, one must not forget the unprecedented features that the call itself had,” said Afroditi Babasi, a member of the Initiative for Prisoners' Rights, shortly after the small protest ended. “For the first time, the prisoners themselves called to society for support and solidarity.”
Last week, Liliane Maury Pasquier, the special rapporteur on equal access to healthcare at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), called on Greek authorities to make immediate improvements to the quality of care provided at the hospital. And Babasi believes that more people of Pasquier’s stature will also start to come forward soon enough, as long as the prisoners’ protest is promoted by other citizen movements, initiatives, and organizations.
"If that happens," she said, "the next gathering will have a massive turnout, exerting the necessary pressure on the government and the ministries, and the prisoners' demands will be heard.”