Policing prison

Policing prison

In an attempt to reduce crime and disorder, prisons are being taken away from the Ministry of Justice. Could such a policy ever prove effective, and what does it mean for inmates, their rights and freedoms, and the criminal justice landscape as a whole?

“It is unacceptable for prisons today to be a lair of anomie and illegality. You all know very well how the situation in prisons is like; {...} you also know that the Ministry of Justice does not have the capacity to control prisons. This is why national correctional policy shall be henceforth applied by the Ministry of Citizen Protection; and correctional staff will belong to this Ministry as well, so that security policy is common; and the problem is inside prisons.”

Thus spoke Mr. Mitsotakis, Greece’s soon-to-be prime minister, when asked about matters of security in a recent interview. Since then, national elections have come and gone, Mitsotakis has taken the presidential oath of office and, abiding by the cardinal virtue of integrity, made sure to deliver on his promise: enter Presidential Decree 81/2019, and a new era for the country’s penal landscape.

Presidential Decree 81/2019

“In the new Ministry, the following are also transferred as a set of competencies, positions, bodies and personnel: {…} by the Ministry of Justice, Transparency and Human Rights, the General Secretariat for Crime Policy, {…} the Direction of Inspection of Prisons, Detention Centres, Correctional and Therapeutic Centres, Special Therapeutic Establishments”.

Such an act holds a dual influence: at the outset, it brings forth structural changes, regarding the administration of penitentiaries, by reframing the government department responsible. Yet there is a second, less obvious consequence, which constitutes the focus of the blog at hand: this shift in competence heralds a turn in the very essence of utilising prison as a means of punishment – though not in a promising way.

The nature of the beast

It would be a truism to state that the situation in Greek penitentiaries is rather unfortunate. It is a multi-faceted issue: prisons are plagued by harsh and poor detention conditions; there are high levels of violence, and powerful groups of prisoners exercise control over other inmates. Korydallos, the country’s largest maximum-security prison, a breeding ground for brawls, death contracts, organised crime, and practically the fiefdom of the Greek ‘prison mafia’ that operates with the blessings of prominent criminal justice lawyers, epitomises everything that is wrong with the national penal landscape.

This situation holds many problematic consequences, as it is incompatible with European and international standards, undermines the fundamental rights and freedoms of inmates, sabotages intergovernmental cooperation in criminal matters, inflates recidivism rates, gives rise to radicalisation, and invokes a high financial cost for taxpayers.

The elusive quest for ‘law and order’

To safeguard public security, we need to combat criminal activity; and to do that, we need to address the issue at its core. Therefore, the police need to take over prisons; this well-equipped, armed, and experienced force, will bring discipline and order to these lairs of anomie and illegality, and a crackdown on prison violence, corruption, and crime. This initiative will enhance the safety of citizens, since prisons will stop providing society with more, better-trained, radicalised criminals.

This line of thinking certainly has its merits; the Greek prison system is at the brink of collapsing, and something needs to be done. Nonetheless, handing penitentiaries over to the executive will most likely deteriorate, rather than improve the situation. Such a policy departs from the traditional approach that involves the Ministry of Justice being responsible for the planning and application of correctional policy. This is the norm in the vast majority of European States, and in line with the correspondent Committee of Ministers recommendation, and the Council of Europe requirement that all new accession members are to transfer prison administration to this department.

The primary incentive behind this conventional practice concerns the separation of powers: the power to investigate crime and prosecute the offender needs to be distinct from the power to enforce the sentence imposed. This duality serves to highlight the different functions between the police and corrections, the former tasked to maintain public order and safety, enforce the law, and prevent, detect, and investigate criminal activities, the latter responsible for retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation of persons deprived of their liberty.

By implementing a policy that adopts security as its foremost priority, the Greek government flirts dangerously close with bursting Pandora’s proverbial box wide open. Allowing the executive to take control over detention centres undermines the rule of law, and invites abuse of power by the police, with grave consequences for prisoner rights and freedoms – an already vulnerable group. Furthermore, an absolute focus on security means neglecting rehabilitation as a core purpose of punishment; instead of helping prisoners re-don their citizenship cloak and return to society, it further alienates them. Such a unilateral focus also runs contrary to the common European standards of deprivation of liberty and the commitments of Greece as a member of the Council of Europe, and invites moral and financial condemnation by the international community.

To cap it all off, there is no guarantee that handing penitentiaries over to the police will fulfil the intended purpose. Such tough, 'law and order' approaches have little impact on crime – and mostly a symbolic one. The Greek government seems to be acting in response to public demand, to signal it is in charge, and able to provide protection and stability. Yet a more sound approach would consist of assisting current correctional personnel, investing in training and alternative sentencing, utilising contemporary technological tools and methods, and promoting cooperation and intelligence sharing between the judicial and the executive.

Justice’s Labour’s Lost (?)

The Shakespearean comedy ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ follows King Ferdinand and his companions in their quest to forsake the company of women, to better devote themselves to studying. Inevitably, circumstances and a series of merry meetings force them to forsake their oath and instead pledge a new one: that of marriage. Through an unfortunate twist of events, the play ultimately concludes with all weddings postponed; our heroes’ trials, tribulations and efforts were for nothing, and all the deeds of their love (first for knowledge, then for people) proved to be in vain – their love’s labour’s lost.

Shakespeare’s dramatis personae proved unable to achieve the intended results, and instead ended up rather worse than before: the same fate seems practically inevitable for the endeavour of the new government. Nonetheless, the story of Ferdinand and Co. has reached its unfortunate conclusion, while the narrative put forth by the Greek prime minister has yet to blossom. Time remains to react and reverse this policy, and restore a semblance of normality to the penal landscape.

One can only hope.