07 / 12 / 2018

Life after prison: Stories of integration

Integration of former inmates is not easy. Education seems to be one of few options.




Andreas never made it to any of our appointments. The first time, he called to cancel saying that he had to go to a job interview. To the good luck wishes, he replied with a sarcastic laugh, giving the impression that it would be one more futile attempt at finding a job, just like all the others. After the second failed attempt at meeting, Andreas sent apologetic messages regarding promises that he could not keep, without however providing further explanation. A kind of confusion seemed to dictate his decisions – about what he thought he should do and what he actually wanted to do or could do. Maybe he had just forgotten how to say no. Andreas had only been out of prison for five months, after being incarcerated for five years. Confusion seems to be the least of the obstacles of a new beginning.

Attempts at reintegration

Reintegration seems to be both practical and existential. A former inmate who prefers to remain anonymous, describes the anxiety of interaction: social events and lively street scenes are not places where he feels comfortable. Once out of prison, it felt like a day hadn’t gone by, but his friends and family had indeed changed. Time had changed their friendships and lives, and when returning to regularity, he was the one who had to get to know everyone all over again. In his case, the positive thing was that he always had a supportive group of friends and family to help fill the gap between prison and society – which is a key part of successful reintegration.

For many former inmates, however, this is not the case. The existence of a social circle isn’t a guarantee, nor does it mean access to financial resources, which is necessary for survival – a need that arises the day after being released from prison. In addition, (and this isn’t a rare occurrence), the environment to which one returns may have been initially criminal, so the chances of the newly-released person engaging in criminal activity are increased. As the former inmate states: “Prison seems easier the second time.”

Giorgos Tatsionas is a member of the social cooperative New Horizons, which was created by former inmates in 2014 and provides facilities cleaning, restoration as well as gardening services. He explains that what the company offers the newly-released understanding and adaptability to the needs of their lives.

New Horizons, in addition to being a unique initiative, is more like a temporary solution to familiarizing the former inmate with the labor market and helping them earn initial income and then later, to aid in searching for better job prospects. “When someone comes out he receives government assistance, which is only €260 and nothing else,” says Tatsionas, “That’s it. The state doesn’t provide anything else. You’re on your own. We know people who get out and have nowhere to go and are forced to do something illegal so they can go back in again, because they can’t live on the outside.”

In a setting with minimal structures to facilitate social reintegration, there’s only one state organization, called Epanodos, which provides short stays in a hostel or hotel and offers meals. Also, within its framework, it offers access to counseling services and vocational training. Indicative, however, of the treatment of former inmates in Greece, is the long delay in establishing Epanodos, which, although enacted by law in 1999, didn’t operate until 2007 and even then, under limited functionality mainly in the capital (Athens), as funding would never be sufficient for the overall management of reintegration services.

Poverty, of course, is the answer to many of the questions that ask not only why someone was in prison but also why he was not reintegrated into society. The problem of survival is associated with unequal access to the labor market – which is already limited in Greece even for the general population – and in addition to these problems, there’s also the issue of narcotics.

The anonymous former inmate describes the drug deals in prison, mainly heroin, which is so openly used that inmates don’t hesitate to post photos of lines in their cells on Facebook – photos taken with their phones, which are also supposedly prohibited in prison.

However, in addition to poverty, the lack of a supportive environment, and drug addiction – all of which are conditions common within the inmate population, an important factor that hinders social reintegration is linked to the very structure of the Greek prison system and the correlations which develop within it.

“(Greek) prison may not be what we imagine, like we see in American movies, but it is a tough environment,” says Tassos Theofilou. He will soon receive, per court order, a compensation of €20 for each day of unjust incarceration in prison. Having a first instance imprisonment of 25 years for a bank robbery in Paros and for the murder of a taxi driver despite the blatant lack of incriminating evidence, he remained incarcerated for five years before his final acquittal.

He dedicated his time in prison to observing how the prison system works and transcribing the stories of his fellow inmates – Correspondence from the house of the dead was the title of one of his books. Theofilou explains to Solomon how one is predestined, from the very first moment of his imprisonment, to his later inability to reintegrate:

“The only way to survive with dignity and relative comfort is to latch on to one of the existing prison hierarchies. So, you are entitled to visitations but the warden can prohibit them, just to show you who’s boss. You understand that (the only way to avoid this) is to get a higher-ranking prisoner to ask on your behalf. In this way, you (the lesser, isolated prisoner) have a motive, a reason to adhere to a hierarchy. But that makes you illegal afterwards. You have clung to a criminal hierarchy and these criminal hierarchies are reflected on the outside. This is also the role of prison in a sense. You enter as a minor offender and you leave as a criminal in an organization, because you have to establish yourself in order to survive.”

In this way, small favors made for a dignified or comfortable life in prison are exchanged for illegal favors on the outside. This is not something that prison guards ignore. Theofilou explains: “This hierarchy is very beneficial to the prison administration, the head prison guard assigns ward management to a ‘high-ranking inmate’ because the guards are not present in the ward all day. In turn, the head prison guard will reward this inmate some privileges so he will think it’s beneficial to him to do the task, and so in turn these privileges then filter down through the hierarchy.”

Anastasia Tsoukala, lawyer, criminologist and associate professor at Paris University XI, further explains: “It’s not just that there’s an ‘underworld’ environment inside prisons, it’s that the state itself, through its staff, the prison guards, contributes to the perpetuation of this toxic condition, willingly and unwillingly.”

After prison, university

In discussing the pathologies of the Greek penitentiary system, Anastasia Tsoukala sheds light on the important issue of educational furlough, which in recent times has been a topic of debate and has divided public opinion. Inmates have a constitution alright to enroll in higher education.

“It is indicative that the efforts inmates make are not only to get educational furlough. In other European countries this issue is already solved, for us it’s a request. One manages, after great struggles to get into an institution of higher learning and for reasons of the penitentiary or disciplinary reasons he may be denied the educational furlough or the right to access the internet”, Tsoukala stresses. The recent example of inmate Vassilis Dimakis, who went on a hunger strike because he was denied furlough to attend his classes at the Athens School of Law even while wearing a tracking device, is not the only case.

Tsoukala continues: “The current point of view within the system is: ‘There’s no way he really wants to study. It’s just a way to get out of prison’ – This is the absolute denial of an attempt for the inmate to be reformed. But there’s a part of Greek society that scornfully dismisses it. We think these are just little tricks they use to get out,” she adds.

Petros Damianos, the director of the junior high and high school at the Avlona Youth Special Detention Center, knows the issues pertaining to inmate education well. In regards to educational furloughs, Damianos is up-front: “A young man who wants to take the university entrance exams and who is also incarcerated – it’s too difficult to succeed,” he says. “What matters to them is that they will get out. What happens afterwards, well they can’t understand it before it happens to them. They can’t comprehend the benefit to their personal and spiritual development, the knowledge they will gain, their professional rehabilitation. All these things come after success. In the moment, they only think about the furlough, of getting out.”

It doesn’t sound strange, especially in view of a teenager’s psychological state, to want to get into university in order to receive compensation. Under normal circumstances sometimes parents “bribe” their kids with the gift of a car so they’ll have an incentive to do well on their exams. One could observe that in this case, it’s just a healthy flow towards freedom.

However, Damianos is right. The benefits of education can only be understood later, as in the case of one of his students who was accepted at a technical university. In order to solve the issue of the new student attending classes, (as it’s not a simple matter to transport an inmate and it requires excellent cooperation between the prison management and the university administration), the inmate was granted permission to visit the Dean’s office with his mother. He came into contact with a world quite different than what he knew, he was treated with respect by the Dean and school administration – this caused the young inmate to confess to Damianos the very next day “His mother saw him in a new light.”

The right to access education is not universal in Greek prisons. It wasn’t until March 2018 that a law was passed that provides for the establishment of all school grades in all of the country’s prisons and applies the substance of the Council Recommendation (89) 12, which defines access for all prisoners to education. “Everyone who wants it,” stresses Damianos – education is not a penalty.

Rokas Balbieris from Lithuania was one of the inmates who wanted access to education. At the age of 20, he was arrested at the Greek border for drug trafficking and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. He did not speak Greek, and it seemed that he would have to spend many years in Greece – or rather in the Heterotopia of prison, which is a country in its own right.

“The moment the judge told me that I had been sentenced to 15 years, I thought, he doesn’t know me personally, he doesn’t know what kind of person I am. He reads a piece of paper telling him what crime I’ve committed, and what punishment I should get. The only thing that he decides is how long. Everything else, how I’ll feel, what I’ll do and what other decisions I’ll make – that’s for me to determine. I realized that I’d be staying and decided to do what I could to pass the time well, and learn what I could for my future. I joined the music group and then started going to the gym, I went to school, there was a chess club, I went there, then there was a class that taught us how to install aluminum windows so I went to it. I would attend any class I could. In the summer when there weren’t any classes, I worked as a cleaner and then in the prison cafeteria, and time started flying. Two years later I was transferred to the big ward with the adults.”

Balbieris admits he was lucky to end up at Avlona prison, where there was a school. He’s not sure that he would have been able to achieve what he did, later on the outside, if he had found himself in another prison which lacked educational opportunities and had difficult living conditions due to overpopulation.

Eventually, Balbieris learned Greek but mostly learned another language which he was probably somewhat proficient: the language of mathematics. In only a short time period, he managed to achieve something that many students from ‘regular’ schools struggle to attain – he was accepted into one of the country’s best institutions of higher learning, the Polytechnic, in the School of Applied Mathematics and Natural Sciences.

He remained in prison for four years and was released after the Court of Appeal’s decision reduced his sentence. Today Balbieris is in his 6th year of university but nothing is guaranteed. He is in danger of deportation and is waiting for another court decision which has been delayed for years. But thus far, his reintegration has been smooth. The organization Epanodos supports him financially so it’s easier for him to focus on finishing his difficult courses and graduating with his fellow students on time. Also, he works at temporary jobs, but he has been advised by former inmates about the difficulty in looking for a proper job and dealing with the stigma of incarceration.

That’s why he hesitated to tell his fellow students how he ended up in Greece. “The first year I avoided telling others that I was in jail. But because I don’t like being dishonest, I said I came to Greece because of difficulties or for work and then I stayed –which was partly true. I thought if they knew, they would have avoided me.”

This was not the case, because Balbieris was a bright example of how beneficial educational opportunities for inmates can be. As is the case with most free people, when Balbieris was just 16 years old, living in Vilnius, he was unable to recognize the critical need for reintegration: “I remember walking along with a friend and we were approached by a man who was very honest, he asked us for change because he had just been released from prison and didn’t want to resort to stealing. Although I had money, I didn’t give him anything. I’ve come to regret that very much.”

In the end, we can recognize the right to the reintegration of inmates as an inalienable right for those who have served their time – as the laws of the society in which they live – or in the least we can think about reintegration as a means of reducing crime. In any case, it seems that one should be able to disassociate the inmate from the imaginary presumption of criminal predisposition. In other words, that someone was born a criminal, so any attempted rehabilitation aimed at a healthy return to society is futile.

For Balbieris, such an interpretation would seem silly. When I got up from the table where we sat at an outdoor café in central Athens to go inside for a bit, I said to him “I’m leaving my stuff here,” he responded immediately in a cheerful tone “Don’t worry, I won’t steal anything.” We laughed and then we both returned to the routine of freedom.

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