News & Views

Working with detainees in a balanced, person-centred way to fight COVID-19 in Cyprus’ central prison

Eleni Takou
Athena Dimitriou

Athena Dimitriou, Deputy Director of Cyprus Prisons, describes to CUP’s Eleni Takou how the pandemic affected everyday life in Cyprus’ central prison.


Firstly, I was wondering whether you could tell us a few things about your daily work routine prior to the pandemic and how it has now changed amid the pandemic.

“Not many things changed in my daily life, in fact during the period of the coronavirus we worked harder and at a more intense pace. Even though there was a curfew, we would stay up late at night so that the necessary protective measures would be issued and updated in a timely manner, and in order to manage to inform the detainees and staff adequately and on time. We were one of the few services that went to work every day; we took actions from the first possible moment and we were as informed as possible from the beginning to face the threat of the coronavirus on time.

Let me note here that for the past six years we have been following a new penitentiary system, shifting from a punitive system that was applied in the past, to a modern person-centred penitentiary system with the goal of correcting, reforming and personally developing each prisoner individually. So, the first coronavirus outbreak in Cyprus was on March 9, and by March 10 we had already taken precautionary measures in our prison, while the country took general measures on 15 March. You realize that, to plan these measures in such a short period of time, it took a lot of intensive work; investing a lot of our personal time since the first days we were working until midnight. We had to think about all the details, from the moment that someone arrived at the prison gate, to their entrance within the closed area of the prison. All procedures had to be changed due to the threat of the coronavirus, to protect the prison population, especially the detainees, as well as our staff, for whom we took special measures.”


Were there any cases of coronavirus in prison?

“There were no positive cases of coronavirus in our prison due to the preventive measures that we took in time; the pandemic outbreak was at critical period since we had and issues of overpopulation. From the very beginning we had submitted various requests for decongestion to tackle the problem of overpopulation. At the end, they were approved, but fortunately, thanks to the measures we had originally taken prior to the decongestion, we managed to avoid any coronavirus cases during the congested period. Aware that the result of the Covid-19 test is not decisive, as there is a period when one may have the coronavirus without showing positive on the test, it was our policy to insist on having a Covid-19 test before accepting a newcomer. Considering the asymptomatic cases, we had taken additional measures by holding the newcomers for 14 days in quarantine at a designated wing until a repetitive coronavirus test was performed.

There was one positive case that came from the police detention centers who was kept in that ward for 1 day. As soon as his test came back positive the next day, he was transported directly to a special hospital area, outside the prison. Since then, our recommendation for conducting tests on all new entrants prior to their admission to the Prisons was approved and is applied up until today. From our side, we continue to put all newcomers for a 14-day quarantine in the designated wing and then repeat the coronavirus test. To properly address the pandemic, we have trained all medical staff so that they can perform the repetitive test within our prisons. There are several measures we have taken, and they are listed in detail on the EuroPris page. We took all the necessary hygiene measures, disinfection was carried out, which we continue to do so preventively to this day, we published information leaflets and a video on the proper protection against coronavirus in the prison.

The distributed leaflets were published in Greek and English, with special icons to facilitate detainees who could not read one of the two languages; the leaflet showed how to protect themselves and what measures to take, such as, how to wash their hands properly. Additionally, we gave everyone personal soaps for their individual cleanliness, something we continue to do so to this day (as antiseptics are banned in the wards for personal use by detainees).

All these measures, as well as our daily presence in the area, made people feel safe and protected from the threat of the virus.”


In other words, the detainees showed confidence in the administration that their health was taken care of during those difficult times?

“Yes, and we all worked perfectly together, they responded positively, and complied with all the issued instructions. You know, it is very difficult when someone is already living in an enclosed space to accept further restrictions without any negative reaction, either among the detainees or against the employees. To balance off the restrictive measures, we often took other measures avoid the violation of their basic rights, such as their communication with the outside world. For example, starting from 15/3/20 we banned all family visits, but allowed the use of Skype for all detainees – previously it was only for foreign detainees or for those who did not have visits. Furthermore, we extended the available hours for telephones until 20:30 at night on a daily basis. We also took other counter measures to balance the strict protective measures regarding work, schools, and sports activities. The positive response of the detainees to all these changes in their daily lives, but also, their appreciation towards the Directorate of Prisons, towards whom they did not even create the slightest concern, was something that moved us greatly.”


How did the staff of the prison handle the coronavirus issue and how did they respond to your actions?

“The protective measures for the handling officers continue as normal, that is, we provide them with gloves, masks, and everything else they need to protect themselves, but also to protect the detainees. They are very satisfied and happy that we took the appropriate protective measures from the beginning, all of them acknowledging that we were even faster than the rest of country. One of the first moves we made was to install thermal cameras, as well as to introduce the use of an electronic thermometer when staff enter. Anyone with a fever over 37+ is not allowed to enter to the prison, giving them permission to go home. Finally, the direct disinfections, and hygiene measures were taken for all – prisoners and staff.”


If a prison officer shows any symptoms, do they also take a Covid test?

“We did a lot of tests on guards as well. For example, the one positive case that came from the police station, when he finished his treatment in the hospital, he was transferred to a designated area in Larnaca allocated for the confirmed cases, where he stayed for another 14 days to be sure that he was no longer a carrier of the virus. The personnel stationed to guard him always had personal protective equipment but was also tested for the Covid-19 virus afterwards. Personal equipment is also given to detainees during their transfer to court. Even today with the relaxation of the measures, for every member who travels, upon their returns to work, a coronavirus test is performed before taking up their office responsibilities.”


In addition to all the hygiene measures, you suggested, as far as I understand, some measures to decongest the prison. What happened with that at the end?

“We prepared a written report in which, among other things, we made suggestions concerning specific protection measures related to existing guiding policies. One of the measures we proposed was the immediate decongestion of prisons where we explained in our letter that if we had even one case of corona virus within the prison, there would be a domino effect due to overcrowding. In this bad scenario, it would not be feasible to contain this problem solely within the prison system, as it would be impossible to deal with the large number of cases, creating a problem for the entire health system of our country. Within 15 days the request for the prisons decongestion was heard, releasing detainees who did not fall into certain serious crime categories, and who had served a significant part of their sentence (more than half), with two years left until their release, excluding those charged with felonies, homicides, murders and sexual offenses.”


Within the labor and educational systems in prison, where I know that you have many programs and you do a lot of work, what impact did the pandemic have?

“It is important to emphasize that, whenever we took serious measures, we also took countermeasures, as I have mentioned before, to have a balance in people’s daily lives.

For example, when public schools closed, we did not shut down schools completely. Public school teachers from the Ministry of Education program stopped coming, but programs running with external partners continued to operate in part to keep detainees occupied. Additionally, some jobs continued. Occupations that obligated people to work closely, for example the laboratories, were halted, but in jobs that people could keep a safe distance from each other, continued.

Furthermore, our gyms were closed, but the open courts were in operation, with adjusted schedules for each wing, so that everyone’s needs were attended. This was very important because that way there was the ability of detainees to release pressure.

It is very important for the detainees who wake up at six in the morning and return to their cell in the evening, to be busy all day with various tasks, schools, sports activities, and jobs.

Sports relief, by going to the stadium to walk, run, or do whatever else they may need to before going to work (9 in the morning on weekdays, and 10 on weekends), or starting their daily responsibilities in activities and schools, is necessary.”


And the rest of the prisoners’ daily life?

“One of the measures we had to take was the temporary suspension of their 10 visits per month which they had, but, as a countermeasure, we extended the hours for the use of telephones, i.e. from 8 in the morning until 20.30 at night, and, for unlimited calls. We also provided free calling cards and financial assistance to those who did not have the resources, to serve all necessary needs.

One of the good practices which we have, adopted since January 2015, is the ability for people to use Skype. Before the pandemic, it was used more by foreigners or people who had no visits. Due to the coronavirus, and the visit restrictions, we extended the possibility of using Skype to all detainees. In general, we did everything in our hands to maintain the detainees’ contact with the outside world, in various ways, and this was received very positively by the detainees. Now, we have allowed visits again but, in a reduced number. We started with two visits for everyone per month, but we have separated our visitors with plexiglass, so that they cannot have direct physical contact. In addition, we provide all visitors with gloves and a mask to enter our prison. Visitors coming from abroad must do a coronavirus test before entering the visitation rooms. Soon we will be able to allow 4 visits per month, always maintaining the separation with the plexiglass, while continuing all the other ways of communication that I mentioned before. Due to the distance that has been created during the coronavirus period we recently held two events for children with their incarcerated parents, where they had the opportunity to enjoy time with their parents, play with inflatable toys, enjoy a juggling program, Zumba exercise, as well as eating with them. All of these may sound trivial, but they are very important as it reflects mutual appreciation and genuine interest in humans!”


This whole pandemic situation brings a lot of personal tension, so I would like to ask you, how did you manage to deal with this situation; how did you manage it on a personal level?

“The truth is that there was no time to take care of ourselves, neither I nor the director. However, the response of the people in the prisons, workers, and prisoners, was so positive that it gave us strength.”