How day to day life changed in Greece’s largest prison psychiatric hospital in the time of Covid-19
The CUP project interviewed Maria Stefa, a Social Worker at the Korydallos Prison Psychiatric Hospital, about the reality of the Covid-19 pandemic in the prison context. Korydallos Prison is the largest and more central prison in Greece and it was at the centre of attention during that period. The full text of the interview is published in Greek, and a shorter adaptation in English.
Could you tell us a little bit about your work in general? What was your daily work routine prior to the pandemic?
My name is Maria Stefa and I am a Social Worker at the Korydallos Prison Psychiatric Hospital. I have been working there for the past five years. I previously worked in Local Government and in European Co-financed Projects, where I worked with various vulnerable population groups. I am also completing my postgraduate studies in “Social Psychiatry”, at the Medical School of the Democritus University of Thrace (DUTH).
At the Korydallos Prison Psychiatric Hospital the work responsibilities of the Social Worker are set by the existing legislations within the Internal Regulations for the Operation of General Detention Centers Types A&B, as well as in the respective operation mandates of the Center. More specifically, our daily work as social workers, prior to the pandemic, was based on Cross-methodical Social Work, which suggests: social work on a case-by-case basis (with detainees), with groups of detainees, with their families and the community.
Our duties, among others, included assessing the social background of new inmates; case monitoring, counseling and psychosocial support and preparation for social reintegration and the compilation of reports for the conditional release of detainees, on the conduct of detainees, as well as on work and social rehabilitation programmes including making suggestions for the regular release of detainees. In collaboration with volunteers, we are also responsible for coordinating creative engagement activities for detainees. We have groups focusing on theater, artistic expression, and crafts. We also benefit from community programmes, social and cultural events, and the use of social and community resources, activating a network of volunteers collaborating with the services and agencies. Finally, in cooperation with the detainees’ families and with the broader supportive environment directed at the detainees, we are responsible for meeting their needs, including their health-related needs, as well as fostering their effective social reintegration.
Were there / are there, any cases of Covid-19 in the prison where you work? In the country’s prisons in general?
During the pandemic, there were no cases of Covid-19 in our Centre, or in any other Detention Center in Greece. The Ministry, and the relevant General Secretariat for Anti-Crime Policy took timely protective measures in the Detention Centres to prevent and avoid the spread of the virus. As a result, specific instructions were applied to all Detention Centers. Instructions were disseminated through circulars from the Ministry and interventions were implemented along with the protective measures recommended by the National Public Health Organization. The information flow to the Detention Centers throughout the pandemic and during the gradual lifting of these measures was good and consistent.
What was the institutional response to the pandemic in your country’s penitentiary system, both in the short term (reduction of prisoners, release of prisoners, personal protection measures, etc.) and in the long term (preparedness plan for the next day)?
The Ministry was able to coordinate both short and longer-term institutional responses to the pandemic by all penitentiaries in the country. Specific measures were implemented through a series of circulars in accordance with current legislation. These measures were aimed at preventing the spread of the virus to prisoners and prison staff, as well as, providing prevention and containment protocols for the management of active COVID-19 cases in line with guidance from the National Public Health Organisation – EODY.
Public health protection measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace included for example limiting the minimum number of employees required to attend on a daily basis and implementing rotas. All kinds of educational activities and other events as well as ceremonies or functions in places of religious worship, were prohibited. No food or clothing could be brought inside the prisons and family visits were stopped. Transfers to court hearings were reduced to a minimum. All release permits for detainees were temporarily suspended. Only the most urgent medical cases were transferred for medical examinations. A special isolation area was created for suspected COVID-19 patients including any confirmed symptomatic and asymptomatic cases, as well as any suspected cases until they could be safely transported to hospital or for their 14-day confinement. Mandatory temperature scans were imposed on incoming detainees, visitors, lawyers and staff.
As the pandemic has receded, almost all the above measures have been gradually lifted in accordance with current legislation and the operation of the Centre.
More specifically, how did the work and educational issues get affected by the pandemic within the prison that you work, but also in general? What is the situation now?
At this stage, all restrictive measures have been lifted. Only necessary preventive measures are followed, such as the mandatory distance thermal scanning of incoming detainees, visitors, lawyers, and staff, as well as the mandatory fourteen-day confinement of newly arrived detainees. Protocols for the prevention and management of potential COVID-19 patients in Detention Centers and the measures for Public Health protection by preventing the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace also still apply.
During the pandemic, the Department of Social Work of the Detention Center implemented all the instructions and informed the detainees about the implementation of the measures, followed by their gradual removal. The working hours of the employees of the Department were adjusted according to the needs and the operation of the Centre, which included morning and afternoon working hours (rotating working hours). At the same time, detainees who were employed were required to wear a mask and gloves, as well as respecting social distancing rules. During the pandemic, group activities and training programmes were temporarily suspended. Regarding the education of the prisoners, an alternative, distance learning approach was implemented for those prisoners who were studying for national examinations.
During the pandemic, when stricter measures were taken to avert and prevent the spread of the virus, regular sessions with detainees were avoided and, when they took place, they were limited in time and always with the necessary preventive measures. At the same time, contact with the families in the office was not allowed, and only telephone communications were allowed for a time. All scheduled events in collaboration with the community (for example music events, theatrical performances), the operation of the group activities as well as the regular leave of the detainees, were suspended. All these necessary measures were gradually lifted, resulting in the gradual return to the previous norms. The continuous cooperation with colleagues and other mental health professionals within the Centre, as well as the constant flow of information and guidance on preventive actions, helped us to deal with the crisis caused by the pandemic.
For example, more recently, the Ministry developed and disseminated a Mental Health Management Guide for the COVID-19 Pandemic to the Prison Population in Greek, English, Arabic, and Albanian.