The Juvenile Prison at Avlona, 45 km northeast of Athens, is Greece's largest for young offenders. It houses approximately 400 males between the ages of 15 and 21, at least 100 more than its intended capacity.
What follows is a double interview with two women who came to adopt the prison and started a campaign to make life better for the boys that just won't stop.
Becky Sakellariou is an American poet, who has lived in Greece for 45 years. Her "partner in crime," Di Drymoussi, is a "Yorkshire lass" married to a Greek. I interviewed them separately at their homes in the northern suburbs of Athens.
Becky: It all started with a tiny announcement in the Athens News, something about donations for a male juvenile prison. The list of needs was mundane: toothpaste, flipflops, shampoo, soap, and toilet paper. Toilet paper! How can anyone live without toilet paper?
This was July 2010. I shouldn't have been in the city at all, and yet within the hour I was in the office of the charity -- Mazi yia to Paidi (Together for the Child) -- that sponsored the drive. I'm not a do-gooder by nature but I went on a tear. It was the horror of discovering those young men, forgotten and without toilet paper in the middle of summer.
DFL: The charity, an umbrella organization, put her in touch with a social worker at Avlona, and the next day she found herself being clicked through a series of locked gates and learning about the place.
The buildings are those of an old military prison, which was remodelled in the early 90s for young inmates. Mostly Greeks and Roma, they were transferred from Athens' main prison at Korydallos, and relatives supplemented the often inadequate institutional supplies.
But around eight years ago, the prison populations all over the country started to escalate, filling up to bursting with immigrants, both legal and illegal. At Avlona, three-quarters of the inmates are now non-Greek, with no family support. They come from Albania, Afghanistan, the Middle East, North Africa, Pakistan, and 33 other countries. Although a few older, responsible inmates are kept on to help, most are sent to the adult male prison at Korydallos when they reach 21, unless they are enrolled in the prison school. Most are serving sentences for petty crimes which are often drug-related.
Becky: Naturally, these young migrant men often speak little Greek and, in general, live in bleak, very cramped conditions. They seemed utterly neglected by the Department of Prisons, which although it manages to feed the prisoners, does not always allocate adequate supplies, whence the lack of toilet paper. My private theory for this is that these prisoners represent the underclass of the underclass. In any case, they're definitely not a government priority. Add to that Greece's notoriously sluggish bureaucracy, ministerial changes, and our current crisis, and you have this colony of lost boys.
I left the prison that day with all this information and I just knew that I'd have to put my resources and knowledge to work and see what I could do. I set no goals, so I didn't feel trapped. The toilet paper had become the symbol, spurring me on. You could say I had a 'calling' or an epiphany. Whatever it was, it has now become a serious, passionate endeavour for me.
DFL: Becky wrote an email to her friends and sent letters in English -- so they'd be noticed -- to dozens of agencies, international and Greek, from the EU Commission on Human Rights and Amnesty International to the Department of Prisons and the Citizens Protection Bureau, which she actually visited only to find a lone woman surrounded by 16 empty desks. She also wrote to the foreign schools in Athens, proposing that the IB students take on some kind of help as part of their community service component; but only one responded.
Becky: One might say, 'Oh, nothing major happened -- what could one lone woman do, really?' but I think that by simply shifting the molecules and changing the field, something will start happening. And, of course, it did. Don't we all do this when we make any kind of move? I got some wonderfully helpful ideas from friends, donations began to dribble in, connections to other organizations sprang up out of the blue. And then, I heard from my future 'partner in crime', Di Drymoussi.
Di, who has lived slightly longer in Brussels than in Athens, belongs to a group of expats called Newcomers. On receiving the initial appeal from Becky, whom she had met only once, she offered to put a notice about the prison needs on their online bulletin board.
Di: I never expected the response I got -- it seemed like a roller coaster at the time.
DFL: In the meantime, Becky met Petros Damianos, the principal of the prison school, which makes a tremendous difference to the lives of its students. Although the school has serious difficulties in getting teachers and has had, at times, to operate for the first half of the year with a skeleton staff of four or five, it still manages to achieve astonishing results. Attendance is voluntary and about 150 of the inmates are enrolled. Those that attend get a day off their sentences for every day they show up.
Becky: The high school operates as any Greek public school would, within its own particular limits, and the elementary school has become a center for the teaching of Greek to the foreign inmates, some of whom are actually illiterate in their native tongues. It's a challenge. But the boys are truly amazing, eager, and successful. Several have even done well in national mathematics competitions.
As I got into this, my question was 'what does the prison need and what does it want'? I asked Damianos to draw up a wish list, and he said, 'we want a library, with books in Greek and other languages.'
Di: The call went out on the Newcomers Bulletin Board and within six months we had a thousand books, including dictionaries, in almost all the languages requested -- from Albanian to Urdu, Arabic, and Farsi.
In October, I got a nice email from Becky, thanking me and lamenting that everything would die down now that she was leaving for New Hampshire, where she spends half the year. I'd told her I only wanted to stay on the fringes. But then it kind of ran away with me. It was non-stop, but I couldn't let it drop when Becky left. By November I found myself totally and utterly IN and the circle keeps on widening.
The book drive was our first big success. But at Christmas when I went out to the prison, I was horrified to see the books still in their boxes all over the floor. There was nowhere to put them. I wrote to Becky and she put me in touch with a carpenter friend, who volunteered to make the cabinets and shelves if we'd pay for the materials. When they were installed a couple of months later, Damianos was almost beside himself with excitement.
Before that, though, came the idea of Christmas gift bags, containing sweets and telecards (so the boys can call home). One anonymous donor offered 150 cards (at 600 euros), so I thought I could easily come up with another 250 -- one for every boy. The story was a cliffhanger. Finding the funds to buy such a large number of cards in 18 days was a real challenge. Sklavenitis supermarket donated chocolate bars and when my baker heard why I wanted 400 special cookies, she donated them to me along with the little bags to put them in. Everything came together at the 11th hour, but I almost got tendonitis stuffing the last 150 bags the night before I was due to go out there.
Becky: Throughout the winter, Di was emailing me about her visits, performances at the prison by the boys -- Arabic hiphop and Christmas carols, for example -- and theatrical performances. We'd exchange ideas and discovered that we were two sides of the same coin, even though we didn't actually meet until the following spring (2011).
Since then, Di has gotten swept away by the project just like me and our successes have been huge. We've also met some amazing people, like the former prison director, Dr. Pavlos Doulamis. He's a rara avis, a civil servant who thinks outside the box, and likes the challenge of something that seemingly 'cannot be done' -- a common mantra in the public sector. Doulamis was transferred to another prison in December, 2011, and the former Deputy Director, Marina Bouki, a lively, engaged, outstanding young woman, has taken his place. She is very enthusiastic about instituting changes that will make the lives of these young men more healthy and more hopeful. I think the prison staff we work with are constantly taken aback by the fact that Di and I, two foreign women, keep returning, do what we say we are going to do, follow through, and are constant. So many organizations approach the prison once, send over a donation or some clothes, and never reappear. But for me, there was no question that I was going to abandon these people; it boils down to taking responsibility, showing up, and using the privilege I've been granted in this life to a good and positive cause.
Although there have been lots of dead ends, the people who 'have come up roses' are still doing it again and again. And through networking of the best kind, we've been able to deliver things that were unthinkable. For example, since the summer of 2010, thanks largely to a few repeat donors who wish to remain anonymous, we've managed to buy or acquire fans for every cell, mini-ovens, small TVs, and two washer/dryers. One of the present projects is to find funding for 1000 square meters of tiles for the corridor walls, and finally OPAP [the state lottery fund which actually has a Community Outreach Program] are going to build a football field after lots of lobbying. I am often reminded of Nelson Mandela, who once wrote about how important team sports were to him and his fellow inmates during those long years he spent incarcerated in South Africa.
Di: It's amazing that donations keep coming in, even now when there are so many other needy groups. Our Newcomers Bulletin Board must reach at least 2000 people, way more than our membership of 350. And so, goods for the prison keep accumulating in my basement. I now go out there two, sometimes three times a month.
In the beginning, I could feel the staff questioning, 'who IS this foreign lady?' I could see that at first they believed they'd never see me again, but I always seemed to have another carload to deliver. The head guard told me last Christmas, 'It's so nice that you keep on coming, bringing things. Others come but only once or twice. Why do you do it?'
Do I need a reason? It just makes me feel happy. I've never questioned it.