Central Prisons turn into a place of artistic expression

Sitting amongst the works of art of 15 long term inmates which adorned the walls of the theatre hall of the closed off section of the central prisons I, for a split second, forgot where I was.

For what I anticipated was a heavy guarded event, with a clear segregation of civilians and prisoners with art work thrown on the walls to paint a flowery picture of the accomplishments of authorities while I was offered sausage rolls and fruit juice to justify my morning outing.

Yet, hearing Anna Aristotelous, Associate Director of the Prisons Department, calling out the first name of each participating prisoner in an attempt to reward them for their active contribution to what was clearly an innovative approach to the well-being of our most secluded countrymen was moving.

“For the first time, female and male prisoners worked with us in order for you to see the result you see today,” began Aristotelous. “The joy of collective effort, mutual respect, and teamwork which we used to work together on the smallest details, from the decoration of space as well as the preparation of a small artistic programme…is something we will never forget, and we will aim, from now on, to always work in the same way,” she added.

To this end, the one-to-one revelation of artistic expression to members of the wider public and relatives of creators bought a humanistic approach to life in prison and the inner world of its inhabitants. Poetry readings, live music performances, paintings, sculptures and creations gave insight to the work that has been accomplished through the programme of the Evening Technical School which has been on offer since last September.

“Within the framework of the smooth reintegration of prisoners, my goal is, for this exhibition, as all efforts and activities (of the Evening Technical School programme) which demonstrate the personal development of prisoners, to be a milestone in the philosophy and new approach of the Prisons Department, and for prisoners themselves, to feel secure in the prison environment, to believe in their potential, for their lives to gain meaning, and become active, responsible citizens, both inside and outside the prison,” stated Aristotelous.

The exhibition then was also an opportunity to bring light to a series of new initiatives which aim at eliminating stereotypical situations seen within the prisons and change its culture and attitude as a whole.
These include the creation of a theatre group within the coming year, increased hours of sports activities, new sports equipment, friendly football games outside the prison premises, the additional of new activities such as sewing, cooking and hagiography, but also the acquisition of new materials which were forbidden in the past and the replacement of old tools with modern ones.

Beyond this, focusing on the education and training of prisoners has also seen the support of the Minister of Justice and the Education and Culture Ministry in offering the opportunity to prisoners to obtain high school diplomas.

“Considering that education is a healthy pass time within the prison, we aim to broaden the educational and professional horizons of prisoners with increased opportunities, giving them the opportunity to face life with greater optimism either through education or through occupational rehabilitation in order to satisfy the diverse needs of individuals to the maximum… we are implementing a strategy to allow the correction and smoother integration of prisoners in Cypriot society, through targeted actions, setting a strong foundation for a modernised prison system.,” said Aristotelous.

Going back to the values stressed throughout the event, new, core changes at the heart of the mental well-being of inmates also depict changes which will make the daily life of prisoners more human. As Aristotelous put forward, these include the increase if visitors from 15 to 20, the increase in the number of visits from 10 to 12, increase in the allowance of telephone conversation and incoming calls, as well as the integration of Skype calls for prisoners who are not entitled to visitors, or who have visitors which cannot visit them due to distance or serious medical problems.

In any case, inaugurating an exhibition which will remain open to visitors on weekends implicates an approach to a parallel society which has, up to date, been unheard of and can only instigate a dialogue which has a lot to offer, for inmates but also for the benefit of the wider society.

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About Melissa Hekkers

I am freelance journalist and author, who has frequently been featured in mainstream news outlets and other publications in Cyprus. Recently, I've been focusing on developing my writing, promoting my own books and teaching creative writing to children and adults. My most recent publication (2020) - Amir's Blue Elephant- pushes the boundaries of creative non-fiction, and recreates the moments that marked me the most, whilst volunteering in refugee camps in Lesvos, Greece, and during her ongoing involvement with the refugee community in Cyprus. In 2018 I published My Capre Greco Mandala which is the third in a series, an interactive colouring book about the biodiversity of the Cape Greco peninsula in Cyprus. My Akamas Mandala, the second in the series, is a colouring book inspired by the variety of endemic plants found on the Akamas Peninsula. In 2016, I published My Nicosia Mandala, the first of the above series, an innovative, interactive colouring book about the historic fortifications of the old town of Nicosia. I also focuses on silenced communities in Cyprus: I writes about migrants and refugees, both as a reporter and a features writer; I profile them and teach them creative writing skills. In 2007, soon after graduating with a Communications degree, I published my first children’s book in both English and Greek entitled Crocodile, which won the Cyprus State Illustration Award. In 2012, I launched my second children’s book Flying across Red Skies (in English and Greek), using an experimental approach to literature, for which I was nominated for the Cyprus State Literary award. My third, similarly well-received children’s book was Pupa (Greek and English), published in 2014. In between the last two books, I published my first free-verse poetry book entitled Come-forth. In 2019 she was contributing author to the anthology Nicosia Beyond Barriers: Voices from a Divided City, published by Saqi Books, London