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Detention in Kos and Monitoring Practices



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Post by Hindpal Bhui. Hindpal is Inspection Team Leader at HM Inspectorate of Prisons, UK and a Visiting Professor at the Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford.  He has undertaken several hundred inspections and visits to prisons and immigration detention facilities, and has advised and trained prison monitors across the world. 

In September 2019, we accompanied the Greek National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) on monitoring visits to detention facilities on Kos, comprising the pre-removal detention centre, the police detention facility and the prison. The visit provided an opportunity to contrast monitoring of immigration detention with prison and police custody, which both held large numbers of foreign nationals. We met with the director of the reception and identification centre (RIC) which adjoins the removal centre, but the NPM did not undertake a monitoring visit of the camp. This post briefly describes the detention sites, the NPM’s monitoring practices, and a subsequent training workshop. The training focused on prevention of suicide and self-harm and managing the risk of sanctions and reprisals. All visits were announced in advance by the Greek NPM to ensure access for the research team and other visitors who were also observing the NPM’s work. 

Kos pre-removal detention centre

Monitoring of Kos Prison

The prison visit was the most structured of the monitoring visits we observed on Kos. Opened in the 1950s, Kos prison had an official capacity of 56 but held just over 100 prisoners. About two-thirds of them were foreign nationals, including Turks, Syrians and Albanians.  Two monitors went to the prison in the morning, before the arrival of the full NPM team. They left a questionnaire the NPM had recently developed for distribution. The questionnaire asked a series of useful questions, mostly about safety. The NPM was still exploring methods of analysing the information and it was not yet clear how it would be used in their reports. The NPM told us that they normally collected the questionnaires back from prisoners themselves but, on this occasion, they had left them with prison staff to hand out. This compromised confidentiality and created risks of reprisals. It also raised questions about the utility of the information gathered.

Prisoners were held in large, over-crowded dormitories. All the rooms had bunk-beds, air-conditioning and 3-4 televisions. There was some outside space and we were told that prisoners were able to use it each day, and could also work if they wanted to.

It was positive that the NPM went to every prison block. However, as the visit had been announced, the institution was ready for their arrival. Prisoners in each area appeared to have been primed to speak for their colleagues. The prison director and his staff accompanied the NPM, which made it impossible for prisoners to raise any points critical of the prison staff without risk of reprisal. They mainly complained about the lack of financial investment in the prison and made a point of saying that the director and his staff were good. The feeling was of a staged VIP tour rather than assertive human rights-based monitoring.

The director told us that two prisoners had died in the past year, both while on home leave.  The police and public prosecutor investigated the deaths and there were apparently no recommendations for the prison.  There was no specialist fatal incidents investigating body, such as the Prison and Probation Ombudsman in England and Wales. We saw two bleak isolation cells with an adjoining shower and toilet area where prisoners could be held for three days. Some long-term prisoners worked in well-kept gardens, where they grew vegetables. We were in the prison for approximately two hours 45 minutes, and an hour of this time was spent with the director.

Monitoring of police detention

The police detention facility visit was a disorientating experience. The facility was located in a beautiful Italian-designed building which had accommodated the occupying fascist administration from 1929 to 1943, before it was briefly succeeded by the British post-war administration. Tourists walking around the upper floors looked down on an inner courtyard circled by plants and flowers arranged under attractive arches. Anyone troubling to look beyond the greenery could see the bars of the police cells and the tourists may have wondered whose arms were sometimes poking through them. The NPM did not enter any of the cells. Instead, they spoke to detainees through the bars.  All those detained were foreign nationals and between them spoke little Greek or English. The NPM had no interpreters. Two of the group observing the NPM’s work could speak some of the detainees’ languages and assisted the NPM with non-professional interpretation.

The men spoken to expressed considerable uncertainty about what was going to happen to them, and said they feared removal and lacked legal advice. They could not easily communicate with the police. One man from Pakistan was happy to cooperate with removal to his home country, but said he had been given no information on how he could do so. It was unclear how long people had been held in the police cells, although it appeared that they had typically been held for about three days; one man said he had been held for longer but this was disputed by the police who showed the NPM a record showing that he had been in the cells for three days. As far as we could tell from the outside, the cells were dingy, dark and dirty. There was an inside toilet.  None of the detainees had been allowed outside the cells. The NPM listened to some detainees’ concerns and handed out some leaflets about the Ombudsman’s work. 

Monitoring of pre-removal detention 

Our visit to the pre-removal detention centre was short and unstructured. As we have seen before, the NPM did not visit all areas of the centre. One monitor looked inside a detainee dormitory. The rest of the group took a few steps into a detainee compound before being surrounded by anxious men who were keen to ask questions and to see if the NPM could help them. Communication was difficult. The NPM had brought some leaflets outlining the Ombudsman’s work, but only Arabic language ones were available. Most detainees were asking for English versions. The visit to the pre-removal centre lasted about two hours.


A key objective of our work with Greek detention monitors has been to to support learning and collaboration between monitoring bodies. They have attended inspections in England conducted by HM Inspectorate of Prisons, and I have previously delivered training on monitoring methodology. They have always asked for honest and clear feedback. During our most recent visit to Greece, the NPM also asked for a workshop that covered suicide and self-harm prevention, and the risk of reprisals against detainees or others who may cooperate with an NPM. 

The Greek authorities do not routinely publish statistics on self-inflicted deaths in custody and there is little research in this area. However, some dated but significant studies suggest a fairly high rate of self-inflicted death (Spinellis and Themeli 1997; Cheliotis 2012; Sakelliadis et al 2013). The study by Spinellis and Themeli (1997) was based on an examination of official records of deaths in custody from 1977-1996, and found a rate of 112 suicides per 100,000 inmates, with numbers fluctuating widely from 32.3 in 1982 to 390.8 in 1979.  Cheliotis (2012) reports 268 prisoner deaths between 2001 and 2007, many from drug overdoses. He notes that vague death classification categories make it impossible to identify the cause of death in many cases. More recent but unofficial data suggests there were 135 deaths from 2015 to 2018, including 51 in 2018.

The facility directors generally had a punitive attitude towards self-harming behaviour and, indeed, are encouraged by the Greek Correctional Code, which views attempted suicide as a disciplinary offence. During the prison and immigration removal centre visits, the directors were cynical about detainee self-harm, describing it as attention-seeking and not a serious matter. There was no recognition of self-harm as an extreme behaviour that indicates distress, nor of the potential for death to occur regardless of the primary motivation for self-harming behaviour. There is no specialist investigation of self-inflicted deaths in Greece to help ensure that lessons are learned. 

On the subject of reprisals, the workshop was organised around the APT’s excellent guide on mitigating the risks of sanctions related to detention monitoring. The core message of this guidance is that the most effective way to minimise risk of reprisals is to conduct well-planned and methodologically sound monitoring practices that avoid causing harm.

Some conclusions on the work of the Greek NPM

In theory, NPMs provide a powerful human rights safeguard for those held in detention, as outlined in the project team’s two reports published in 2018 and 2019. The Greek NPM was regularly visiting detention facilities of all types and managers were starting to understand more about its role. It was relatively new, having been created in 2013, and was still developing its capability in the context of difficult political, financial and technical challenges. The NPM was increasing the length of its monitoring visits in prisons and was trying to give greater prominence to detainees’ voices. However, positive innovations such as the detainee survey were not yet being used in the immigration context and the unique challenges of immigration detention, such as the need for interpreters, were not yet being met.   

Not enough advantage was taken of the various opportunities for meaningful face-to-face dialogue and evidence-gathering. Giving detainees written information about the Ombudsman’s remit and work was potentially useful, but this practice was in danger of becoming a bureaucratic procedure that provided merely the illusion of purposeful monitoring. A leaflet is only of value if it informs and assists. Most of the immigration detainees could not read it and there was little evidence that anyone had actually made contact with the NPM as a result of receiving a leaflet. Similarly, the questionnaire was not yet being used effectively to inform the NPM’s work.

At the training workshop, constructive and open discussion took place about the NPM’s methodology.  It was understood that if detention facility directors do not expect the NPM to speak to detainees or prisoners privately, or visit all areas, the critical deterrent aspect of detention monitoring is fundamentally undermined. The risk of doing harm through monitoring practices that fail to limit the risk of reprisals – such as talking to detainees in the hearing of staff – was covered at length. The NPM committed itself to establishing a consistent methodology that addresses such concerns. We will continue to assist this process where possible through practical training and collaboration.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Bhui, H. (2019) Detention in Kos and Monitoring Practices. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2019/11/detention-kos-and (Accessed [date]

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