by Dionysis Chionis,
lawyer - PhD Candidate Criminology
July 4th, 2006. A sunny Athenian Sunday and the day of the Acropolis rally of Greece. The rally was being covered by helicopters, coming and going in the Attica sky. One helicopter however heads towards Korydallos prison and lands in the courtyard of the Judicial Prison to the surprise of the both the guards and prisoners. However, not everyone was taken by surprise; Vassilis Paleokostas, a notorious Greek outlaw along with his friend and accomplice Alcetas Riza take their cue and amid the general confusion lift off in a cloud of dust in the helicopter to freedom.
In a scene reminiscent of a Hollywood script, the authorities are mobilised and begin the pursuit of the fugitives. The helicopter is soon found, following a phone call from the helicopter pilot himself, who later recounted the events in detail. Meanwhile the fugitives and their liberators make good their escape on high-powered motorcycles.
The chronicle of the escape began a week earlier, with a young man accompanied by two young women touring Athens and the Saronic Gulf in the same helicopter (but with a different pilot) as part of their rehearsal.
The man booked a second flight for the following Sunday, although this time accompanied by a male friend. They paid the 1400 euro fee to the pilot, who lifted off at 18.14 that evening. At one point, the men drew guns and a hand-grenade, removed the pilot’s headset and announced their new flight plan. The pilot was forbidden to use the emergency radio channel on the radio or of touching down in the prison yard.
"Passion for freedom is more powerful than all the cages"
Everything went according to plan, a plan probably inspired by the similar escape of bank robber Dionisio de Aquino Severo and murderer Ailton Alves Feitoza from the Jose Parada Neto prison in Brazil on 18/01/2002. That day there were several helicopters flying in the Athenian airspace for the Acropolis rally, making identification of the fugitive craft difficult, whilst at the same time the Minister of Justice and Minister of Public Order were abroad, further hindering the state response. One of the fugitives, Riza, was arrested 140 kilometers from Athens on 09.08.2006 following several days of surveillance.
This latest escape from the Judicial Prison at Korydallos was added to a long list of similar cases in the Greek police chronicles. The term used in the press, "cinematic escapes” does not do justice to the ingenuity, planning and implementation of the perpetrators. Below are some typical cases from the last ten years:
• On December 30th 2005, a 23 year old Russian convict and an Albanian juvenile delinquent managed to escape during their transfer at the village of Malakassi on the Ioannina – Trikala road. Under the pretext of a toilet stop, the Russian, who emerged from the transfer bus in handcuffs, overcame his escort, withdrew his service revolver and killed him instantly, proceeding to shoot the second guard before he had a chance to react. The two fugitives disappeared into the nearby mountains.
• On May 26th 2002, P.S. a 34 year old prisoner at Korydallos prison, strode freely from the prison broad daylight, wearing a disguise and accompanied by his accomplice. His disguise comprised a wig, dark suit, polished shoes and glasses, whilst pretending to be a colleague of the prison psychologist O.A., with whom he was able to pass 5 checkpoints without raising the slightest suspicion. It transpired that P.S., a lifer, had formed a relationship with the psychologist over some time, and they seem to have collaborated on the escape plan, which was executed flawlessly.
• Then there is the unforgettable case of Costas Passaris; his escape on February 16th 2001, during his transfer from Korydallos prison to the State General Hospital, has remained in the annals as one of the most bloody. Passaris was accompanied to the hospital by three police officers who were not wearing body armor. As they reached the first floor, and after the officers had removed his handcuffs, an unknown man passed him a 5.45 mm caliber pistol. Without warning, Passaris shot all three officers at point blank range. In the panic that ensued, with people running in every direction and the bloodstained officers sprawled on the ground, the convict and his accomplice were able to escape in different directions. A few hours later, two of the police officers died from their wounds.
• On the night of the Assumption (15th August) in 1998, thirty-five juvenile prisoners escaped from the Avlona Juvenile Correction facility, which had been transferred to the former military prison just one month prior. A lamp-post in close proximity to the outer wall of the prison had been overlooked by the prison staff but was not unnoticed by the prisoners. Choosing a national holiday to make their move, following the evening meal, around 40 foreign inmates emerged on the roof of the dining hall, and with the help of the lamp-post were able to scale the perimeter wall. The prison guards reacted by firing tear gas and smoke grenades, preventing some from escaping. Sixteen escapees were arrested within the next few minutes in the surrounding area, whilst the others are likely enjoying their liberty.
• On January 31st 1997, twenty-seven inmates of Larissa prison overpowered the guard and seized his rifle. They proceeded to throw a blanket over the barbed wire lining the outer walls, and made their escape in full view of the astonished students of the nearby high school students! The escapees were mostly Albanians and Romanians, joined by the lifer Michael Adamantidis, known for murdering the treasurer of the General State Hospital at Nikaia during a robbery. Eleven of fugitives were arrested following an extensive manhunt.
• On March 10th 1996, 44 prisoners escaped from a prison in Corfu via a 150 meter long tunnel, which had been built during the British occupation of the island! The tunnel passed under the road outside the prison and emerged in the grounds of the nearby high school. There the fugitives changed into clean clothes to avoid being identified, and managed to disappear. The case is strongly reminiscent of the movie “The Shawshank Redemption” based on the novel by American writer Stephen King.
• On December 16th 1995, shortly after 17:00, there was a prison riot in Ioannina, during which the prisoners caused material damages and destroyed barriers, whilst 17 foreign inmates scaled the exterior walls and jumped to freedom from a height of four meters or more. Of these fugitives, nine Albanians managed to remain at large despite the efforts of the prison officials, who were able to capture most escapees in the surrounding streets.
Two more mass escapes that took place over ten years ago also deserve mention: Specifically, in May 1991, 33 prisoners escaped from the Korydallos prison, while on December 5th 1990 there was a mass escape of prisoners from the same facility of 81 convicts!
Needless to say, from a legal perspective, escape from a correctional facility is considered a criminal offense. Article 173 of the Criminal Code states: “If a prisoner or detainee escapes, on the orders of the competent authority this is punishable by imprisonment of up to one year (...) Accomplices involved in the escape are punishable by imprisonment for not less than two years.
At first glance it is notable that the accomplice is punished with a stricter penalty than the perpetrator, in apparent contrast with the general directives 46 & 47 of the Criminal Code, whereby the instigator and immediate accomplice are liable for the sentence passed on the perpetrator, whilst lesser accomplices are given a reduced penalty.
The explanation for this disparity is recognition of the irresistible and instinctive urge for personal freedom. Indeed, the earlier Greek Criminal Law of 1834, renders escape unpunishable if the escaping fugitive does not resort to violence, threats, damage to prison property, corruption of the custodian staff or the assistance of others (even due to negligence). This view prevailed until 1924 when Law 3090/1924 criminalized mere escape, because of its “insubordinate attack against the authorities and state power." Hence, today’s criminal justice system applies minor sentences on escapees, which are often converted to monetary fines, a degree of leniency that recognizes the freedom instinct, something does not apply to the accomplice.
We must not forget that according to the Penal Code, failure to return to custody from periods of scheduled leave also constitutes escape. Stories of both fugitives have been a constant source of interest, both in public opinion and within the institutions of the criminal justice system. Typically, these prisoners exhibited exemplary behavior during long periods in prison in order to secure their temporary leave. When they receive their few days leave, they emerge from the prison gates and are never seen again, unless they are caught and arrested. However, despite the dramatic accounts from the media about the practice of prison leave, it is true that the percentages of flight in these situations is extremely low, and it is generally accepted in expert circles that the benefits of this procedure should not be interrupted because of isolated incidents of escaping prisoners.
According to data gathered by the National Statistical Service of Greece for the period 1996 to 2002, those convicted of escape totals 546, distributed as follows:
2002 - 58
2001 - 68
2000 - 48
1999 - 64
1998 - 95
1997 - 118
1996 - 96
We note a statistically significant reduction in the number of escapes from Greek prisons from 1999 onwards. This is partly explained by improvements in security measures in prisons, the increase in prison staff and the commissioning of new facilities with fewer construction defects.
The history of prison escapes of all sorts is universal. Human ingenuity combined with the propensity to freedom makes for an explosive mixture that is often sufficient to overcome any detention medium, particularly when the authorities are prone to predictable and repeated negligence and error. However many measures may be taken, however much the risk of flight is reduced, regardless of whether the detention facilities are high security or otherwise, one fact remains true:
Where there are prisons, there will be escapes...
• K Gardikas; “Correction”; 1965, p. 264 – in Greek
• Nestor Courakis; “Irresistible yearning for freedom” op-ed "Ta Nea" newspaper, March 3, 2001 – in Greek
• Newspaper TA NEA; “35 escaped from a lampost!”, 17/08/1998, “The lamppost that showed the way out”, 08/18/1998, "open prisons”, 08/19/1998 – in Greek
• Newspaper To Vima, “Guard liable for the escape in Larissa”, 2/2/1997 – in Greek
• Newspaper MACEDONIA; “Bloody getaway”, 18/12/1995, “Mass escape of 44 prisoners escape from Corfu jail” 03/11/1996, Group escape from Trikala prison”, 24/05/1996 – in Greek
• Newspaper Kathimerini, "Planned escape with a brutal execution", 17/02/1901
• Newspaper ELEFTHEROTYPIA "The unknown Passaris”, 29/11/2001
• National Statistical Service of Greece, Statistical Yearbook of Justice, 1996-2000 – in Greek