ATHENS, Greece (AP) -- More than 30 men were crammed into the cell, locked up night and day for weeks or months. Without enough bunks, many slept on the floor. The windows were painted over, blocking out the sun, and the air was thick with cigarette smoke and the reek of the one toilet everyone shared.
But what might come as the biggest surprise about this prison was its location: In Greece, squarely in Europe. That's where former prisoner Giorgos Aslanis spent about three months in a roughly 40 square meter (400 square feet) police holding cell in the northern town of Serres. The European Court of Human Rights ruled in October that conditions in the cell broke European laws against inhuman or degrading punishment and awarded him 8,000 euros ($11,000) in damages.
Greece suffers the worst prison overcrowding in the European Union, according to figures in the Council of Europe's latest annual prison report, published in May. Inmate numbers reached a record high this year, and many prisons simply refuse to accept new arrivals. That leaves hundreds caged for months as they await trial in police holding cells designed for stints of hours or at most days. Suspects and convicts are often bundled together, in violation of Greek and European law.
The Associated Press pieced together this stark picture of Greece's prison crisis from about 20 interviews across the system; reports from Greece's parliament and European rights bodies; documents from within the prison system, an exclusive letter from the head of an appeals court and a confidential police report.
"It's a system," said Spyros Karakitsos, head of the Greek Federation of Prison Employees, "that is collapsing."
The crisis is playing out as Greece goes through a dramatic economic meltdown. As a result, prison populations are surging even as funds for guards and facilities are shrinking, a toxic mix that police and justice officials warn could explode in violence at any time.
The Greek government says it is trying to improve the situation. During a recent parliamentary debate, Justice Minister Haralambos Athanasiou said the government is trying to build new prisons and reduce crowding. And earlier this year, Costas Karagounis, deputy justice minister at the time, acknowledged a problem and pointed to several initiatives to tackle it, such as opening new prison wings and introducing non-custodial sentences under electronic monitoring.
"There is indeed a big problem of overcrowding in Greek prisons, which has intensified," said Karagounis.
Since many prisons are at double or triple capacity, several hundred people are stuck in police holding cells with no access to the outdoors. Often they are in pre-trial detention, which has an 18-month limit under Greek law. About 34.1 percent of those held in Greek prisons were awaiting trial in 2012, according to the International Center for Prison Studies, as their cases wound through an overburdened justice system at a snail's pace.
The Council of Europe's latest annual penal statistics, published in May and covering 2011, show Greek prisons were at 151.7 percent capacity on Sept. 1 that year. They showed 12,479 inmates were crammed into 8,224 available places.
And the number of inmates has increased steadily. In January 2010, Greek prisons held 11,364 inmates, according to the Justice Ministry's website. On Nov. 1, they reached 13,147, according to Greek prison system figures obtained by the AP. That doesn't include those, like Aslanis, held in police stations.
Recent Greek prison system documents from late 2013 list a higher capacity number of 9,886 places across the country, but the number is deceptive as it includes at least five prison wings in two prisons that remain shut due to budget cuts.
The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment issued a rare public statement in 2011 slamming Greece for "a steady deterioration in the living conditions and treatment of prisoners over the past decade." Before that, the committee had only singled out the prison systems of Turkey and Russia. The committee, a body of the Council of Europe, visited Greece again in April but has not yet released its report.
Aslanis, arrested in June 2009 for multiple thefts, was ordered jailed pending trial that December after failing to pay a 1,000 euro ($1,340) bail. The Greek debt crisis was just beginning. The local prison in northern Greece was full, and he ended up in the squalid police holding cell.
Aslanis said he had about 35 cellmates. Beds went according to hierarchy: Whoever was there longest got the next free bunk, unless a new arrival was sick or elderly.
"It was very bad in there. I've been inside again for some other cases, but that place ... there's no ventilation, there's dirt ... there is no hygiene. What can I tell you .... If you don't live through it, you can't have an opinion," Aslanis told the AP. Aslanis was eventually tried and convicted, serving his time in two prisons until being released in January 2011.
His is one of the latest in a string of European Court of Human Rights rulings against Greece in which the state has been ordered to pay tens of thousands of euros to dozens of plaintiffs. On Dec. 12, the court awarded 8,500 euros in damages to Vassilis Kanakis, a 51-year-old serving a life sentence for drug trafficking, over conditions in Larissa prison in central Greece from July 2009 to March 2011.
Police holding cells also pose a security problem, because they lack the robust exterior walls of real prisons. A confidential police report obtained by the AP about a police holding facility in the country's second largest city of Thessaloniki warns of the "immediate danger of escape" due to a combination of overcrowding, stretched staffing and lower security. The eight-page October report by the head of the facility details squalid conditions in which 15-20 men are stacked into nine-bunk cells with small windows, where they remain around the clock for months.
"The security of detention is .. put at risk by the potential for rebellion or uprising by the inmates with unpredictable consequences, because of their living conditions," the document said.
The head of the Thessaloniki appeals court wrote a strongly worded letter to the justice minister in early November, in which he complained that conditions in the center "do not ensure the minimum threshold of dignified living."
"I was ashamed, Mr. Minister, for the Greek state and for each one of us separately," Panagis Yiannakis wrote in the letter obtained by the AP. He noted that inmates were held "without any separation between juveniles and adults, suspects and convicts, drug addicts, perpetrators of financial offences and of particularly base crimes."
"What is inhumane and totally unacceptable," Yiannakis said, "is that these people ... do not go out into a yard for five or six months, which means that for the entire time, they never see the sun."
A court in the northwestern city of Igoumenitsa went even further, ruling last year that 15 migrants were justified in escaping from a police lockup because the conditions were "miserable and extremely dangerous for human beings." The men had spent between nine and 45 days in a 15 square meter (160 square foot) cell holding 30 detainees, sharing a single chemical toilet and sleeping in shifts. The cell was never cleaned, and the men had no water to wash with. Many suffered from "lice, fleas, psoriasis, typhus, skin disorders and other . communicable or non-communicable diseases," court documents show.
Greece's prisons have become hidden victims of the financial crisis, of little concern to the legions of struggling families outside. The price of billions of euros in emergency loans from other European countries and the International Monetary Fund has been a draconian austerity.
Greece's prison budget has been reduced from 136 million euros in 2009 to about 111 million euros this year, the Justice Ministry said. In comparison, the Netherlands, with a similar number of prisoners -- 12,110 last year -- had an annual prisons budget of about 2 billion euros ($2.5 billion) for 2012, according to the Dutch government's Central Bureau of Statistics.
At the same time, about 300 prison guards who retired over the past two years were not replaced, a roughly 15 percent reduction, Karagounis said. That leaves about 1,500 internal guards for the country's 33 penitentiaries, according to the prison guards' union.
With staff numbers shrinking, inmates in Greece's largest prison, Korydallos, outnumber guards 250-1 on some shifts. On Dec. 13, the union said seven inmates attacked a guard attempting to shut the prison's exercise yard. Less than two months earlier, an inmate stabbed another guard three times with a makeshift knife and wounded him seriously. Another guard was stabbed in the back last year after trying to break up a fight between inmates.
The tottering system comes under added pressure from what lawyers and human rights groups say is the overuse of pre-trial detention, which they say has become the norm rather than the exception, and from the harshest sentencing by far across the European continent. While an average of 3 percent of Europe's inmates were serving sentences of 20 years or more in 2011, in Greece that figure was 37.7 percent, according to Council of Europe data.
Rights groups argue that more use should be made of agricultural prisons where low-risk inmates grow crops and prepare for life after release, the only prisons now far below capacity. However, the government decided in November to instead convert large sections of its agricultural prisons into normal penitentiaries to help relieve overcrowding elsewhere. The government also said it is addressing the issue through a law passed in October allowing some inmates to be released with electronic tagging, a first for a country where alternatives to custodial sentences are almost never used.
Recovering addict Giorgos Hatzinassios has served a total of six years in five prisons for a drug offense and drug-related theft. The worst, he said, was Korydallos, technically a remand jail for those awaiting trial. On Nov. 1, the men's section topped 265 percent capacity, with 2,127 inmates for an official capacity of 800, prison system statistics show.
"In the winter, when the windows are shut, you can't breathe," Hatzinassios said.
Another four former Koydallos inmates described squalid cells with barely enough space to stand.
"It's a rotten jail, a rotten building where nothing works anymore," said Marianthi Patseli, a 47-year-old with several drug convictions. "The plumbing doesn't work, the sewage doesn't work, the heating doesn't work, nothing works.
"We're talking about basic human conditions. These don't exist in Korydallos because there is no room."
Costas Kantouris in Thessaloniki contributed to this report.