ATHENS, Greece (AP) -- More than 30 men were crammed inside, locked up day and night for weeks or months at a time. Without enough bunks, many slept on the floor. The air was thick with cigarette smoke and the reek of the one shared toilet inside the cell.
But what might come as the biggest surprise about this prison was its location: In Greece, squarely in Europe. That's where prisoner Giorgos Aslanis spent about three months in a roughly 40 square meter (400 square foot) 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 languishing for months in police holding cells designed for stints of hours or at most days. Suspects awaiting trial and convicts are often bundled together.
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.
As Greece struggles through a dramatic economic meltdown, 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.
"It's a system," said Spyros Karakitsos, head of the Greek Federation of Prison Employees, "that is collapsing."
The government says it is tackling the problem: "We are trying on the one hand to build new prisons and on the other hand to reduce crowding," Justice Minister Haralambos Athanasiou said during a recent parliamentary debate. Costas Karagounis, speaking when he was Deputy Justice Minister earlier this year, acknowledged the issue and said the government was making great efforts to improve conditions.
"There is indeed a big problem of overcrowding in Greek prisons, which has intensified," said Karagounis, whose position was abolished during a Cabinet reshuffle in the summer. He pointed to several initiatives to tackle the problem, including opening new prison wings and introducing non-custodial sentences under electronic monitoring.
The government points to other attempts to reduce overcrowding, such as 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.
With many prisons already at double or triple capacity, hundreds are stuck in police holding cells, many in pre-trial detention, which has an 18-month limit under Greek law. These detainees have no yard access and are kept locked up for months as their cases wind at a snail's pace through the overburdened justice system.
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 September 1 that year, with 12,479 inmates crammed into 8,224 available places. 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." The committee had only singled out the prison systems of Turkey and Russia until then.
Aslanis' is one of the latest in a string of European Court of Human Rights rulings against Greece. 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 the conditions in Larissa prison in central Greece from July 2009 to March 2011.
Police station cells also present a security problem because they lack robust exterior walls. 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, (and) hostage situations in the case of a group attack" -- due to a combination of overcrowding, stretched staffing and lower security. The report by the head of the facility details squalid conditions in which 15 to 20 men are stacked into nine-bunk cells with small windows.
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. "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."
Greece's prisons have become hidden victims of the financial crisis, of little concern to the legions of struggling families outside.
The country's prison budget has been reduced from 136 million euros in 2009 to about 111 million euros this year. 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.
Meanwhile, budget cuts in Greece shrank the number of prison guards, and now inmates in Greece's largest prison, Korydallos, can outnumber guards 250-1 on some shifts.
Costas Kantouris in Thessaloniki contributed to this report.