Marcus Tullius Cicero, that otherwise obsequious, Nero-pandering Latin git once opined that: “Liberty is rendered more precious by the recollection of servitude.” A person, who has had their liberty denied to them, will most likely, not take it for granted and prize it among all other things. Conversely, faced with the prospect of having new-found liberty taken away again, a person would be inclined to do almost anything to preserve it, including adhering to regulations and strictures that could be considered oppressive and tantamount to an equivalent deprivation of freedom.
The more humane Aeschylus chose to focus not on the punitive aspect of the deprivation of liberty, but its tantalising and often unfulfilled promise of redemption: “I know how men in exile live on dreams of hope.” Given the time away to think, reflect and regret, one presumably emerges from their incubation, reborn; resolved and ready to make a new start, regardless of whether, in Cavafian style, the shades of the past life are doomed to haunt one’s steps like a city that cannot be shaken off.
There are two types of prisoners. Those who are guilty and those who are not. In Shawshank prison, everyone was not guilty but in many respects, our entire existence is at least mythically, ideologically and religiously, inextricably enmeshed within the loom of guilt and incarceration. The first, innocent protoplasts were ensconced by their Creator within a garden bordered by a high wall, for that is what the word Paradise signifies in Persian. Within this confined space, they were immortal, replete with grace and perfect, as long as they did not eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Having thus transgressed into a world that was prohibited to them, they were exiled from Paradise, angels with flaming swords being set at its gates to bar them entry. Thus the wider world became their prison and the protoplasts initially led a sorrowful existence, grieving for the enclosed space they had lost and to which they could never return, owing to their guilt.
Nonetheless some of the greatest redemptive and supernatural moments have taken place to prisoners who have incarcerated without being guilty. The prophet Daniel, who may have met Pythagoras, was miraculously preserved during his imprisonment in a lion’s den for refusing to espouse the Babylonian religion. John the Baptist came to the realisation that Christ was God on earth while in prison and in one of the most amazing prison breaks of all, an angel crept into Peter the Apostle’s prison cell in Rome, woke him up, cast of his chains and passed him unnoticed through the prison and out the city gate. Of course Christ himself suffered a harrowing, intensely horrific ordeal whilst in prison, as an example of the extreme humility and condescension of God, allowing Himself to suffer as a man. The Orthodox tradition consequently places great emphasis on and is replete with prayers and references to those imprisoned, especially unjustly as in the case of the early martyrs of the Church, but also justly, holding out for them, the prospect of repentance and the chance to start anew. The pastoral work of Greek Orthodox priests in Australia amongst prisoners is one of the least known and most fascinating components of their ministry.
Whole countries have been considered prisons. Tsarist Russia was known the “prison of the peoples,” because its reactionary regime would not countenance the various nationalistic aspirations of its subject peoples. Australia too owes its foundation to its use as a vast repository of criminals and unwanted dregs of British society. Though they would not openly admit it, Australia too acts as a prison for the first generation of Greek migrants. They have never been able to come to terms with their sojourn in this country. Over the course of their time here, they have grown used to its creature comforts but they still long for the country they left behind. They cannot leave – not only because the country they left behind does not exist anymore, but also because they have become used to the creature comforts and facilities of this place and have thus, in Shawshankian fashion, become, institutionalised. Paradoxically though, this does not ever diminish their longing.
Prisons loom large in modern Greek culture and indeed Rembetika. «Aντιλαλούν οι φυλακές» and «Πέντε Χρόνια Δικασμένος» are iconic songs of incarceration. The great man Kolokotronis himself was incarcerated by King Otto’s regime in a small hole in the citadel at Nauplion, pending an execution that was thankfully, remitted. The Colonels (or at least some of them), whose idea of constructing a National Socialist Society some three decades after the downfall of the regime that inspired them, was to imprison people in rocky Aegean outcrops, like Long Island, ended their days rotting in jail. Other politicians, who perhaps deserved to be enclosed therein have escaped such confinement.
We are claustrophobic and seekers of escape from the moment of our conception, seeking an escape from the security of the womb to that of the world biologically, (which is probably the conceptual origin of the Greek wish to pregnant mothers: «Καλή Λευτεριά» - happy liberation) and if you believe the neo-Platonists, our soul is imprisoned within our body until death, which is the ultimate escape. Prison cells are horrific places. They are stark and bare and when the door slams shut and you are deprived of your natural inclinations to roam, it is easy to see how you can be crushed. Visiting Pentridge prison after it had closed down, I was shocked at the Dickensian conditions of some of the cells. A few years later, as a first year solicitor, I had to visit a client in the holding cells of the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court. The stench of deprivation of liberty was palpable. I felt the walls closing in on me, trying to expel me and yet enclose me within them at the same time. It is this feeling of claustrophobia I think that informs our senses when a prisoner ingeniously escapes from prison. No matter how notorious or hardened they may be, we are as titillated as we are terrified because we fear their condition above all. The movies “Escape from Alcatraz,” “Cool Hand Luke,” “The Great Escape,” and of course, “The Shawshank Redeption,” are testaments to mankind’s universal fear of imprisonment and relief upon escape.
People may laugh and scoff at Palaiokostas’ recent brilliant escape from Korydallos. They may say that the Greek Penitentiary System is as inept and useless as countless other sectors of the Greek public service. They may say that his escape signals the bankruptcy of a State that can never conform to western modes of governance. I say bosh. Whatever Palaiokostas may be, he symbolizes an eternal archetype of a Greek: the person who will not be subdued or compelled to conform by the fiat of someone else’s might. Such people use their ingenuity to triumph over adversity.
It is easy to see why Palaiokostas, a convicted armed robber and kidnapper, has captured the public imagination. In his early adulthood, he is said to have locked up all the police at his local station in order to be able to rob his target freely and without hindrance. Most significantly, adding to his appeal is the fact that it is said that he has given most of the money he has stolen over the years to poor families, making him a hellenized Robin Hood.
Having been imprisoned in the famous Korydallos jail in 2006, Palaiokostas arranged for two accomplices to hire a sight-seeing helicopter from Aghios Kosmas, a coastal suburb of Athens. They hijacked the helicopter using a pistol and hand grenade, and forced the pilot to fly to the prison. When the helicopter arrived, guards believed the helicopter was a visit from prison inspectors. The helicopter flew the prisoner to a cemetery nearby, where they transferred to motorcycles and fled from there. The ingenious Palaiokostas was re-captured two years later, in August 2008 in Thessaloniki.
Just days way from his trial for his escape, on 22 February Palaiokostas managed to re-escape from Korydallos for a second time with the same sidekick as from the previous escape. Along with Alket Rizai, and Guido Dassori, he was picked up by a helicopter that flew over the courtyard of the prison. They climbed a rope ladder thrown to them by a woman passenger. Guards on the ground opened fire and the woman fired back with an automatic rifle.
Sounds like a movie no? Wait, there is more. An elderly couple found the helicopter abandoned in the Athenian suburb of Kapandriti near a highway north of Athens, with its fuel tank leaking from a bullet hole. The pilot was bound and gagged, with a hood over his head. He told police the helicopter was chartered by a couple who said they wanted to go from the town of Itea in central Greece to Athens. The couple had chartered the helicopter a number of times in the previous weeks, with the woman posing as a business woman. I vote Bruce Willis to play the role of Palaiokostas. What a brilliant, brilliant man! His profile should be on the obverse of the Hellenic Republic’s newly minted coins, to be used only, by the way, in robberies. This is truly the only way we can pay the requisite homage to this man’s remarkable achievement.
This notwithstanding, an armed robber and kidnapper is on the loose, along with a sidekick who has been convicted of manslaughter and it is hoped that they are apprehended. Before we go clucking our tongues, huffing stuffishly that this kind of thing would never have happened in Australia, let us not forget the attempted helicopter escape from our very own Pentridge prison in 1983. The three prisoners, all held on drug-importation charges, had hired a former SAS soldier, then living in the Philippines, to lift the prisoners from the jail’s tennis court to a nearby van fitted with panels to hide them during a road trip to Sydney, where a yacht was to take them to Manila. And just in 1999, librarian Lucy Dudko hijacked a helicopter, forcing the pilot to land on the Metropolitan Remand and Reception Centre grounds, where they picked up John Killick, while he was being fired on by guards and cheered on by inmates. They landed in a park where Killick hijacked a taxi at gunpoint. The two were able to elude authorities for six weeks before being arrested at the Bass Hill Tourist Park. So maybe Palaiokostas took a few notes from his Aussie counterparts.
The third season of the TV series “Prison Break” features an abortive attempt to escape by helicopter from the fictional Sona prison in Panama. Rather than waste their money on scriptwriters, the producers should visit Greece and take notes on how the professionals do it. If only Palaiokostas and others like him, could Maxwell Smartian-fashion, have used their genius for good instead of evil.
Meanwhile, as the Karamanlis government totters in its prison of the politics of ineptitude, a few words of advice from Oscar Wilde: “One of the many lessons that one learns in prison is, that things are what they are and will be what they will be.” Que sera sera.