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.