Voyage to Leros: Histories of multi-layered confinement on a Greek island

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Historian Danae Karydaki traces the history of a Greek island that has served as military barracks, indoctrination centre, mental asylum and prison.


“Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?” Michel Foucault (1995)

What first comes to mind when you think of the Greek islands? Carefree holidays on sandy beaches? Chalk-white cliffs melting into crystal-clear waters? Romantic sunsets next to ancient ruins? The Greek islands encompass all that. Greece has over 200 inhabited islands, the economy of which is organised around and largely depends on the influx of summer tourists. Yet, their history is much more complicated and traumatic than their representation in tourist information leaflets allows us to see.

Their insular character, small pieces of land surrounded by the sea and difficult to access, especially during the winter, makes most of them resemble natural prisons. And this is precisely how numerous islands –now popular tourist destinations— have been used by the Greek state during the politically turbulent 20th century.

In the Gulf of Elounda, in north-eastern Crete, a small island, Spinalonga, served as a leper colony between 1903 and 1957. With its famous volcano and breathtaking view, Santorini was an exile for political dissidents during Ioannis Metaxas’s fascist dictatorship in the late 1930s. Around the same period, the cosmopolitan island of Corfu became the place where the Greek Communist Party’s General Secretary Nikos Zachariadis was incarcerated. During the Greek Civil War (1946-1949), those suspected of communist (or at least anti-national) action were sent to exile in Zante, Kythira, Folegandros, Ikaria, Skiathos, Ai Stratis, and several other Greek islands. Makronisos, a small island off the coast of Athens, was transformed into a notorious concentration camp and military prison for the best part of the Civil War and the early post-Civil War period. The military dictatorship established in Greece between 1967 and 1974 made no exception: islands such as Amorgos, Gyaros, and Anafi accommodated exiles because of their political beliefs.

Among all Greek islands, there is one that perhaps deserves special attention because of its history of chronic and multi-layered confinement: Leros, an island of the Dodecanese, located 171 miles south-east of Athens, served several times as the place to accommodate those excluded by the Greek state, usually in the name of care. Almost as if one decided to apply the Foucauldian paradigm to the letter on Leros, the very buildings that were constructed to be used as military barracks in the interwar period were re-used as indoctrination institutions, mental asylum, and prison cells in the turbulent post-war era.


Barracks (1923-1947)

In 1912, during the Italo-Turkish war, Leros passed from the Ottomans to the Italians. In 1923, Mussolini chose Leros because of its location and physical geography – Leros’s port Lakki is the biggest natural harbour in the eastern Mediterranean — to establish Italy’s most heavily fortified naval base, “Gianni Rossetti”. Due to the growing needs of the naval base in the 1930s — it accommodated more than 7,000 troops — Italian architects designed and implemented a large-scale urban intervention in Leros; officers’ residences, a school, a theatre, and a hospital.[1] Following the surrender of Italy to the Allies in World War II, part of the base was bombed by the Nazi Luftwaffe at the Battle of Leros in September 1943, where the British suffered severe casualties; however most of the buildings remained intact.

The end of WWII did not end the armed conflict, or indeed trauma, in Greece. In 1946, a civil war broke out between the right-wing National Greek army (backed by the United Kingdom and the United States) and the military branch of the Communist Party of Greece (supported by the Soviet Union). Historians have characterised the Greek Civil War as an early stage of the Cold War; or as the always insightful George Orwell wrote on 13 December 1946 to critique the “pink rash of optimism” surrounding the US-USSR peace negotiations at the UN General Assembly: “reports of events in Greece…amount to a state of war between the two groups of powers who are being so chummy in New York.”[2]


Indoctrination Schools (1949-1964)

In the midst of the Civil War, in 1947, following the Treaty of Peace with Italy, the Dodecanese islands (including Leros) were ceded to Greece. A few months later, during the tour of the Greek royal couple in the newly acquired territories, King Paul and Queen Frederica visited the island. They were looking for a suitable space to house young communists to receive technical training and, most importantly, re-education to the nationalist ideology in the wake of the Greek Civil War.[3]  The abandoned military bases of Leros, being a fully equipped infrastructure, presented a golden opportunity for them. Thus, in 1949, the Royal Technical Schools of Leros opened their gates for boys 14-21 years old. One year later, in 1950, the Royal School of Housekeeping was also established to accommodate girls 15-18 years old. The first ones to be placed there were underage guerrillas; they were transferred from the concentration camps of the Peloponnese where they had been detained for fighting in the Civil War on the side of the communists.[4] Later on, in the 1950s, the Schools, as they became known, became an attractive destination for adolescents of working-class families, regardless of their ideological identity.



The education that the Schools’ students received was, as expected, infiltrated by the gender norms of the time; the boys would be trained in a craft, such as typography or carpentry, and the girls in sewing and cooking. At the same time, both boys and girls would take indoctrination classes, often by members of the Greek army, to be “re-educated” according to the national ideals and get rid of any communist elements. For instance, slavophone girls from northern Greece –several of whom had probably fought on the side of the communists during the Civil War— who came to the Royal School of Housekeeping would have to be “hellenized” to nurture their children as Greeks. Within the international context of the Cold War, re-education provided in a framework of confinement and surveillance was a stated aim of the Greek state. “We are the only country in the world,” declared King Paul in the New York Times in 1949, “that is putting a great effort into re-educating communists today. Men are educated on the island of Makronisos, and children between 15 and 20 years old take special classes at the Schools of Leros.”[5]


Asylums (1957-1989)

While the Schools were still operating, the Greek state applied another policy of exclusion and discipline in the name of care on Leros. On 7 May 1957, a mental asylum, initially called “Psychopaths’ Colony of Leros”, was established. Its establishment was based on Law 6077 of 1934 for the organisation of public mental hospitals that illustrated the purpose of mental asylums as the treatment, care, and, ultimately, confinement of a very diverse group of patients consisting of “psychopaths, epileptics, alcoholics, heavily perverted and mentally retarded persons.”[6] In early 1958, the Psychopaths’ Colony of Leros admitted its first 300 patients, who were transferred from the Psychiatric Hospital of Athens (Dafni).


The inspiration for a “Psychopaths’ Colony” on a remote island was drawn from the same 1934 law that mentioned establishing “rural psychopaths’ colonies” where patients were expected to work in farming activities. According to news reports of the time, the idea “was transplanted here from France,”[7] and, most especially, from farm colonies for the mentally ill that were created in 19th-century western Europe.[8] As perhaps hinted by the term ‘colony’, and legally grounded on Legislative Decree 2592 of 1953 for using mental hospitals to serve the needs of the whole country,[9] the purpose of the Leros asylum was not to host the mentally ill or intellectually disabled people of the Dodecanese. Ιt was to relieve the existing mental hospitals of big cities, overcrowded because of the terrible post-Civil war social conditions. Besides, the main criterion for transferring a patient to Leros was not having been visited by their families for at least 12 months. So, the first patients locked up on Leros were those “abandoned by their next of kin” or, as the psychiatrist of the Leros hospital Ioannis Loukas put it, “socially unclaimed” and “mentally incurable”.[10] It has also been recorded that, among the inmates, there were also around 100 people who had been confined in Makronisos during the Civil War


The Royal Schools were in decline in the early 1960s and finally closed in 1964. Buildings and hundreds of beds became available to be used for the mentally ill. Hence, in 1965, the institution increased its capacity to 2.650 beds and changed its name to the more neutral, “Leros Psychiatric Hospital”. The job vacancies created by the institution’s growing needs were filled by unskilled and untrained locals –shepherds and fishermen— who worked as guards and ward assistants. While the numbers of the Leros inmates were fast-rising, the living conditions under which they had to live were only getting worse. They survived under the most extreme conditions of asylum life, inside military barracks, in wards consisting of 90-180 people, “with no space or time for themselves, as part of a mass or a herd, with no individual identity, with no human rights, and with social death as the sole prospect ahead of them.”[11]

The shutdown of the Royal School of Housekeeping provided the infrastructure for establishing yet another institution on Leros, this time addressed de facto to people with intellectual disability. In 1961, the so-called Leros PIKPA Asylum opened its gates to provide care for children between 0 and 18 years old “suffering from incurable physical handicaps…severe non-trainable mental retardations and, in general, incurable and non-improvable severe disorders with or without neurological and physical damage.”[12]


Leros PIKPA Asylum was part of an extensive network of institutions that belonged to the Patriotic Institution for Social Welfare and Protection.  The organization was founded in 1914 as a ladies’ charity under the auspices of the Palace. Still, it developed during the 20th century as the primary provider and policymaker of welfare in Greece. Although other aims were recorded, such as care for the poor and victims of natural disasters, the Patriotic Institution for Social Welfare and Protection’s principal cause was to protect maternity and childhood. This is also manifested in the annual reports of the Leros PIKPA Asylum that explicitly state that the reason for its establishment is that in 1960s Greece, children with intellectual disability that stay at the family home make their mother’s (and especially working mother’s), their siblings’, and their own life extremely difficult. It is rather intriguing how the welfare state proposed the solution of the asylum, that is, removing an individual from their family and community, within a context of care, and a normative gendered model for mothers and children (“normal” or otherwise).


The physical and social living conditions of people with intellectual disability at the Leros PIKPA Asylum were horrific: they lived in a 1930s military building with no lifts or ramps for the physically disabled; toilets and showers were only introduced in the 1980s and were not covered by the inadequate central heating of the building. They ate (or were fed) in bed. Many were routinely confined to bed by force when staff were unable to enforce discipline.[13] British psychiatrist John Henderson, who was involved in monitoring the asylum’s reform programme for the European Commission in the 1990s, describes the impact that these living conditions had on mental health professionals: “Nor will anyone who saw them ever forget the tragic sight of naked boys and girls crawling about or lying on dirty coarse blankets spread upon the bare floors of their wards, or those who were so terribly deformed and misshapen lying so still in their beds as to appear lifeless.”[14]


In 1989, the British journalist John Merritt visited the Leros mental institution and published the findings of his investigation on the Observer frontpage under the title “Europe’s Guilty Secret”.[15] In the following months, hundreds of foreigners, mostly European mental health professionals and policymakers, among them the French philosopher Félix Guattari, came to the island to see in person this living hell. This is often referred to as the “1989 scandal”, even though the situation was already known in Greece – a group of young doctors who did their placement on Leros had tried to raise awareness in scientific and political circles from the early 1980s. However, the fact that Greece was ridiculed in the eyes of foreign observers, causing feelings of embarrassment and guilt, mobilized the Greek state to launch not only the deinstitutionalization of the Leros asylums but also the long-overdue reform of Greek psychiatry in the 1990s.


Prison (1967-1974)

Amid the operation of the Leros institutions for people with mental illness and intellectual disability, during the military junta some of the former Italian barracks were transformed into a prison. Between July and September 1967, circa 4,000 political prisoners were transferred to the Greek island. A few of the most prominent among them, such as the communist poet Giannis Ritsos, were placed in Partheni in northern Leros. The majority, however, were transferred to a building of the former Royal Technical School in Lakki.

The political prisoners took their daily walks in a courtyard that was only divided from the Leros Psychiatric hospital by a barbed wire. It has been recorded that often when a political prisoner would go close to the hospital, someone from behind the barbed wire would raise their hand and shout “Makronisiotis!”,[16] which literally means someone who has served in the concentration camp of Makronisos during the Civil War, as if to show some form of connection, ideological affinity, or at least indicate shared memories. It is also striking that the political prisoners and the psychiatric hospital’s inmates were examined by the same, and virtually only doctor of the island, Efthymios Mpaklezos, director of the Leros Psychiatric Hospital, from its foundation.

The living conditions of the Lakki prison are also reported to have been terrible. Indicatively, in December 1969, the 44-year-old political prisoner Nikolaos Galatis died in a flu epidemic that, according to a New York Times article, had infected 684 out of 1,060 prison inmates.[17] On 30 December 1969, his co-inmates sent a telegram to the Greek government condemning a systematic extermination policy on behalf of the dictators and demanding the “immediate dissolution of this death-generating camp.”[18]



It is virtually impossible to fit such a long and—on so many levels and layers—traumatic history in just a few hundred words. This process poses even more obstacles when one wishes to present it to non-Greek readers who most probably associate the Greek islands with their beauty and serenity and often know much more about their ancient rather than modern history. If one of them visited Leros today, they wouldn’t see a barrack, nor an asylum, an indoctrination school, or a prison. But they would see a concentration camp on the courtyard of the biggest pavilion of the mental hospital that, since 2016, accommodates refugees who cross the Aegean Sea on boats to find a better future in Europe, only to see their dreams crushed on walls ingrained with past traumas.

Perhaps the words of a European delegate quoted in Merritt’s 1989 article can better summarize the history of Leros for the foreign observer: “‘In ancient Greece the entrance to Hades was in a cave on the Peloponnese peninsula. In modern Greece, it is on Leros’.”[19] But maybe this Greek island’s story is not so extraordinary or that different from various ways in which arguably modern societies are structured. The serial re-uses of the Leros institutions reveal what can indeed be called a ‘biopolitical space’, an intersection between welfare, surveillance, and discipline on behalf of the post-Civil-war Greek state.

In other words, incarceration, punishment, and, often, re-education are, in multiple ways, intertwined with efforts of providing care services and medical provisions, rendering –in either case—the inmates’ bodies property and fieldwork of state policies. Maybe Leros is not so much of an exception, a hell on Earth, a black hole of trauma. Maybe it is just an example of Foucault’s statement from Discipline and Punish that in modernity “prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons.” [20] Is this surprising?


Danae Karydaki is a historian. She is a post-doctoral scholar at the University of Thessaly and a teaching fellow at the University of Athens, Greece. She received her PhD from Birkbeck, University of London in 2016, where she also taught between 2013 and 2015. She has edited the volume Leros in the Spotlight and on the Margin: History, Politics, Psychiatry (Psifides: 2020) and her book History and Psychoanalysis in the Columbus Centre: The Meaning of Evil is forthcoming from Routledge. Her research interests include social history of wartime and early post-war Greece, gender history, oral history, history of psychiatry, and history of psychoanalysis.




[1] Nicholas Doumanis, Myth and Memory in the Mediterranean: Remembering Fascism’s Empire (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1997).

[2] George Orwell, Smothered Under Journalism: 1946, ed. Peter Davison (London: Secker & Warburg, 1998), 515.

[3] Loring M. Danforth and Riki Van Boeschoten, Children of the Greek Civil War: Refugees and the Politics of Memory (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2012), 100.

[4] Tasoula Vervenioti, “Underage Fighters of Democratic Army: From Prisons and Concentration Camps to Royal Technical Schools of Leros],” in Greek Youth in the 20th Century: Political Trajectories, Social Practices and Cultural Aspects [in Greek] (Athens: Themelio, 2010), 238–58.

[5]“The Greek People will Proceed to its Country’s Reconstruction,” Eleftheria, 13 September 1949.

[6] Law 6077 for the Organisation of Public Mental Hospitals, Government Gazette, 21 February 1934.

[7]A. Alexandropoulos, “To Relieve the Public Mental Hospital a ‘Psychopaths’ Colony’ is Founded on Leros, Eleftheria, 30 March 1958.

[8] Barbara Arneil, Domestic Colonies: The Turn Inward to Colony (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).

[9] “Legislative Decree 2592 for the Organisation of Medical Perception,” Government Gazette, 18 September 1953.

[10] Ioannis Loukas, “Leros and Psychiatric Reform: From Institutionalization to Neo-Institutionalization,” Society and Mental Health, 2006, 26–36.

[11] Ibid.

[12] “Royal Decree 147 for the Completion of the PIKPA Institution through the Addition of Points for the Established Special Service for Child Care,” Government Gazette, 13 March 1961.

[13] John Tsiantis et al., “The Leros PIKPA Asylum: Deinstitutionaliaation and Rehabilitation Project,” British Journal of Psychiatry 167, no. suppl. 18 (1995): 10–45.

[14] John Henderson, “Foreword,” British Journal of Psychiatry 167, no. suppl. 28 (1995): 5–6.

[15] John Merritt, “Europe’s Guilty Secret,” The Observer, 10 September 1989.

[16] Neni Panourgia, Leros: The Grammar of Confinement, (Athens: Nefeli, 2020), 132.

[17] “Political Prisoners in Greece Issue Plea,” The New York Times, 3 January 1970.

[18]Vassilis Mpardounias, “Telegram: Ministry of Public Order,” 27 December 1969.

[19] Merritt, “Europe’s Guilty Secret.”

[20] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 228.