Down the rabbit hole 

Lebanon’s detention warren 

Georges Haddad 

Lebanese society, by Middle Eastern standards, is vibrant, subversive and free… to a point. Men in uniform stand guard everywhere, increasingly backed by security cameras. A trivial demonstration of a few hundred will bring out thousands of policemen (or darak), as well as the army. An individual may be interrogated for no obvious reason, sometimes by officers popping out of nowhere in civilian clothes. Refugees and migrant workers in particular may be questioned at any time. Roumieh, the country’s largest prison, is a boogeyman that readily comes up among friends to spook someone on the verge of crossing a perceived red line: “you don’t want your dad to pick you up in Roumieh, do you?” Makhfar Hobaish, a seemingly ordinary police station in the Hamra neighborhood of Beirut, has gained an equally menacing reputation.

Although the possibility of being apprehended and detained looms large in the collective psyche, it nevertheless remains an abstraction: ordinary citizens ignore how big the population of detainees is, the deplorable conditions they live in, and the pervasive use of torture. Mainstream media shun the topic generally, while society as a whole treats specific cases as taboo: people arrested will disappear into the black hole of detention and, when they reappear, leave that grim experience behind them. Testimonies are rare, and difficult to obtain. This invisibility, and the dehumanization it allows, has enabled the state of Lebanon’s detention sector to become much worse than most would assume—bringing Lebanon dangerously close to resembling just another Arab regime. Delving deep into the issue has the feel of Alice in Wonderland, tumbling into a world ruled by the absurd.

That’s very curious

“We were on our way to buy some pot. My friend stopped the car suddenly when he saw the army checkpoint. I was drunk, but I woke and told him to turn around. The soldiers pointed their weapons at us, yelling; they told us to get out and lie on the ground, and pushed us violently. They made us undress; first our clothes, then our shoes and even our underwear, in the middle of the street. It was frightening. When something like that happens, you wake up: even drunk, your focus comes back.”  

Following the death of a close relative, Tony drifted into drugs, alcohol, and, eventually, jail. Formerly outgoing and relaxed, he is now shy and anxious, carefully choosing his words to describe an experience that, although limited to three months of detention, transformed him completely.

“A soldier found 0.8 grams of hashish I had hidden in a pack of cigarettes. He slapped me, insulted me, handcuffed me and threw me into a jeep. We were taken to a barracks and placed in a truck container outside the building, with others. People were peeing on the floor, vomiting… it was horrible. At one point, during interrogation, a soldier asked me if I used my lens case to transport cocaine. Then he beat me for being ‘disrespectful’ in the way I answered. I asked to speak to my father, but they refused, although the law says that a detainee has the right to contact a relative or a lawyer. No one knew where I was. You also have the right to stay silent, but of course that won’t spare you the blows.”

The sector’s potential for improvement is enormous: what Lebanon’s detention sector lacks in broad popular attention, it makes up for in the resources devoted to it by a cohort of Lebanese and international NGOs that work hand in hand with various Western embassies and the United Nations. This ecosystem of actors churns out reports, conferences, workshops and recommendations geared toward reforms, “capacity building,” rehabilitation of prisons and an array of related issues. Ultimately, however, the detention sector’s problems go so deep that this dense economy of projects not only shows minimal impact, but may help the system continue to malfunction as it is.

An inconspicuous way in

The significant resources dedicated to prison reform in Lebanon are focused, above all, on two problems: the system’s woefully deficient physical infrastructure, on one hand, and the prevalence of torture, on the other. The first focal point revolves primarily around the issue of overcrowding—a core problem often cited as the source of many other shortcomings. A broad spectrum of stakeholders—including NGO workers, members of the security forces, state officials, religious leaders, former prisoners and lawyers—identify overcrowding as a paramount concern, if not the single greatest problem in the sector. Many argue that this issue has gained renewed urgency due to an influx of Syrian refugees, whom a Lebanese judge asserted represent a quarter of the overall prison population.

Severe overcrowding is compounded by dilapidation of existing infrastructure

There is no doubt that the latter significantly exceeds Lebanon’s officially stated capacity of 3,500 detainees. While precise data is remarkably elusive, a veteran Lebanese attorney suggested there were more than 5,000 people residing in Roumieh only, while an official with the UN Development Program placed the total number of prisoners between 6,000 and 6,500. Some former prisoners insist that the aggregate is still higher. The most recent figures from the Central Administration of Statistics—which date to 2010, an unusually calm and prosperous year—are incomplete and poorly labelled, but nonetheless report 17,501 arrests and 7,461 new entrants in Roumieh (while a similar number of inmates were released).

Severe overcrowding in turn is compounded by the dilapidation of existing infrastructure. Most prison cells do not possess heating or air conditioning, and many are devoid of proper ventilation, daylight, bedding and sanitation. Typical living conditions entail tens of people in a barren room too small for all to lie down, eating one meal a day, and sharing one bathroom. Some prisoners stay months in dramatically overcrowded cells, where it is impossible for them to rest.

On top of this already inhumane treatment, most detainees are subjected to direct physical torture—the struggle against which constitutes the second pillar of prevailing approaches. Violence against prisoners involves routine beatings, especially during the early stages after arrest; later, many detainees will endure more sophisticated forms of persecution. An ex-inmate claimed, for example, that the darak forced him to take off his shoes and socks and stand bare foot in a room filled with water while being electrocuted. Another ex-convict described the farrouj, or “chicken,” whereby he was hung head down from the ceiling for five hours, during which he was repeatedly beaten.

Off with her head!

“They came in the middle of the night. It was quick: I barely had time to put on my clothes. My mother was crying. My brothers were so confused.” Michel, well-educated, arty and a productive employee, talks for hours, with unflagging energy, about the eight, dark years he spent in detention. “I was thrown into a jeep, where the insults started, along with a few slaps. At this stage you still think that there’s a way out—that everything will be okay. And then you get to the makhfar [or police station]. You don’t cry, but you’re afraid, panicked. Your state of mind is impossible to describe, other than: ‘what the fuck is happening to me?’

Three days I stayed there. It’s like the moment before a car accident, but it lasts forever. They want to break you. My eyes were covered at all times, so I didn’t know where the blows would come from. You hurt, you become paranoid. I was in a room with no window and no lamp. I didn’t know what time it was, or if I was truly awake or not. The lack of sleep, the beating, the humiliation; you lose touch with reality. I was lost.

At one point, they moved me to another room, had me remove my T-shirt and pass my hands through a window, where a darak on the other side cuffed my hands around a post. And this is where the worst started. They whipped me with fishing lines tipped with sharp lead pieces. I don’t remember how long it lasted, but they hit me more than a hundred times. Their laughs, their insults, the smell of sweat, in a room with a white light like a lab; but the worst was the drops of blood I felt running down my back. 13 years later, I still have the scars.”  

Local and international NGOs have sought to redress the sector’s shortcomings through various means, including surprise visits to inspect places of detention; monitoring the Internal Security Forces or ISF (the body responsible for administering prisons) through regular reports; and advocacy to ensure access to a lawyer and fair trial. In parallel, foreign governments fund numerous training workshops intended to inculcate humanitarian principles.

To date, however, there has been relatively little to show for all this activity. A prime example of movement without change was the publication, in December 2013, of Lebanon’s National Action Plan for Human Rights. The document put forth a host of reforms to be implemented between 2014-2019, including the construction of two new prisons and the closure of every existing facility except for Roumieh. Thus far, no detention center has been shut down, and only one new facility, judging by the word of an advisor to the Ministry of Interior, is in the planning stages. Meanwhile, in November 2016 the parliament passed a law establishing an independent Human Rights Committee to supervise the sector, but this body has yet to materialize. 

Lost in legal limbo

While lack of progress on infrastructure and torture is troubling, the pervasive focus on these two issues may have obscured a still more fundamental problem: the lack of any functioning legal framework, which affects every aspect of the detention cycle.

Upon arrest, any presumption of innocence is generally null and void

The incoherencies in Lebanon’s legal system are glaringly apparent from the first stages of detention. Arrests are made with little connection to criminal law and virtually no supervision from the judiciary; the security apparatus, constantly on alert, seeks to impose law and order on its own terms, with tribunals generally reduced to notarizing its decisions. Upon arrest, any presumption of innocence is generally null and void. Meanwhile, a rise in terrorist threats has compounded the security services’ tendency to bend or break the boundaries of the law, and fuzzy language in Lebanon’s scant terror legislation makes it easy to do so. As an official with the Ministry of Interior put it, an individual on his way to buy bread following a terrorist attack in Tripoli could easily be arrested on suspicions of terrorism, to then wait months or years before he is released for lack of evidence.

Regardless of the motives of arrest, prisoners tend to be detained for extended periods without prosecution. NGOs guesstimate that some 65 percent of all detainees are pre-trial. In some cases, individuals are released immediately after their final hearing, for the simple reason that their eventual sentence was exceeded even before the judgment was made. This reality, in turn, flows from an acute lack of judicial capacity. An NGO worker pointed out that some judges juggle up to 70 case files in a single day, leading them to send defendants to the back of a six-month waiting list for any missing document.

Against this backdrop, overcrowding should be understood as a byproduct of the fact that Lebanon’s security sector arrests far more people than its legal sector can process. Building more prisons will simply enable the security services to detain even more, compounding the judicial bottleneck and possibly making things worse rather than better. Meanwhile, a chaotic legal sphere ensures torture will endure: to this day, no serious mechanism exists to report physical abuse. Rather, former prisoners allege that lawyers advise not to mention maltreatment, to avoid provoking both judge and police.

Who stole the tarts?

“The judge barely looks at you, and rarely wants to listen to your story. In his eyes, you’re not even a human being. Even if I had dared tell him how the darak hit me, he wouldn’t have cared. Besides, the darak who did slap me was precisely the one escorting me into the courtroom. Had I spoken, all I would have done is guarantee more beating from him and his colleagues.”

Kassem is covered in tattoos and scars, some of them due to wounds he inflicted upon himself, he says, to avoid being beaten. A spirited character, now keen on fighting his drug addiction and reclaiming a normal life, he laughs off his seven sojourns in prison in the space of seven years. They left traces, however, buried within him but quick to surface.

“The state crushes you, whether you’re inside prison or outside; it exerts this constant pressure. Now, I’m afraid to cross a darak or an army checkpoint, although I’ve done nothing wrong and have nothing on me. As soon as they see my tattoos, it’s enough to pull me over. After so much time there, I live in constant fear of being sent back to prison.”

An even deeper layer of legal incoherence relates to the absence of a clear, competent authority to supervise and coordinate the sector. Lebanese officials are literally decades overdue on a promised transfer of responsibility from the Ministry of Interior to the Ministry of Justice—a pledge first made in 1964 and renewed in 2012. In very Lebanese fashion, each ministry blames the gridlock on the other. Neither party, meanwhile, has the necessary capacity to effectively oversee the prison sector. Just as the Ministry of Justice is not yet equipped to secure facilities, the Ministry of Interior was never empowered to do anything else than secure them. Prisons, therefore, are little more than places where the ISF holds on to people it deems, for one reason or another, a liability—until the judiciary finally catches up with the action and decides on extended detention or prompt release.

Just as there is no designated authority for the sector, nor is there any dedicated budget

Institutional convolution goes some way to explaining the remarkable lack of reliable, publicly available data. Not only is there no consensus figure for the number of prisoners in the country, but informed stakeholders differ even on the number of prisons: while one NGO director refers to 25 prisons Lebanon-wide, a government official will talk about 21 only. Another expert will insist on either 21 or 24, depending on how one counts the different blocks of Roumieh prison. In 2011, Lebanese authorities partnered with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime to create a database, entitled “Basem,” storing key prisoner data, such as date of entry and release, medical records, and so on. It remains unclear, however, whether the ISF is willing or capable of contributing relevant information. In any case, whatever figures exist are jealously guarded by the Ministry of Justice’s Directorate of Prisons.

Just as there is no designated authority for the sector, nor is there any dedicated budget. Lebanon’s prisons must instead function on an ad hoc basis: new facilities are built through extraordinary funding—typically handouts from international partners; salaries are paid out of the ISF’s all-purpose envelope; prisoners are transported to and from police stations or courtrooms using vehicles and gasoline not specifically allocated to the sector; and civil society has effectively been drafted to do the state’s job, including the distribution of basic products such as food, toothbrushes, blankets, and clothing.

The pool of tears

“Prisoners suffer for sure. They are not treated well, because of the lack of means and resources. Even if they are condemned for a good reason, they don’t deserve to live in such conditions.” Nada, a thoughtful and even-keeled woman, does not regret her decision to join the ISF—despite being forced, by her own lack of connections, into a punishing job as a prison guard.

“The problem is that we get blamed for everything, when in reality we’re just doing our job in impossible conditions. For example, you have search procedures for food sent to prisoners by their families. We rummage through everything with the same fork. In the end, their dishes look disgusting, but we can’t let hidden items enter the facility. Once we were blamed for the death of a prisoner, because he wasn’t transferred to hospital in time. The doctor who autopsied the body said he died of natural causes, that he was old and suffered a heart attack. A lot of prisoners fake being ill to be sent to hospitals to see their relatives, or escape. We must be sure before taking measures; it’s a matter of security.

We stand in the middle, between the State and the prisoners. No one likes us and we feel injustice on all parts. The truth is that we suffer quite as much as prisoners. We don’t see the light, our beds are broken, the toilets barely function, and we’re not allowed to use our phones. I used to think NGOs could provide solutions, improve detention conditions, but feel that much of their work is useless. All they do is, again, criticize us. Prisoners, NGOs and international organizations believe that we are the ones not doing our share—when it’s a very difficult, very tiring job. It’s horrible, you’re literally drowning in crap.”

As government bodies consistently fail to fulfill their obligations, the sector has relied upon growing involvement by an array of semi-governmental or non-governmental actors that often pursue foreign funding to provide basic services, proffer legal assistance, monitor human rights, rehabilitate aging infrastructure and so on. A government official claimed that around 400 NGOs and associations were nominally registered with the Ministry of Interior in connection to detention—while only a dozen, in his view, executed meaningful programs. One peculiar hybrid is the Lebanese Prison Reform Association (LPRA), which was established in 2014 as a “non-government organization” by the Ministry of Interior, as a vessel for outside funds—capturing the essence of a system where donor grants are used to paper over the state’s shortcomings.

International donors have proven eager to play their part, citing both the imperative of enhancing Lebanon’s stability and the fact that Beirut is—by regional standards—unusually willing to accommodate international engagement, even in such sensitive areas as detention. This engagement, in turn, meets various Western objectives in the fields of strengthening civil society, protecting human rights, and—increasingly—reining in radical sympathies.

An overhaul of criminal justice, the most obvious place to start, comes last on the agenda

But, lacking formal mechanisms to set realistic objectives and articulate a strategy, a disjointed array of foreign, official and nongovernmental players is left to interact haphazardly in a marketplace of priorities and projects—often competing for rewards (funds, visibility, or even workshops abroad) rather than collaborating toward common goals. A Lebanese NGO worker sighed: “even among NGOs there is no coordination because they ignore each other. Instead, there is huge competition, endemic distrust, and a mentality of ‘we are the best!’” The prevailing legal limbo creates a situation where the state, with no dedicated authority, budget or data, is also structurally incapable of developing a policy. The result is that an overhaul of criminal justice, which looks like the most obvious place to start, seemingly comes last on the agenda.

A maze of secondary chambers

The sector’s malfunctions and general fuzziness prompt a host of short-term, makeshift solutions going beyond the reliance on NGOs and foreign funding. Such stopgaps are rarely discussed in depth, despite the critical role they play—and the deleterious side-effects that many incur.

Among the most obvious examples of this trend is Lebanon’s overreliance on military courts, particularly since the declaration, in 2012, of a state of emergency in response to the shockwaves from Syria’s escalating conflict. The emergency law allows security forces to detain, and try in military jurisdictions, anyone who commits acts of treason, espionage, draft evasion, unlawful contact with the enemy (Israel), or weapons possession, along with anyone “posing a threat or harm to general security”—a vague categorization that may apply to virtually any offense. Its ambiguity was on display in late 2015, when several activists were referred to military courts for their participation in protests related to the breakdown of the country’s waste management system.

While there is some discussion of repealing the state of emergency and curtailing the remit of military courts, there is little sign that such a move is forthcoming. On the contrary, military courts have lately assumed an increasingly broad and routinized share of the burden for Lebanon’s backlog of criminal cases. This raises concerns about the degree of transparency in military courts that are not subject to the same constraints as their civilian counterparts; frequently conjure confessions obtained under torture; involve even longer periods of pre-trial detention; and entail no respect for the right to legal defense or appeal.

An additional set of makeshift arrangements has emerged to cope with the shortage of physical infrastructure, with bloated prisons spilling over into alternative facilities that are entirely unequipped for housing inmates. A mounting phenomenon is the fallback on local police stations (or makhafir) as improvised incarceration centers, where all the problems identified in formal prisons are reported to be much worse.

Lebanon’s security services manage some legal offenders through stricly informal arrangements

Even further afield from formal structures, Lebanon’s security services manage—or decline to manage—a significant part of the country’s legal offenders through strictly informal arrangements. Individuals may enjoy the protection of a powerful patron and defy the law, even when involved in violent crimes; their arrest simply will not occur unless such cover is lifted. An infamous example involved a shooting in a nightclub in central Beirut, where a dozen henchmen working for a local businessman reportedly fired hundreds of bullets to intimidate a rival entrepreneur, and mostly got away with minimal penalties. Armed factions and petty criminals routinely benefit from protection extended by political figures who use their services to do their dirty work.

Certain villages, meanwhile, are known as safe havens where felons can seek refuge; such communities are sufficiently well-armed to deter security services from intervening, while maintaining a low enough profile to avoid forcing them into doing so. Relatedly, some powerful factions manage their own private detention centers, to deal discretionarily with individuals they perceive as threats. The Shiite movement Hizbollah, for example, wields its own security forces that may alternately choose to defer an outlaw to the police; shield someone from any formal accountability; or interrogate and detain a suspect unilaterally.

Perhaps the most institutionalized component of this informal system belongs to Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps. These exist, in many respects, outside the jurisdiction of the Lebanese state. Detention is no exception: Palestinian factions manage their own judicial processes and incarcerate individuals who have committed minor crimes in the camps, while handing over more serious offenders (such as rapists or murderers) to Lebanese security services. This limited sovereignty is mutually beneficial: the Lebanese security forces save time and resources (including prison space), while Palestinian authorities retain a large degree of autonomy.

This arrangement, however, is not cost free. The absence of Lebanese security forces inside the camps has, by some accounts, made them permissive environments for criminal activity that local forces are unable or unwilling to stop. Meanwhile, Lebanese security actors adopt a “containment” approach to the camps, simply blocking off entrances in response to security concerns, causing some observers to describe the camps—perhaps with a touch of exaggeration—as “open-air prisons.” 

Life beneath the surface

Even formal detention facilities are hardly what an outside observer would expect. Discourse on prisons often takes on the quality of an echo chamber, reverberating the same few talking points without drawing much on the insights of those who know it best: inmates themselves and the guards tasked with managing them.

The experience prisoners recount revolves around three poignant leitmotivs

The experience of prisoners, as they recount it, seems to revolve around three poignant leitmotivs. The first may be called the “plunge.” Naturally, upon arrest, an individual is removed from his ordinary environment and propelled into a disorientating world with rules of its own. That world is defined by extreme, violent forms of arbitrariness: initially denied legal assistance, family visits and all other forms of communication with the outside world, a majority of new prisoners are subjected to a regime of beatings, insults and intimidation, regardless of whether they are suspected murderers or petty drug users. As a human rights advocate explained, the darak are inclined to assume that any detainee is guilty and must pay for his presumed crime.

A second phase sees detainees kept, from a few days to several months, in holding cells or nazarat, where conditions are generally dismal. There a prisoner ultimately gains access to a lawyer, and his family can bring him food and clothes. Family connections become critical, and may be the only way to secure release when oversubscribed lawyers exercise little formal recourse with oversubscribed judges. The latter will determine whether the detainee should be incarcerated or freed, depending on objective evidence, but also on far more subjective factors such as prodding by the security services or direct relations with the defending party. As a popular saying has it: “a good lawyer knows the law; a great lawyer knows the judge.”

Then, throughout their sojourn in prison, inmates are left with agonizingly little notion of what will become of them, or when they might be released. A young former inmate described being sent to Roumieh, then to General Security for a week, and then released, with no prior warning regarding what was going to happen. Another explained that the process of waiting for a judgment that never comes is among the most painful elements of the entire experience. A majority of detainees, he said, are condemned to “watch their cell door open and close all day, until they leave, without knowing when that will be.” Most learn of their release only a day in advance or even the moment it occurs, creating a state of constant expectation that can remain frustrated for years. “Pack your stuff, you’re out tomorrow,” a darak might say out of the blue, or “your father is here, you’re leaving.”

Advice from a caterpillar

Tony, the shy petty drug user, coped, like many, by rekindling a previously absent faith. “Everyone who’s sent to prison starts believing again. Prison makes you feel that everyone has abandoned you. You need something bigger, that will not leave you, and that is God. This helps a lot with recruitment of terrorists, by the way. For me, praying became a habit by the end. I stopped after getting out because I felt it was becoming a chore. What hurts now is that I knelt before something I do not truly believe in. My personality was completely broken after a month in jail.

I still remember my last day like if it was yesterday! It was a Thursday. On Tuesday, my father came to see me. I cried so much, and my dad was so sad seeing me like this, and being powerless to help. He told me to calm down, and that in two days it should be over. On the Thursday, I waited but he didn’t come. I felt terrified, helpless, panicked. I thought that his absence meant that I wasn’t getting out, and that he was just afraid to tell me. 

At 4pm, visits were over, and I was sent back to my cell. The darak shouted my name, and told me to pack my stuff. I couldn’t believe it—I ran so fast! I honestly don’t remember what I forgot in the cell. I didn’t even properly said goodbye to my roommates. I ran out yelling 'bye, bye boys! Bye!' without really looking at them. I was so excited, the nightmare was over. But since then I don’t talk to anyone about it all—neither my friends nor my family can understand."

A second leitmotiv in prisoner narratives is a form of “banishment,” whereby the combination of an individual’s acts and status propel him (or her) out of society for an ill-defined period of time. Lebanese society attaches profound stigma to incarceration, such that prison itself takes on the aura of total removal from the outside world. That taboo creates a general inclination to assume that detainees deserve whatever treatment they receive, which also helps explain why most ordinary citizens show little interest in the sector’s track record of abuse.

Against this backdrop of isolation, prisoners find family within their new world

Against this backdrop of isolation, prisoners find family within their new world: the prisoner’s cell becomes his home and sole possession, while the prison is his city, the floor his neighborhood. There is code of sorts ruling in prison: “it’s an unwritten but unmistakable regulation,” said an ex-convict. “Either we respect it or we become outcast among the outcasts.” Within this ecosystem, as in Lebanon proper, inmates gravitate toward familiar demographics, first based on religion, then region, and finally political affiliation. “It’s rare to mix people from different religions in the same cell,” explained a former inmate, “and when it happens, there are fights. We don’t talk about it, but just as things are divided outside, they are inside as well. You have to belong to a group.”

A striking characteristic of this ecosystem is its self-containment. Indeed, and despite significant investment by NGOs, former inmates stress the degree to which they are left to fend for themselves, relying on family members to send money, food, cigarettes, clothes and books. Cellmates rely on one another’s relatives to periodically send enough portions for all the inmates in the cell. This also limits how regularly families must visit the prison facility.

But who has won?

Michel, with his characteristic energy, recalled the process of integration: “You learn the system through pain. You need someone to protect you. I had small problems at first, but I found good mentors. Your back-up comes first from your religious community, then the people from your region, and finally political affiliation. Those are your allies.

To be accepted into your cell, you need your family to visit you and bring food for cellmates—not just you. If they’re bringing cheese, they must bring 500g, not 100g. If they’re bringing Pepsi, they need to bring one large bottle of Pepsi and not a can. It’s the same with prepared meals. The rule is that, in the same cell, we all take care of each other. If you don’t have visits, you’re kicked out. It’s like living with someone who doesn’t pay bills or do housework.

Your cell becomes your home. You don’t have anything else in life. This is why it’s my cell: I built the beds and the shelves, I bought the TV and the fridge, and I installed the water heater. No one can try to become the leader in my cell. If it happens I tell the administration to transfer the guy or I threaten to kill him.

The longer your sentence, the more powerful you become. Longer sentences give you authority over other inmates, especially in your cell. There’s a big difference between 2 years, 18 years and the death penalty. What prevents a guy sentenced to death from killing you? He’s got nothing to lose.”

By contrast, former prisoners express resentment at the lack of meaningful aid provided by NGOs, whose work often strikes them as limited to providing items like toothbrushes or towels. As one ex-inmate remarked, receiving these may help at some level, but is ultimately trivial compared to the extent of their needs, on one hand, and to the support provided by their families or fellow inmates, on the other. Some see themselves simply as a commodity used by NGOs to justify funding. While such categorical views are surely exaggerated, they nonetheless capture the divide between what prisoners need and what NGOs are able to provide.

The third leitmotiv relates to the absence of any credible form of rehabilitation. Just as the transition from ordinary life to detention is sudden and brutal, the reverse holds true. NGO courses may provide some help in areas such as learning English, French or computer skills, yet the job market for former convicts is so dismal as to lend these efforts a Sisyphean quality. Psychological assistance is in even shorter supply; and the desire expressed by ex-inmates to voice their experience is met by a society that generally is not willing to listen or prepared to understand.

All told, ex-inmates and other observers frequently note that the concept of rehabilitation is essentially absent from Lebanon’s prison system. Two former prisoners who served 4 and 8 years in Roumieh prison both said that detention in Lebanon aims only at punishing the individual. A local NGO representative complained that “the State is transforming all the space available in Roumieh into cells, slowly killing off the few forms of rehabilitation that existed.” Although reliable figures are absent, recidivism is widely said to be rampant. Indeed, one ex-inmate stated that prisons often operate as a training course in criminality, with the prisoner entering as “beginner” and leaving a “pro”—having been incarcerated, say, for petty theft, and winding up in a cell with a murder suspect. At best, an ordinary person will revert to an ordinary life, after a thoroughly—and unnecessarily—traumatic experience.

Why Mary-Ann, what are you doing out here?

“Some people in prison say, ‘Either you do time, or time does you.’ Either you let the hardship consume you, or you take back control of your life and choose to move forward.” That is exactly what Elie did. Warm, hyper-active, he is covered in diplomas despite four years in Roumieh caused by his drug addiction.

“Prison, there’s nothing educational or rehabilitative about it. It’s a school to become a better, or worse, criminal. The prisoner next door will describe in much detail how he stole a car, and everyone learns from him. Or you go in for use of hashish, and come out on cocaine.

When I did get out, I was afraid. By then, prison was my world—there was nothing beyond it. Inside, I would sometimes go two or three days without leaving my cell even for an hour. When I got out, the world was huge! When I made it home to the village, my sister took me for a drive and, as soon as we got to the city nearby, I had to ask her to turn around. It was too much for me. For four or five days I couldn’t leave the house. Finally, one day at 5am, I went out alone to walk around the neighborhood and all of a sudden started to take it all in. I can’t explain it to you. When you get out, everything is new. A bridge made of iron is now concrete. Restaurants, malls, shops opened where there was nothing before. You feel it’s all crazy.”

Darak tell an almost equally desperate story, despite also carrying much of the blame for the inmates’ suffering. Most are simple people who joined the police for lack of better prospects, and few, if any, ever applied for penitentiary work. Those sent to work in prison, generally due to poor connections or performance, are typically the lowest rung within the Ministry of Interior’s unstated hierarchy. According to an ex-darak, young recruits never even imagine “winding up in prison,” because almost by definition it leads nowhere. Indeed, prison guards have little training, despite the profusion of workshops organized by NGOs and foreign partners, which typically benefit the higher echelons and entail minimal evaluation or follow-up after the fact.

Darak tell an equally desperate story, while carrying much of the blame for the inmates’ suffering

Some darak also consider themselves, in a sense, banished. “We are cut off from the world,” said one. “Our phones are taken from us. When we want to take days off, it’s a long and complicated process with a lot of papers to be signed.” Tellingly, an ex-darak described his three-day long imprisonment, at the special detention facility where policemen are sanctioned for bad behavior, as “a camping holiday” where he could rest, watch television, order chicken sandwiches and play video games, while working in prison felt like being locked-up proper.

This situation translates into an awkward symbiosis between prisoners and darak. On one side, they are tightly interdependent. The sector’s malfunctions create a vibrant black market for everything from hard drugs to food deliveries or phone calls. A darak, for example, may use a prisoner’s (smuggled in) mobile to reach his own family, while contributing some commodity in exchange.

On the other, however, the degree of lawlessness in parts of certain prisons creates opportunities not only for darak to victimize inmates, but also the reverse. A guard who worked in Roumieh for four years explained that a darak inside the prison “must” become friends with the prisoners—or at least help them get what they need—or suffer insults and possibly violence. At its most extreme, this dynamic may rise to the level of darak being taken hostage by prisoners—a reportedly frequent occurrence confirmed by both a former darak and a member of the special units charged with restoring order in the event of rioting.

Turn them over

“Four years in Roumieh is a long time.” Samer, who now stands sentry at one of Lebanon’s countless checkpoints painted with the Lebanese flag, is painfully aware of how little his career resembled that which he had imagined. He counts the days to his retirement… nine years down the road. “In the end, you may as well be detained yourself. It’s disgusting, it’s boring, and you can’t go home. Sometimes there’s a family emergency or a special occasion and you need to take a day off, and the prison won’t grant it to you.

And you’re afraid because no one apart from your relatives and friends cares about what happens to you inside. I was once threatened by an Islamist who somehow knew my name and my address. I told my superior and he agreed not to send me inside anymore, but they never questioned the Islamist. I tinted my car windows after this, not wanting to take any risks.

I told my parents I wanted to leave Roumieh. Every time some incident in the prison was reported in the media, my mother was afraid and cried. But she couldn’t even call me. They’re animals inside; they’re crazy. Hundreds of times the darak have been beaten, abused, tortured, taken hostage by prisoners. Eventually we were able to use our connections, and I was transferred.

All those who are stationed in prison want to leave. They all try to find the right wasta [or personal connections] to get out, because it’s horrible inside. You witness horrible things. Once, in front of my unit, a prisoner who was high on pills cut himself open with a razor. You could see his organs falling from his stomach.”

A way out?

These dynamics capture the broader contradictions built into Lebanese prisons, which are at once profoundly isolating and remarkably porous, brutally rigid and yet riddled with informality and loopholes, forcing guards and prisoners alike to survive through recourse to the same sorts of contortions and improvisations that characterize the sector as a whole. While most indeed find creative ways to muddle through, they must do so amidst conditions that are unjustifiably cruel and arbitrary in the context of an upper middle income country.

The failures of Lebanon’s prison sector are so diverse and deep-rooted as to defy easy solutions, and even—it often seems—coherent discussion and diagnosis. The challenges, indeed, are overwhelming: a broken judicial system, decrepit infrastructure, nonexistent data and pervasive disrespect for human rights have evolved and intertwined over the course of decades, and are naturally compounded by Lebanon’s broader political dysfunction. Against this backdrop, it is hardly surprising that outside actors and local civil society have struggled to achieve more than marginal progress in the quest for reform, despite significant resources, expertise and goodwill.

While the manifold problems underpinning Lebanon’s prison system will persist for the foreseeable future, there is nothing to stop Lebanese today from engaging in a more open and honest dialogue on this subject. Such engagement might take any number of forms, from private discussions between ex-inmates and ex-darak to the publication of anonymized testimonials from such individuals. The very process of shedding fresh light on these stories of sin, suffering and solidarity holds the potential to begin humanizing a sector that has lost all semblance of humanity. That humanization may, in turn, go some distance toward salving the wounds incurred by thousands of individuals who pass through Lebanon’s detention sector on a yearly basis. In so doing, it will also help to redress one of the most glaring collective failures in a society that justifiably prides itself on its openness and tolerance, and which is altogether capable of doing better.

30 May 2017

Georges Haddad is a fellow with Synaps.

Illustration credits: hole by Pixabay; Arthur Rackham’s illustrations of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Public Domain Review / licensed by CC.

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