A “Handcuffed” Education Behind Bars

Faced with an educational dead end, the young man had no choice but to skim through books on his own. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Faten Elhajj

Published Wednesday, January 2, 2013

When Sami entered Roumieh Prison in 2006 on drug charges, he told himself, “This will not be a death sentence.” At the time, he was only months away from obtaining a degree in chemistry from the Lebanese University.

Sami, which is a pseudonym, was released from prison in 2010 after receiving a special pardon from Lebanese President Michel Suleiman. He remembers the years of his incarceration with a sense of relief. Today, he is a different person.

“Those in charge of the prison did not give me an opportunity to earn my degree. The only phrase I heard at the time was, ‘You should’ve thought of your education before you made mistakes.’”

Faced with an educational dead end, the young man had no choice but to skim through books on his own. He sought help from the Association of Justice and Mercy, which enabled him to obtain the approval of the general prosecution to take his exams and earn his degree.

“Rejoining society was not easy,” said Sami. On the outside, he was looked down upon, prompting him to face difficult questions about his position in society. Sami admits that he is a lucky person. He was soon introduced to an organization that helps integrate marginalized people into society only to join their staff.

Today, the young man is not only preparing a project about recycling solid waste, but has earned a master’s degree from the University of St. Joseph (USJ) and is working toward a doctorate.

Though Sami found educational assistance in prison, this opportunity is not available to most since the Lebanese system does not guarantee prisoners the right to education. There has been little headway made by civil society organizations despite a few experiments, according to Hadi al-Aya, the president of the Association of Justice and Mercy.

Sources in the Ministry of Education told Al-Akhbar that a decree assigning teachers from the public school system to teach in prisons is underway. The source said that the project is in its final stages and all it needs is approval from the civil service board. This decree will most likely be implemented in juvenile correctional facilities.

Awaiting the institutionalization of this project, USJ provided two male prisoners with required educational materials and teachers. One graduated while the other is still pursuing higher education.

The first case involved a USJ student who was sentenced to five years in prison in 2001. With some coordination between USJ and prison authorities, a plan was put into place where he could continue his studies. Rosie al-Rami, the assistant director at the social services ministry, said that there were difficulties with the project since “it was the first time and we did not know where to begin.”

Eventually, he obtained his degree and would continue to be successful in his professional life. The second prisoner’s experience was different.

With an 18-year sentence, the prisoner was not a former USJ student. Regardless, the university treated him as it would any other student and he soon settled on a specialization. He began his studies in 2005 and earned his degree in 2010. After obtaining permission from the prison, he was able to participate in the graduation ceremony. Currently he’s working toward obtaining a master’s degree.

Though a success, the two students felt limited at times. “I am a prisoner and I will always be known for that no matter what I do,” said one.

Rami could sense their frustration when she would go to prison only to find that their homework and research projects were not finished on time. Their surroundings were oftentimes not beneficial to their studies. One would be told by fellow prisoners, “Stop showing off and pretending that you are studying.” However, the other prisoner had the opposite experience, with many trying to provide a quiet environment for the student.

Even though the prison administration respected the two men’s privacy and allowed the university staff access, there were still many surprises. “We felt imprisoned as they locked the first, second, and third doors and we would also become isolated,” said Rami.

“We believe that pursuing an education is a means to rejoin society,” said Rami. “If the prisoner is deprived of his civil rights, that does not mean he should be deprived of his rights as a human being too.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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