The Panopticon: A peek into Lebanese prisons

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People wait outside Lebanon largest prison, Roumieh prison. (Photo: Haitham Moussawi)

By: Yazan al-Saadi

Published Thursday, April 24, 2014

Lebanese prisons, like all prisons, reflect the society that lies outside the barbed-wire gates. Within these prisons, the state is non-existent, the inmates are in control, and power lies in the hands of a few.

“Life in prison is like a jungle, just like it’s a jungle on the outside,” said Ammar al-Saeed to Al-Akhbar. Saeed, originally from a village in the Damascus countryside, has been in Roumieh prison for more than 16 years. His crime: he sliced the throat of a woman during a business dispute, and has been awaiting the death penalty -- rarely executed in Lebanon-- ever since.

“All the problems and issues you have in the prison can be explained in one simple sentence: there is no state,” he said.

There are 23 detention sites scattered across the country, all administered under the Ministry of Interior. The largest, most notorious, and allegedly the best facility in terms of infrastructure of all other Lebanese prisons is Roumieh prison, located in the town of the same name in the Metn district, less than half an hour's drive from Beirut.

“In all jails, in all the world, the social interactions within are similar, the patterns are the same. The difference here is the nature of administration and the idea of rehabilitation, that shapes that social interaction,” Julie Khouri, an official for the Association Justice and Mercy, a Lebanese NGO that works with vulnerable groups in the country such as refugees, drug users, and prisoners, said.

“In Lebanon, the smaller the jail is the more the security administration is actively involved in. The guards are closer to their homes, they have to deal with less prisoners, and the less the problems are. But in Roumieh, you have a situation in which the prisoners have the power and are in control. The rules and norms are governed by the prisoners themselves,” she noted.

The pecking order

On average, Roumieh holds more than 5,500 prisoners at a time – adults and minors – placed within three large buildings, categorized as A, B, and C. A fourth building was in use until 2011, but has been closed down for renovation.

Generally, building A is for those who are formally convicted and are serving out the last of their prison sentences, building C, known colloquially as the “Building of the Poor” holds minors and the weakest prison population, while building B holds the main prison population, and is famed for being the location in which prisoners linked to external forces have the most control, and thus the best infrastructure.

“The jails are overcrowded, there is no infrastructure to govern, there is a vacuum, and it is an unhealthy environment. Because of this, NGOs are basically trying to provide the basic needs for the prisoners – from food and blankets. Our role is abnormal in comparison to other countries, and we are doing things that the state should be doing,” Wadia' al-Asmar, secretary general of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights, told Al-Akhbar. “The prisoners are in control of the prison. You have this group of prisoners, selected thugs, who are appointed by the security administration. Most of the time, they are the ones who create problems,” he added.

The governance of prisons by the prisoners themselves is akin to the idea dreamt up by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham, and evoked by French philosopher Michel Foucault centuries later. It is the idea of ‘the panopticon’, a prison governed ultimately by the prisoners themselves.

While Bentham envisioned a powerful system of control in which the state’s surveillance is looming and omnipresent, ultimately forcing and scaring the prisoners into watching each other, here in Lebanon a distorted version unfolds due to a complete absence of the state. The prisoners are governing themselves, not out of an inherent fear of authority, but due to the fact that state and security control ends at the door. What happens inside is not under surveillance. This allows the flourishing of black market industries like the drug trade, and even prisoners escaping without the authorities being aware for weeks.

The sharawishe are the strongmen who govern the prison halls. They are selected based on how long they have been serving time inside, or on their ability to garner respect either through violence or fear. Most of the sharawishe naturally exploit other prisoners to further their own interests, and only a few attempt to protect the weak.
“Knowledge is power. If you know nothing when you come in, you are in trouble. If the prisoner has been there a long time or is simply returning, they've got an advantage,” Omar Nashabe, a professor of criminal justice, told Al-Akhbar.

There are numerous other factors which come into play when implementing prison power structures.

“The powerful, of course, are not the majority, and their power is based on a number of social, economic, and political factors,” Khouri noted.
“You have the weaker ones, those with personal issues or [who] can't ensure [a comfortable] life outside these walls. And then you have a large group of prisoners who lie in the middle, who are either swayed by the powerful or [are] attempting to protect the weak[er] the best that they can.”

Money, unsurprisingly, provides a potent tool of power. A financially well-off prisoner has more wiggle room, and can buy whatever he needs in a world where the main currency is cigarettes.

“The rich experience the best life here, because they can buy a room and furnish it. [They] want to have a relaxed time in prison and are able to with the money they bring with them. I'm just saying it as it is,” Saeed said.

A rich person can buy a better, more spacious room with less people, rather than being placed in halls that could hold up to 90 prisoners. He can use the money to pay off guards or other prisoners to do his bidding, and create a barrier from any difficulties and problems that are commonly faced by others.

More so, monetary advantages provide a buffer for a prisoner dealing with a business system that is completely arbitrary. The shops that are opened, and the goods brought in to be sold, are priced according to the whims of the seller. Formally, everything is denied in the prison, but that does not stop the underground market from booming.

“There are three scanners at the door, all run arbitrarily by guards from different leanings. It is not standardized, and one guard will allow a certain person to bring in goods, and the other will not. In one case, a prisoner was denied a 14 inch television, and right next door the other prisoner got a 24 inch one. It's quite funny,” Saeed chuckled, speaking from a cell phone that he bought inside Roumieh.

“There are a million stories like this here, whatever you can or cannot imagine.”

“Marxist theory would actually apply in understanding and examining prisons,” Nashabe mused, “it would help you understand some of the conflicts that arise within.”

“But it is not just money,” he added.

Other markers of power arise from sectarian or political ideology, particularly if there are connections to sectarian or political groups outside the prison walls. A classic example is the case of the Fatah al-Islam prisoners who reside in Building B, and appear to be untouchable.

“One of them in building B has opened up a shop and has been able to bring in three kilos of meat whenever he wants. I've tried to bring two kilos of olive oil, but I was restricted,” Saeed said. “No one dares to confront them. They have complete freedom.”

“As the theorist Max Weber once said, you need status and party. This means a certain type of qualification to have a certain status or party through connections or wasta, which is sectarian, regional, or linked to a collective sense of identity that forms the social clustering of prison systems,” Nashabe said.

“Hence, the prison system in Lebanon is not a total institution, they are not completely separate from the external systems that seeps in,” he added.

It is a point that Saeed echoed.

“For me I don't experience racism. I've been here for a while, so maybe it's the new ones that come in who face it the most. But really, racism is everywhere. In Lebanon there is racism, so it has to seep through into here. Certain rooms are divided based on affiliations, one’s views and ideas. I'm in a room with two other Lebanese, a Sunni and a Shia, and we get along very well. For others, it might not happen. It's your luck,” the convict said.

The type of crime committed can also play a role in shaping prisoners position within the hierarchy, since there are no formal divisions between prisoners according to their crimes – a murderer is placed next to a drug abuser, a refugee without documents rooms with a rapist.

“Your crime may not be harsh, maybe your crime is small in nature but you will be despised by the other inmates. Or it might be horrible, and yet you are considered a hero to all,” Nashabe said.

Brutal murder is not a disadvantage, while crimes involving sexual violence or rape – especially incestuous rape – is a death sentence for a person coming into this environment.

Indeed, sex crimes are considered the lowest of all crimes, punished by prisoners and prison guards in jails throughout the world.

“There was a riot in 1996 or 1997, which was started when one man who was incarcerated for a sex crime was attacked by prison guards. They had tried to burn him,” Nashabe said.

As noted by all, the weak are not specific to a sect, race, or creed. They can be Lebanese or foreign, and are composed of those who lack knowledge, money, connections, or have committed a certain crime looked down on by others.

The weaker ones can be sexually exploited, and are dubbed aranib (rabbits) by the other prisoners. Others are known as khadam (servants), who clean the rooms of stronger prisoners, prepare and bring food to them, and generally do their bidding. The servants are sometimes paid in cigarettes, or are provided cover by their masters.
One characteristic of the vulnerable are those foreigners – Sudanese, Syrians, Palestinians, Egyptians, Iraqis – who do not get visitors from the outside that bring food, blankets, and goods to survive, and have to rely on the goodwill of other prisoners or NGOs for help.

“Prisoners who are trying to help their peers are rare because the administration simply doesn't nurture them. [These prisoners] are trying hard to cover these immense gaps, and we are trying to work with them to create a support structure for the weak. This has allowed smaller changes on the ground, but on a larger level there is no real change,” Khouri said.

Lebanese society and the prison

Like general society, the lack of an active role from the state is commonly invoked by virtually all those Al-Akhbar spoke to. However, there is a far deeper aspect to the problem within Lebanese prisons. The key matter comes down to Lebanese society's belief and notion towards crime and punishment, prison and prisoner.

“In my opinion, it is linked. The jail is a microscope image of Lebanese society. You have sectarian, political, economic, tribal influences at work. The jailed are left to their own devices, with no one thinking of what will happen after,” Khouri said.

On his part, Nashabe argued, “We do not have a correctional system or policy in Lebanon. We do not have a system of parole or prohibition, or a system that allows the gradual return of persons to society. We do not have other modes of punishment for crimes. In addition, we have corruption – which exists in all sectors of Lebanon – and there is a situation of chaos. Ultimately, the prisoner feels that they are in prison simply because there were weak and not because they were guilty.”

“The guards are also in this situation. They are prison guards from the Internal Security Forces who are assigned to places like Roumieh and feel that they are sent there as a form of punishment,” he added.

With a lack of alternatives, tensions have continued to mount within the prisons. The inmates are practically left to rot, ignored by society, and have no access to rehabilitation. It is no wonder that exploitation, violence, and the hierarchies have developed and flourished.

In addition, the prisons themselves were not originally built to be prisons, and even those which were, were not made to withstand the sheer amount of inmates that have poured into the grounds.

Riots have commonly erupted, the last one in 2011, a year after the Lebanese Center of Human Rights drafted a stark, yet unheeded report regarding the brewing legal and humanitarian crisis within the numerous Lebanese jails.

The mentality was epitomized in a comment by former Minister of Interior Marwan Charbel during a visit to Roumieh to survey the renovation efforts in 2013.

“Conditions are bad in Lebanese prisons…so much so that I call for either the death penalty or immediate release of every prisoner,” the former minister said.

Essentially, the prisoners are all viewed as criminals in the eyes of the Lebanese public no matter what they have done or the fact that a large number of them have yet to be convicted. They are left to fend for themselves.

“You know, you can write or say what you want, no one will listen to you,” Saeed said.

“For years I have been calling for the transfer of foreign prisoners to serve out their terms in their home countries. I've seen a young boy die in his jail cell because the prison doctor did not take his illness seriously. We've done hunger strikes, we've written letters, we've spoken out time and time again. If on the outside there is no state, how can the problems here be solved?”

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