ROUMIEH, Lebanon: The lofty concrete walls insulating the interior of Roumieh’s prison complex from the world outside strike an onlooker as rather forbidding. Numerous checkpoints leading to the inner facility validate this impression, as prison guards solemnly check the identification papers of visitors and question unfamiliar faces, measures which give the impression that they’re running the show.
But day-to-day life within the prison itself is far removed from the strict protocols suggested by the entry procedures: Between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., prisoners in plain clothes freely walk around their respective blocks, play cards, drink coffee, and while away their sentences.
Concord between prisoners and guards is precarious, despite appearances, says Col. Ghassan Maalouf, Roumieh’s prison director. Guards are still haunted by the memory of the riots which broke out in April 2011, when inmates set their beds on fire and broke down cell doors, in protest over subpar living conditions.
“We’ve been suffering ever since the riots of 2011,” Maalouf explains, “Much damage was done to the prison ... most cells and wings don’t have doors. More distressing, no decision was taken by the authorities to deal with [the underlying issues] which led to the riots.”
Doorless cells remain a constant reminder to prison staff that things can very easily get out of hand, Maalouf says. “Our officers are sometimes afraid, some of these prisoners have a reputation,” he adds, referring to inmates from Fatah al-Islam, who stand accused of killing Army soldiers during the 2007 clashes in Nahr al-Bared refugee camp. “We have to sustain their morale, let them know that we are standing behind them.”
Confronted with the constant threats of another riot, Maalouf said the only way to keep the peace was to communicate with the prisoners. “You have to deal with them, because they are ruling inside the prison, and we are ruling outside the building.”
Maalouf, who assumed his post four months ago, said making compromises with the needs of inmates has proven to be a viable way of maintaining order. Sometimes, though, he has to say no, like last week when inmates asked if bundles of vegetables could be delivered to their cells, or when Fatah al-Islam demanded that inmates from the Abra clashes be transferred to a different block.
“Until now compromise is working,” he says. “Thank God.”
The key to this compromise between inmates and the guards lies in one crucial figure: the shawish, which refers to the prisoner who commands respect among his fellow inmates. In order not to deal with 900 prisoners directly, guards will usually rely on the shawish to communicate new rules and regulations.
And in return for maintaining order, Maalouf says, the shawish is rewarded with certain privileges: A nicer cell and an air conditioner.
“I give them and I take from them this way,” he explains.
Abed, the shawish of Roumieh’s Block A, typically makes the rounds from cell to cell by mid-afternoon. His imposing figure is burly and heavily tattooed.
When asked what landed him behind bars he flatly responds “Murder,” and offers The Daily Star a cigarette.
“There are too many prisoners here,” he complains of the block.
Abed, who is serving a life sentence, has already spent 23 years in Roumieh. Much of that time was spent pumping iron in the gym and playing basketball, he says. If he had the choice to leave, he would prefer to remain incarcerated. “I was 18 when I got here, I don’t know any other job.”
Considered one of the best correctional facilities in the country, Roumieh lags as far as U.N. standards go.
The most outstanding shortcoming is widespread overcrowding, compounded with maintenance-related issues. As a facility, Roumieh was built with an infrastructure appropriate for 1,050 inmates, but it currently houses 2,391. Once renovations to repair damage caused during the riots of 2011 are completed, Maalouf expects that number to rise to 3,000.
He says the judiciary is partly to blame because of delays in trial procedures: “For example, if we are in trial today, the judge might schedule the next session for March 2014. This is a lot of time, the sessions should follow one another.”
“The system is not running smoothly and the judiciary is to blame, but it is we who must face the prisoners so they hold us responsible,” he explains.
For prisoners, the overcrowded conditions mean sleeping in close quarters. Due to ongoing renovations in the prison’s Block D, hundreds of prisoners were transferred to Roumieh’s central complex, which was originally designed to be an entertainment center. One large room, Cell 4, was meant to serve as an auditorium but now contains 86 inmates. Tired of sleeping on thin mattresses so close to one another, some have asked family members to bring cardboard boxes or curtains, which they use to make improvised walls for privacy.
Despite congestion and undeniably fetid living conditions, life does go on in Roumieh, with some prisoners finding respite in the few activities offered.
The cherubic and insightful Nehmeh is usually found in the prison woodworking shop, where he spends four hours a day meticulously crafting frames for paintings depicting key biblical scenes. Commissioned by local churches, he says the activity allows him to develop a skill and offers him some distraction from waiting for the retrial to revoke his death sentence. He’s been waiting for 15 years.
“Most of the people here have been here for a long time,” he says. “Most of them were young and maybe, you know, made a mistake once, and are in here for life.”
Of the inmates willing to talk about their convictions, all proclaimed their innocence to The Daily Star and blamed a “backward” judicial system for their guilty verdicts.
The prison library is lined with books ranging from religious texts to Mark Twain’s “Tom Sawyer,” and ironically, J. Campbell Bruce’s “Escape From Alcatraz.”
Up the stairs, Hussein, convicted for collaborating with Israel, teaches daily computer classes. Having spent 14 years in the prison, he picked up on some computer skills and became the resident expert in Microsoft Office.
“The level of education here is low, most only finished primary school,” Hussein says.
A permanent fixture in the computer room is Iraqi national Idriss Ayasha, whose long white beard and fraying hairline betrays his old age. “I’m writing a novel about man’s place on earth,” he says, scrolling down the pages upon pages of text on the computer screen.
On the way down to the opposite block, Fadi Zeaitar is waking up from an afternoon nap. He is one of the lucky ones who has managed to nab a two-bedroom cell. Convicted for cocaine trafficking, he reminisces how good business was before his arrest. “Thank God,” he says.
At the candle-making factory next door, Youssef, serving a life sentence for murder, is busy melting colored wax. He displays his creations on a table: The most striking consists of a circular mold with carved hearts painted red and one name, “Nour.”
“For my niece,” he explains.
Maalouf decides where certain inmates are placed. Those convicted of collaborating with Israel, for example, are huddled together in the basement of the entertainment complex. Their shawish, a bespectacled and sweet old man by the name of Bassem Abou Jaoude, says they would be assaulted if mixed in with the others.
Juveniles occupy their own floor on Block C of the prison. Theirs is the only one which is locked by the guards, “to save them from the negative influence of the adults,” Maalouf explains, “and sexual harassment.”
Inside the prison, added value is attached to items like cigarettes and phone credit. Hussan Issa, a former detainee, says he managed to sell two cartons of Marlboros for an iPhone. Phones are supposedly prohibited by the authorities, “but some inmates had four or five,” Issa recalls. “I have no idea how they got them or why they needed so many.”
Marie Daunay, president of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights, which attends to the needs of the most vulnerable, says that in many ways prison society reflects that of broader Lebanon. Apart from village and family allegiances, prisoners are dependent on their family members bringing in food and hygienic supplies, leaving foreign inmates without relatives in the country out to fend for themselves.
A report released by the center described how some inmates, who lacked familial support, were sometimes enslaved by their more resourceful counterparts.
“You have detainees who buy their cells, so they become its owners, and they have domestic workers [also prisoners], who have to clean their cell, prepare their food and fetch them their tea,” Daunay says.
In the principal women’s correctional facility in Baabda, one female inmate, who requested to remain anonymous, said such practices were typical.
“When it’s my turn to clean the room, I pay one of the inmates to do it for me,” she says. “One of the few Bangladeshi girls, who doesn’t have family visiting.”
“She cleans the bathrooms, the showers, does the whole scrub,” she says.
“Surely, if you have money, then you can have nicer things in the prison, like in winter you can get a rug on the floor or bed covers. But that doesn’t make it five star,” she says. “You are still a prisoner, and you still get the doors closed on you.”