ROUMIEH, Lebanon: Treading carefully across the damp floor of the central chamber linking a cluster of crowded, dingy bedrooms in Roumieh prison, Ayoub al-Alayan smiled slightly as he unlocked the door to his private cell.
Inside, a carefully made bed faced a small table with a TV blasting out an Arabic soap opera. Three pairs of shoes were lined up against the wall, and the floor looked recently swept. Two or three sparse shelves held grooming products, cuddly toys – including a red teddy bear and a scraggly white cat – and a handful of basic work tools.
“The head of prison trusts me,” shrugged Alayan when asked about his unique setup. “I’m in charge of fixing anything to do with water or electricity and I also get certain privileges for having been here so long.”
Alayan’s polite manner, perfectly styled hair and neat, clean appearance mark him out from most of Roumieh’s other inmates. In fact, nothing apart from his current location would make a casual observer suspect that he was a murderer who had recently been sentenced to death.
“My dad was ill and I broke into a house to get money to pay for the hospital fees,” he explained, looking away as he spoke. “There were people there and they attacked me. I ended up killing someone in self-defense. It was a 74-year-old woman.”
Alayan was 21 when he committed the crime, his first offense. He has since spent eight years in jail awaiting a final verdict, six of them in the notorious Roumieh prison.
“He’s a normal person,” said Ishak Habshi, a social worker with the Justice and Mercy Association (AJEM) whose job is based in the prison. “He’s not dangerous.
“This was a mistake in his life. It is not him,” Habshi continued. “We need to help him to be better, not to push him to make another mistake, maybe a bigger one.”
If someone like Ayoub is at risk of being sucked onto a darker path in life following his “mistake,” one can only imagine what those who see no other choice than a life of crime would take from Lebanon’s prisons.
“If you don’t help prisoners to do good, he will go and do more bad when he gets outside ... Nearly everyone here will go out again, a month later, a year later, they will live with us again, so it’s for the good of all of us to help them.”
For Hashbi, all of Lebanon is being failed by a prison system that is widely considered to be totally overwhelmed, unable to uphold basic human rights and hobbled by the painfully slow pace of court trials.
Following in the footsteps of most of his predecessors, Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk recently pledged to get to the bottom of an issue that has plagued Lebanon for decades.
“I will knock every Arab and international door to achieve modern prisons in the country,” he said at an Internal Security Forces event early last month.
Speaking to The Daily Star later in June, he added that prison reform was “very important for security, and also to meet minimum humanitarian conditions.”
“I cannot say at all that the situation in any of these prisons is humanitarian,” he said.
It is exactly this that Khiam, a local organization that works to combat torture, has been campaigning against.
“Sometimes people from international organizations ask me, ‘Is there torture in Lebanese prisons?’” Secretary General Mohammad Safa said from the organization’s office in Corniche al-Mazraa.
“I reply, torture is not just hitting someone. It is also putting someone in prison for three or four years without a sentence.”
According to Khiam, which is named after the infamous former prison in south Lebanon run by Israel during its occupation, around 60 percent of all Lebanese prisoners have not yet been sentenced. Further, said Safa, many prisoners have finished their time but are forced to stay behind bars because they cannot afford to pay the fines.
Worst of all, just one of Lebanon’s 22 prisons was built to be a prison. All the others, said Safa, were simply makeshift blocks of cells within serails and other state buildings. Basic sanitary products are not provided, the standard of medical care is deplorable, and access to psychologists or drug rehabilitation – services that many prisoners are badly in need of – is non-existent.
“They are not real prisons,” he said angrily. “Give me a place for humans, not animals.”
“Lebanese prisons are not for rehabilitation, they are just for punishment,” he added.
For Ali, a militia fighter in Tripoli who said he was falsely imprisoned in Roumieh for two months for participating in a protest, prison is a place where “rehabilitation” and “justice” are just words, something typified by the extortion and bribery that goes on inside.
“There are people inside who believe they have complete power,” he explained by phone. “If you don’t pay them then they will either hit you or stab you.”
“It’s all about wasta in there,” he added, referring to the Arabic term for connections and influence. “The person who came in there because he committed a crime can leave as rich as a king.”
At the bottom of the problems with Lebanon’s prisons is a very simple fact: there are too many people in them.
According to Machnouk, there are some 7,800 prisoners nationwide occupying prisons with a total capacity of 2,400. Roumieh Prison alone holds between 2,500 and 3,000 inmates but is only designed for around 1,500 people, according to Khiam, and Baabda women’s prison is home to 90 prisoners when it should contain just 20.
And in the wake of the recent terror crackdown, those numbers are only going up.
“But although the number of prisoners is increasing,” said Safa, throwing his hands in the air, “the speed at which courts sentence criminals has stayed the same.”
That the judicial system is too slow to keep up is indisputable, even for those who defend it.
“It’s true that it is a weakness,” said Danielle Yacoub, an attorney at law who specializes in criminal law. “But we need to increase the number of judges, because in my humble opinion they are overloaded and working at full capacity ... and they are really prioritizing the detainees.”
Although not everyone would agree with this assessment, it is just one of numerous changes needed for a system that is clearly failing. Both more prisons and more judges would help, but no one knows when that will happen.
In the meantime, the Beirut Bar Association has set up a commission dedicated to tracking down people who are lost in the prison system and unable to speak up for themselves – including the handicapped and the elderly – with the aim of following up on their cases.
“If we take [such] people out of the prisons then we are helping our government and the ministries,” Yacoub said.
For many, however, prison reform is an irrelevance. With so many problems facing Lebanon – from the refugee crisis to terror plots – making a nicer place for rapists and murderers to live is hardly a top priority.
But those who have been monitoring the situation think differently, and in light of Tuesday’s news that the security forces got wind of a plot to break out dozens of Islamist inmates from Roumieh, their words may now carry new force.
“Make a study,” said Khiam’s Safa, “of how many of the [former] prisoners in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, are now leaders of terrorist parties. Why is this? Because the prisons in our countries are not places for rehabilitation and education; they are universities to become a merchant for terror and drugs.”