ROUMIEH, Lebanon : Plans to build a new wing for “high-risk” inmates at the country’s largest prison came under fire Tuesday for not doing enough to separate serious criminals from inmates who had committed lesser offenses.
“What are the reasons behind not dividing the thousands of prisoners and their families from high risk prisoners?” asked Father Hady Aya of Justice and Mercy Association, a local organization that works to reform Lebanon’s prisons.
Aya lead a news conference Tuesday from AJEM’s branch facing the entrance to Roumieh prison where he praised Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces but said a recent decision to build a new wing where high security prisoners would be kept, still in close proximity to minor offenders, was flawed.
“Prisoners and their families, the employees and volunteers [who work in Roumieh] are not just numbers,” said Aya. “This decision was taken just like that.”
Aya maintained that a high security branch should be built in another location in order to ensure that “high risk” prisoners do not influence minor offenders.
Inmates in Lebanese prisons like Roumieh are often free to roam sections of the facility where they interact with other prisoners. Critics of Lebanon’s prison system maintain that this is a dangerous development considering inmates who may have committed minor offenses can develop a deeper network of criminal connections and may leave prison as a more dangerous potential offenders than when they arrived.
“There is chaos going on inside Roumieh with gang members that the authorities can’t control,” Aya said. “They should see that and take precautions.”
Aya said prisons should be in a safe and secure area where they can be visited without fear or danger. Aya added that the current state of Lebanese prisons is credited to “decades of negligence and overcrowding” paired with delayed sentencing.
Lebanese prisons are notoriously overcrowded with Roumieh being the primary example. Estimates put the number of inmates in Roumieh at over three times its maximum holding capacity.
Roumieh also holds a large number of inmates that were never given trial. Many of these inmates are being held on terrorism charges dating back to involvement in the Lebanese Army’s battle against Islamists in Nahr al-Bared in 2007. Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk said earlier this year that 62 percent of prisoners are yet to be tried, an issue that led to rioting across the facility in 2012.
“There is a breeding ground for terrorists in this prison,” Machnouk said last month, addressing a crowd of politicians, security officers, judges and journalists. “God willing and during a short period of time, we will confront terrorism inside jail.”
Aya also announced Tuesday that the Roumieh branch of AJEM would close for the time being and that the employees and volunteers would disburse to its branches in Antelias and Rabieh, both in the Metn region above Beirut.