A fight that broke out between prisoners Monday at Lebanon’s central prison, Roumieh, may appear to be a minor incident, but it serves as a reminder of how authorities have let the facility languish as a result of corruption and injustice.
Last week, there was an attempt to smuggle a sandwich laced with chemicals into Roumieh, leading to the detention of a policeman and suspicion that Islamist inmates at the prison were meant to have ended up with the goods in question. There has been speculation that a plot was underway to blow up one of the wings of Roumieh, and investigations have expanded to cover not only Islamist detainees, but also a Christian inmate suspected of smuggling in the substance to sell on to militant Muslim inmates.
To this can be added the simmering tug-of-war over who is responsible for financial corruption at Roumieh, as a hefty amount of public funds appear to have been pocketed during renovation works.
And as the renovation has taken place, it has managed to increase the terrible overcrowding that plagues Roumieh. The facility is intended to hold just over 1,000 people, but more than double that figure reside there now. When the Arab Spring upheavals began in 2011, Roumieh experienced a bout of violent rioting and repairs to the damage from that incident have yet to take place.
Earlier this year, and in stark contrast to the dismal state of some of Roumieh’s infrastructure, the authorities unveiled a brand-new, state-of-the-art courtroom equipped to deal with the huge number of cases that have built up since the Nahr al-Bared fighting of 2007.
Ever since that year, several hundred Islamist inmates have been waiting for their trials.
Proceedings in the new courtroom finally got underway a few weeks ago, to the relief of the men’s families. But the process has been an example of old habits dying hard, no matter how much they are dressed up: The judge promptly adjourned the session and set a new trial date for early next year.
All of these new problems can be added to the long list of dangers and grievances that have come to characterize Roumieh, such as the prevalence of mobile phones, drugs and sometimes weapons, or the existenceof areas that are off-limits to prison staff. Conditions aren’t necessarily better at other men’s prisons, or even those for female inmates, in various parts of the country. This is why civil groups are sometimes obliged to step in and try to alleviate the conditions, which only goes to show how far Lebanon’s prisons are from international standards.
In recent weeks, the authorities have attempted to bring a bit of law and order to the southern suburbs of Beirut, and the tense city of Tripoli. But they seem to forget that Lebanon’s largest prison could use a dose of the medicine being handed out elsewhere.