BEIRUT: When considering the inmates of Lebanon’s notorious Roumieh prison, the first images that come to mind are likely of violence and overcrowding rather than quiet study.
However, for Elie Boujouk the past four years have been dedicated to exactly that. The culmination of these efforts came on Saturday, when Boujouk graduated with a degree in international affairs and history from Saint Joseph University (USJ), at a ceremony held in the presence of Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud.
Boujouk, now 27, was jailed in 2004, along with three others, for the robbery and murder of 39-year-old Elie Shaoul.
Facing an 18-year prison sentence, he was determined to do something productive with his time in jail.
A graphic design student before his incarceration, he wanted an education. Without institutional channels to go through, he turned to local NGO Association of Justice and Mercy (AJEM), which works with Roumieh’s inmates to provide social, and medical provision, for help.
AJEM wrote to USJ’s social work department, asking if they would consider taking Boujouk as a student.
Rosa Rami, the social assistant at the university’s social service department took on the project. Speaking at Boujouk’s graduation ceremony, she explained that the initiative was “the fruit of Saint Joseph University’s conviction that even a condemned man has the right to a second chance, that even an incarcerated young man has the right to pursue his university studies.”
“I thought that when a human being needs to be rehabilitated … you give them a second chance,” says Christine Assaf, who is the head of the history department and was responsible for Boujouk’s education within the university.
After consultations with the Interior Ministry and the Internal Security Forces, AJEM received permission for USJ to send books and study materials into the prison. Boujouk worked largely alone in his cell. When he had trouble, university professors were given permission to visit him for extra tuition.
Roumieh, Lebanon’s most notorious prison and well-known for its overcrowding, with up to 150 prisoners sharing one cell, does not make studying easy.
“Jail is not very study conducive,” says Assaf. “It was also hard for Elie because the other prisoners looked at him like he was different.”
Although the right of prisoners to an education is written into Lebanon’s penal laws, Hana Nassis, AJEM’s general secretary, says that it is not put into practice.
“The law is not applied,” Nassis says. “It can be difficult [for prisoners and NGOs] to have all the facilities to do what Elie has done.”
While Ajem sees many prisoners who do study while at Roumieh, Nassis says Boujouk was the first to undergo his whole degree while in prison.
Providing prisoners with an education is key to their rehabilitation once they are freed, Nassis believes.
“If inmates are not educated, if they don’t have a profession, they will return to prison,” she says. “In prison, time is infinite and many of the prisoners don’t do anything with all that time. They can lose their equilibrium.”
Speaking at Boujouk’s graduation ceremony, Baroud also stressed the importance of education for prisoners.
“Prisons should not represent a double sanction: a deprivation from liberty and a deprivation from a dignified life. With the help of the United Nations and the justice minister, the Interior Ministry has launched a plan to reorganize and reform prisons in all aspects.”
Despite the initial negativity Boujouk received, in the end, Assaf says, “I think the other inmates were looking at him with a kind of respect. He can be an example to others.”
Boujouk, who still has a further 11 years of his sentence to serve, now teaches English and handicrafts to other prisoners at Roumieh.
“My path does not end here,” he told the audience at his graduation ceremony. “I will further my studies and I will endlessly seek perfection.”