Lebanon News

Prisons need better health services: ICRC

The meeting at the Coral Beach Hotel in Beirut. (The Daily Star)

BEIRUT: The country’s prisons need better health services for detainees, Red Cross officials said at a discussion with police administrators Monday.

The round-table meeting at the Coral Beach Hotel in Beirut between Internal Security Forces leaders and the International Committee of the Red Cross focused on exchanging experiences and best practices for dealing with the complicated issue of providing health services in a disorganized and overcrowded prison system.

ICRC officials said they hope the dialogue will also help the police, who manage the prison system, follow through on promises to build new health care facilities and renovate older ones in the country’s major prisons.

“The ISF committed itself to establish medical centers in Tripoli and Zahle. We know there is a commitment, but we haven’t seen that on the ground,” said Tine Vermeiren, protection coordinator at the ICRC and presenter at the conference.

By discussing a broad array of detention health care concerns at the conference, Vermeiren also hoped police could reorganize their administration to better provide health services for prisoners.

Police and ICRC officials will discuss providing basic health services as well as more complicated subjects like medical ethics, hunger strikes and the health consequences of torture during the two-day seminar. Doctors and health professionals will meet with the ICRC for two days at the end of the week as well.

On the ground, progress could be measured by how well the administration is responding, she explained: “It’s linked to the organization, really the system, how the system is organized, how does it work, the link between the central authorities and the service provided inside the prisons.”

Some progress has already been made. Prison officials have met regularly with the ICRC as well as begun some work to improve health facilities. The number of doctors and health care workers has been increased.

But working with the country’s bureaucracy can be difficult, according to Vermeiren: “It’s not always that easy, and we experienced that. For two years we have done round tables every two months with the ISF to discuss practical problems that we notice at the prison level or the directors of the prisons notice at the prison level.”

The bureaucratic justice system and decrepit and overloaded prison facilities have made for very difficult conditions for prisoners, which are often cited by rights advocates for human rights abuses.

Government ministers openly acknowledge the deep problems with the detention facilities. The health and social service ministers toured the Roumieh prison this year with an eye toward improving living conditions.

Ministry committees have looked to build new prison facilities as well as turn over administration to the Justice Ministry. But abuses and difficult conditions remain, which have sparked protests from families and prison fights

Gen. Hassan Qassem from the ISF emphasized the police have been constantly working toward reforming the prison system.

“There are big challenges, but we are determined to face and overcome them together, with the participation of everyone since the government of Lebanon took many decisions for the improvement of prisons conditions in the country,” Qassem said.

Qassem said the ISF is in the process of adding more hospital beds in prisons, purchasing ambulances and installing more sophisticated health care equipment as well as specialized care wings of health facilities.

ICRC officials said that there is still much more work to be done, as the issue is typically very tough to address.

“In all countries that the ICRC works in on the basis of detention, and that’s more than 80 countries worldwide, it has noticed that managing and delivering health care services to inmates represents particular challenges for both the detaining authorities and the health care providers themselves,” said Jurg Montani, head of the ICRC in Lebanon.

“For me what we do in health and detention here in Lebanon is an excellent example of how the work of the ICRC is concerned not only to improve the conditions of detention of the inmates but also to improve the conditions of the staff working in detention,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 13, 2012, on page 4.




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