Judge Lebanon by Entering Its Prisons

It is with depressing inevitability that feeble calls for reform have resurfaced, weak voices proffering vague and insufficient salves to a problem so vast as to be virtually intractable.
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Ali Akil Khalil sounds like a man in need of sleep. His sentences are pained, largely monosyllabic, and he repeats himself often. As a representative of inmates in Lebanon's most fearsome prison, he has just spent all night appealing for clemency from security forces eager to smother the latest round of rioting to sweep Roumieh jail.

"We went to the prison and they did not allow us in," Khalil says. "Then they [the police] attacked the prisoners."

One inmate was injured after Internal Security Forces personnel stormed Roumieh's B and D blocks, themselves still baring scars of a four-day riot earlier this month, which saw three prisoners killed and more than a dozen wounded. This week, more than 50 Roumieh inmates were waylaid with food poisoning and several more complained of being denied medical attention. It is small wonder another mutiny broke out among ill or incensed prisoners -- for all of Roumieh's 3,700 occupants, there is but one full-time doctor.

As torched mattresses still smoldered at the facility, parliament's Human Rights Committee met in the capital's plush Downtown sector to discuss recent riots and proposed changes to Lebanon's creaking penal system. Several lawmakers, religious and civil society representatives convened, going over the almost insurmountable list of problems. The group was unanimous; the committee solemnly announced the creation of... another committee.

Granted, this one would be an emergency committee. This one would stress the urgency of getting the 70 percent of Lebanon's inmates who are yet to stand trial in front of a judge. This one would earnestly probe the creation of detention centers for accused individuals to save them the horror of rotting, forgotten by authorities, in another overfull cell. This one would even look into spending the millions of Lebanese pounds already allocated to overhauling penal shortcomings.

Those with a passing interest in Lebanon's prisons would be forgiven for having the awkward sensation of hearing this all before. When, last year, several inmates were injured and a handful of Islamist prisoners escaped Roumieh, the thunder from politicians was deafening. Prisons, the public was told, were the main priority of the government. The situation in which cell blocks are crammed to several times their intended maximum occupancy, in which five men are regularly forced to share a single, sullied mattress, was apparently no longer acceptable.

It is with depressing inevitability that the feeble calls for reform have resurfaced, weak voices proffering vague and insufficient salves to a problem so vast as to be virtually intractable. Overcrowding, rampant drug abuse, gang membership and widespread mental health issues are just some of the hardships faced daily by prisoners. They are not given legal counsel, (at the latest headcount, only 721 of Roumieh's 3,700 occupants had ever even seen the light of a courtroom) and are denied access to basic medical aid. In almost unimaginable conditions, rioting appears as the sole recourse these forgotten men and women have left. When mutiny sparks, it is brutally extinguished.

Incarceration, on a sociological level, has a two-pronged purpose: Deny the individual liberty and rehabilitate them. How can an inmate hope for rehabilitation when he or she is yet to receive so much as a sentence? If Dostoevsky believed you can judge the degree of civilization in a society by entering its prisons, what can be made of Lebanon, the self-trumpeting beacon of Arab human rights preservers? Talk of prison building is both myopic and short-termist in the extreme. If more prisons appear while the elevated arrest rate and judicial backlog persists, they shall not take long to fill, just as a person who enters the system knowing all help is lost will not take long to reoffend. The risk of indoctrination or drug abuse is high enough in most correctional facilities; with unbridled overcrowding and abject despair, each becomes an eventuality bordering on the certain.

The new government -- when or if it finally deigns the country with formation -- needs to address both the ill-effects of penal mismanagement and the festering causes of crime itself. Better education, better pastoral and social provisions, as well as a more pragmatic approach to law enforcement, would all help. Better still; a fundamental policy shift -- one that sees authorities actually respect human rights rather than merely pretending to -- would give those stranded in the system some chance of escaping with their lives and sanity intact.

Until then, to quote one former MP who knows his jails, "It is as if the state is saying to those that enter prisons that their fate is death."

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