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Overcrowded and mismanaged prisons criminalising young offenders

A van carrying inmates enters the gate ofLebanon's Roumieh prison. Marie Claire Feghali/IRIN

Khalil was only 15 years old when he was sentenced to 15 years in prison for murdering his friend.

He has spent the past three years in the juvenile wing of Roumieh prison, 18km north-east of Beirut. It is one of Lebanon’s more notorious jails.

“Sometimes, I cannot sleep; I only think. I’m so afraid and lonely, and I try to survive each day at a time, otherwise, I would not last in this place,” said the teenager, whose family name IRIN cannot publish because he is a minor.

“If only I was free again. I may have a new chance for a better life. My responsibility is to make up for the life I took. It was a huge mistake.”

But if Khalil wants to redeem himself, he must first survive a decade more in a Lebanese prison system that activists say is dangerously overcrowded, poorly managed and rather than rehabilitating its younger inmates, is actually criminalising them.

“The main role of prisons to rehabilitate offenders has not yet surpassed their current role as places of repression,” said Hadi al-Ayya, president of local NGO Justice and Mercy, which has been documenting the prison system in Lebanon since 1997, particularly focusing on Roumieh’s overcrowded juvenile wing.

Experience and facilities lacking

The roots of the failing prison system, said Ayya, can be traced to the failure to implement a 1964 decree that would have transferred the running of Lebanon’s prisons from the Ministry of Interior’s Internal Security Forces (ISF) to the civilian-led Ministry of Justice.

“Prisons are still run by military officers and soldiers who haven’t received any specific training,” said Ayya. “The soldiers are regularly transferred as part of their military service before they have had time to gain any experience of working in the prison, let alone apply that experience.”

A report by Lebanon’s Parliamentary Human Rights Committee (PHRC), issued last week in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme and the High Commission for Human Rights, highlighted Lebanon’s lack of a dedicated juvenile correction centre.

Photo: The Social Movement
A graph depicting the distribution of Lebanese youth offenders according to crime committed
The report noted that the incarceration of young offenders in Roumieh “not only changes the stature of the court decision, but also transfers the minor to a location lacking proper rehabilitation, which eventually could worsen his case and transform him into a criminal”.

According to statistics from the Ministry of Interior, Lebanon’s 22 prisons hold an average of 5,000 to 6,500 inmates at any one time. That figure hit an all time high of 7,000 in March 2004. There are four prisons specifically for women, but no prisons dedicated for young people.

Justice system failing the poor

Lebanon’s courts are also failing young offenders, say activists.

According to the PHRC report, 80 per cent of the crimes committed by juvenile delinquents are “due to their social background and circumstances beyond their control”.

The study pointed to “serious gaps in the current legislative framework pertaining to juvenile justice, and the lack of experience and knowledge of a large number of professionals dealing with juvenile justice issues”.

The report criticised “the very long time that passes before the juvenile is presented to court, due to the lack of judges and the slowness of legal procedures, as well as the inability of authorities to abide by the decisions taken by the court of law”.

''The main role of prisons to rehabilitate offenders has not yet surpassed their current role as places of repression.''
Social worker Roxanne Saloumi, head of the Juvenile and Women’s prisons department at local NGO Social Movement, said 82 percent of the 128 young offenders held at Roumieh are still awaiting trial.

“Most of those kids dropped out of school, they barely know the alphabet, and 93 per cent of them were already working in the streets,” she told IRIN. “Only 64 per cent of them are Lebanese; the rest are Syrian, Palestinian, or have no nationality at all, which means they have no parents or relatives following their cases.”

According to ISF figures, Roumieh is running at over double its intended capacity, with nearly 4,500 inmates rather than the 2,000 it was designed to hold, the majority of the extras being Iraqi refugees locked up because they entered Lebanon illegally.

The result is chronic overcrowding and the mixing of minor offenders with serious offenders.

Criminalised in jail

“Every time we demand that the security forces separate minor offenders from serious offenders they say it is not possible because there is not enough space in the jail,” said Saloumi. “So you have situations where a child who stole bread is sharing a cell with a child who murdered.”

Clara Fares was 17 when she was locked up in the women’s prison in Baabda, 12km southeast of Beirut, for distributing a flyer in 2001 calling for the end of the Syrian occupation of Lebanon.

“They put me in a room with five prostitutes, seven Sri Lankans who had entered the country illegally, and a lady who had killed her husband,” she told IRIN.

''They put me in a room with five prostitutes, seven Sri Lankans who had entered the country illegally, and a lady who had killed her husband.''
“The lady who killed her husband was called ‘chawich’ [sheriff], because she was the oldest and had a lifetime to spend in jail. She was in charge of the rest of us. It was a scary experience, but I heard of worse cases where young people would go to prison for taking drugs and come out of prison dealing in drugs.”

For 16-year-old Sumar, prison “is the tomb of the living,” according to a letter written to his social worker.

But even the prospect of returning to the outside world does not inspire the teenager, locked up in Roumieh for stealing.

“No matter what the NGOs do to make us feel better, we are not free to make any choices, not even about the food we eat, and do you know why?” he asks. “Because even when we are out of prison, society will always look at us as criminals.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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