Tag Archives: drama therapy

Women Prisoners Play the Liberation Role

19 Aug

Women in Baabda prison attending one of Daccache's workshops (CREDIT: CATHARSIS)

By Dalila Mahdawi

BAABDA WOMEN’S PRISON, Lebanon, Aug 18, 2011 (IPS) – To a soundtrack of almost constant pounding of fists against iron doors, drama therapist Zeina Daccache is trying to capture the attention of a group of women prisoners. Many of the 45 women are suffering from drug withdrawal and alternately appear agitated, upset, energised and detached. Others chat loudly, take long puffs off cigarettes, or pace the room.

But it doesn’t take long for Daccache, who is also a well-regarded comedian on Lebanese television, to bring calm to the chaotic scene. After a few warm-up games intended to break the ice, she has several of the women relating their life stories and future ambitions, envisioning a world beyond the confines of bolted doors and barred windows.

Daccache has come to Baabda as part of her goal to bring drama therapy inside Lebanese prisons. Her organisation, the Lebanese Centre for Drama Therapy (CATHARSIS), is the only one of its kind in the Arab world and one of very few offering rehabilitation services to those behind bars.

Following an adaptation and award-winning documentary of the 1950s U.S. play ‘12 Angry Men’ (renamed ‘12 Angry Lebanese’) with inmates from Lebanon’s high-security Roumieh prison, Daccache decided to expand her drama therapy programme to other prisons in the country. With support from the Drosos Foundation, she is also training dozens more individuals to become drama therapists in the hope of encouraging a new generation of professionals combining theatre with rehabilitation. Although she has only been working in Baabda for a few weeks, Daccache is already seeing some of the prisoners shrug off their initial caution to embrace the therapy.

“I’m very sad because of my situation and I’m sad because my daughter is far away,” says D.W., who is serving time for drug offences. “I have a good heart but I didn’t think of my daughter,” she says, crying quietly. “I didn’t know right from wrong.”

Drama therapy gained popularity in the 1970s and has been used ever since in schools, rehabilitative clinics, bereavement centres and prisons to help individuals overcome personal problems, promote critical thinking, teach teamwork skills and improve self-esteem. Through role-play, group therapy sessions and dramatisation, many of the women in Baabda are gaining greater self-awareness and reflecting on the events that led them into conflict with the law.

“The aim in the end of this current project in Baabda is to have a theatre performance,” Daccache says. Because of the high turnover in prisoners, the group will create a montage of monologues as opposed to a full play, giving newcomers the chance to participate and explore their personal history. “Each one of them is a scene by herself,” says Daccache. “Each one by themselves fills the room.”

N.L., who has been using drugs since she was 15, clutches a sketch of herself on a stage. “My role in the past was addiction, humiliation,” she tells the group. Although she awaits sentencing for drug trafficking charges, she says she’d “like to be a wife, a mother, someone who is respected, happy.”

Daccache is passionate about the power of drama in rehabilitating prisoners and combating recidivism. At Roumieh prison, “the inmates started working on themselves instead of blaming their situation entirely on society the whole time,” she says. “Depression diminished and the inmates were able to plan a future for themselves outside of prison.” Some of the men became so passionate about theatre that they sought out acting jobs after leaving prison.

The need for such rehabilitative services is especially important given the dismal conditions in Lebanese prisons. Notoriously overcrowded, 19 out of Lebanon’s 20 penitentiaries were not originally built to serve as such, says MP Ghassan Moukheiber, who as head of the Parliamentary Human Rights Committee recently presented a detailed report on prison reform. “Prison conditions are to be considered in themselves a form of torture, cruel and degrading punishment,” he told IPS. “There is an urgent need to shift prisons from being places of punishment to places of rehabilitation.”

Besides segregated quarters in mixed prisons, Lebanon has four women’s prisons. Women count for only around 300 of Lebanon’s roughly 5,000 prisoners, all of whom are kept in overcrowded penitentiaries that fail to meet the standard minimum treatment recommended by the United Nations.

Poor holding conditions lead to frequent rebellions and riots. In April, Roumieh prison experienced the worst uprising in Lebanese history. Prisoners protesting a lack of access to medical care and poor services broke down doors, started fires and took control of much of the prison in a standoff which resulted in the death of four inmates.

Earlier this month, Lebanon’s Parliament rejected a proposal to reduce the prison “year” from 12 to nine months, prompting three inmates to set fire to themselves, resulting in the death of one, and hundreds of others to initiate hunger strikes. Last weekend, five prisoners from Roumieh managed a jail-break by scaling the prison walls with bed sheets. Experts are now warning that another prison riot there is looming on the horizon.

While in better condition than many of Lebanon’s larger prisons, Baabda offers no exercise facilities, and women only have access to sunlight filtered through a caged-in rooftop. Many prisoners complain of inadequate medical treatment and unhygienic conditions, and have little to no recourse to legal counsel. Frustrations often lead to spats among the inmates.

Amidst such circumstances, the group therapy offered by CATHARSIS takes on additional importance. “The sharing of experiences and the group dynamic helps them find a way to channel their anxieties,” Daccache says. “The new social interaction has given them back a sense of worth and has made them feel as though they are part of a community.”

Perhaps most importantly, says Daccache, drama therapy offers prisoners a sense of hope at a time when many experience an overwhelming sense of despair. “They are learning that there is still a chance to change even while they are still in prison,” she says. (END)

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12 Angry Lebanese’ Touch So Many More

26 Nov
By Dalila Mahdawi 

BEIRUT, Oct 17, 2010 (IPS) – Straddling the hills overlooking the Mediterranean Sea is Roumieh, Lebanon’s largest and most notorious high-security men’s prison. Crowded into its dank and depressing concrete cells are those convicted as religious extremists, murderers, mobsters and spies.

Roumieh’s reputation for fostering further criminal activity precedes it — it is often said that from behind the barbed wire walls and filthy courtyards, petty thieves emerge as bigger and better informed leaders of the underworld.

The prison, which was built to accommodate 1,500 inmates but holds closer to 4,000, gives off an air of utter despondency. But life in Roumieh is slowly changing, thanks to the efforts of a single woman.

Last year Zeina Daccache, already a well-known comedian on the Lebanese television show Basmet al-Watan, began running drama therapy sessions inside Roumieh after establishing The Lebanese Centre for Drama Therapy (CATHARSIS). Drama therapy programmes exist in many other parts of the world, but CATHARSIS is the first organisation of its kind in the Middle East.

After volunteering with distinguished drama therapist Armando Punzo in Italy’s Volterra prison, Daccache said she became convinced of the life- changing power of the performing arts.

“Theatre is a luxury in the situation we are in,” Daccache told IPS, referring to Lebanon’s troubled economic and political situation. But through it, “we can discover and develop other identities that are more constructive than simply the identity of a ‘criminal’.”

Following months of frustrating bureaucratic red tape and auditions with hundreds of inmates, Dacchache cast 45 prisoners to star in an adaption of the 1950s play from the U.S., ’12 Angry Men’. In the play, written by Reginald Rose, 12 jury members must decide whether to sentence to death an 18- year-old accused of patricide. While 11 members dismiss the accused as guilty, one man believes he is innocent, and slowly persuades his colleagues to change their opinions.

The choice of play, which touches upon the themes of forgiveness, self- development, stigma and hope, was no accident. “Nobody notices him, nobody listens to him, nobody seeks his advice,” says prisoner-turned-actor Wissam* during the play. His line refers to the fictional boy on trial, but the parallels with his feelings about his own position in society are striking. “It’s a very sad thing to mean nothing.”

To the original text, Daccache added monologues, songs and dance routines created by the prisoners that detail their life experiences. Jibran, nearing the end of a prison term for rape, said he feared he would be shunned by Lebanese society upon release. While he may technically be freed, a “prison with no walls” awaits him, he said as tears streamed down his face.

Daccache renamed the play ’12 Angry Lebanese’, but those taking part included Lebanese, Nigerians, Syrians, Egyptians and Palestinians. In his monologue, Bangadeshi prisoner Hussein described the racism he faced in Lebanese society, and how that racism also manifested itself behind bars. “Outside I am a slave and inside I am a slave,” he said.

When staged in February 2009, ’12 Angry Lebanese’ received critical acclaim, with many of Lebanon’s top government, military and security officials coming to watch it in Roumieh.

Almost one year on, a documentary detailing the experiences of the prisoners who played a part has just been released. ’12 Angry Lebanese: The Documentary’ is currently touring international film festivals, and has already picked up several awards, including first prize at the Dox Box International Documentary Film Festival in Syria and two top prizes at the Dubai International Film Festival.

Daccache said she made the film to challenge stereotypes of the kind of people prisoners are. “Every night I come home to messages from people who were touched by the film, who for the first time saw criminals as human beings,” she said. “The film kind of gave them a chance to sneak into Roumieh.”

Daccache also wanted to highlight the need for reform within Lebanon’s prison system, where there are virtually no rehabilitation programmes running, and to promote drama therapy as an indispensable tool for tackling recidivism.

In an early scene of the documentary, Daccache probes cast members about their past. Many are reluctant to share with the others, but as the sessions progress, the men start to open up.

“Sometimes it’s easier to act out your issues than to talk about them,” said Daccache. “The space we use for rehearsals is a space of freedom for the prisoners. Once they are there they are really free because they can express themselves, they can dance, shout, sing, act, use their imagination.” Even though the men are still physically confined within the prisons walls, “imagination has no borders.”

Many of the prisoners-turned-actors credit Daccache with helping them overcome personal difficulties, improve their communication and interpersonal skills and to set goals for themselves. One man was so keen to participate in the sessions that he learnt to read.

“Before the project I still thought like a criminal,” Ziyad told IPS. “Now I don’t want people like Zeina to come and find me in prison again. I’ve learnt many things that perhaps if I’d learnt at a younger age, would have prevented me from ending up here.”

Another of the notable successes of ’12 Angry Lebanese’ is that it has helped put into force a law offering reduced sentences for good behaviour. The law was created in 2000 but never enforced; two months after the staging of the play, which talked about the need for its implementation, Lebanon’s Justice Ministry began approving reduced sentences.

The 12 Angry Lebanese project has been so successful that Daccache has launched another production in Roumieh, although she’s reluctant to divulge what it is. In addition, Daccache, who also runs drama therapy programmes with women affected by conflict and people suffering from addiction problems, plans to bring theatre to a number of Lebanon’s other prisons.

“When I started this project, I never thought there would be sustainability,” she said. “But you can’t just stop — permanence is what really makes it beneficial to the inmates.”

* Some names have been changed.

Freeing the minds behind the bars of Lebanon’s most notorious prison

5 Dec

Drama therapy gives convicted criminals opportunity to discover, communicate their identities
By Dalila Mahdawi

ROUMIEH: In a large room hazy with cigarette smoke, 45 actors and musicians wait for their play director, Zeina Daccache, to arrive and begin rehearsals. Painted on the wall is a quote from Abraham Lincoln, “I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.” There is nothing particularly remarkable about such a scenario, but it is the setting that is extraordinary. The men waiting have been found guilty of drug dealing, rape, manslaughter or theft and are all serving sentences in Roumieh Central Prison.

A drama therapist who worked previously with drug addicts and bereaved mothers following the summer 2006 war, Daccache had a dream to bring theater to Lebanon’s biggest and most notorious men’s prison. Today, with funding from the European Union (EU) to l’Association pour la Defense des Droits et des Libertes (ADDL) and in the framework of the Afkar II program managed by the Office of the Minister of State for Administrative Reform, her dream is being realized.

After three months of auditions in 2007, Daccache’s cast members began rehearsals for “12 Angry Lebanese,” adapted from the 1950s Reginald Rose play, “12 Angry Men.” Some of the prisoners play jury members deciding the fate of a 19-year-old accused of patricide, while others have together written and composed songs about prison, human rights, capital punishment and justice. Some deliver illuminating non-fictional monologues about their lives before prison or about their crimes.

The idea of the play, said Daccache, was to give the men a platform where “they could communicate identities other than that of the convicted criminal.”

Prisoner Atef agreed: “Each person has multiple identities. Maybe when people watch our play, they will see the good things in us and what we are capable of.”

Although only a fraction of Roumieh’s prisoners were involved in “12 Angry Lebanese,” Daccache emphasized the unifying force of the play.

“We have Nigerians, Iraqis, Bangladeshi, Palestinians, Egyptians and Syrians acting, as well as Lebanese,” said Daccache. “These 45 men collectively bring the voices of the 4,000 prisoners in Roumieh together.”

When Daccache finally arrives, she is greeted with a joyous uproar from her actors. She has clearly made a good impression on them, for they hang on her every word and respect her instructions. With the play set to begin performances in February, there is not much time left to rehearse, and Daccache, or Abu Ali (Father of Ali) as her actors have affectionately nicknamed her, immediately begins to organize the cast. In one corner of the guarded room, talented musicians and singers launch into the first song of the play, a tranquil guitar and oud melody. Those acting as the jurors rehearse in the center of the room, stopping every now and then to take in Daccache’s comments and re-read their lines.

Although drama therapy programs exist in the prisons of many Western countries, Daccache’s program at Roumieh is currently the only one in Lebanon. Watching the rehearsals, it is clear she is providing a vital platform for her cast members to educate and express themselves.

According to inmate Jamal, when the prison guards announced that auditions for a play were to be held, “over 150 people tried out, simply for the sake of getting out of their cells.”

But those who made the cast quickly became engaged in their roles. Other than some activities organized by nongovernmental organizations and computer and English classes taught by the prisoners themselves, there are very few activities for Roumieh’s 4,000 prisoners.

Many of the prisoners could not read or write before the play, said Daccache, who has helped them learn to read their lines. Three classrooms are reportedly currently under construction, however, and many are hoping Daccache’s program will secure enough funding to continue after February.

“Zeina sets our minds free,” said Jamal. “She makes us feel as though we are not in prison. When we start rehearsing, we forget our surroundings and concentrate on working together and giving our best.”

Justin, a Nigerian prisoner, said Daccache was the first person who had visited him in prison. “Before her, no one would come to see us. I know we are prisoners, but we would like more organizations to come and work with us,” he said, adding that Daccache’s presence had revealed talents in the prisoners no one knew existed.

Daccache is also conducting a study on whether her prisoner-actors are benefiting from the drama therapy program. So far, initial results have been overwhelmingly positive.

Speaking to the prisoners, the impact that the program on them is having is obvious.

“I used to always have nightmares about when and how they would kill me,” said one prisoner facing the death penalty. “Since Zeina came, I don’t think about it anymore.”

“One year ago I still thought like a criminal,” said another inmate. “Now I don’t want people like Zeina to come and find me in prison for a new crime ever again. I’ve learned many things that perhaps if I’d learned at a younger age, would have prevented me from ending up here. I can set targets and reach them.”

Some of the cast members indicated they were even thinking about acting careers when they finished their sentences.

Despite the program’s overwhelming success, Daccache said that getting it up and running had proved difficult.

“This is the product of meeting after meeting,” she said. “Without the cooperation of [General Prosecutor] Said Mirza, Judge Joyce Tabet, [Internal Security Forces (ISF) Police Chief] Antoine Chacour, [Director General of the ISF] Ashraf Rifi, all the police on the ground, the Lebanese Conservatoire and the ISF Orchestra, none of this would have ever happened.” Daccache said she hoped she would find the necessary funding to continue the project.

As Daccache prepared to leave at the end of rehearsals, there was a discernable feeling of optimism in the air. Working with Daccache, said one prisoner, had taught him to accept advice and criticism, something that would have infuriated him in the past.

“We are here to express that we are human beings,” he said. “We have made many mistakes in our lives but we are still human beings.”

For information about the conditions to see the play, call 03162573.