Tag Archives: prisoners

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)

Lebanon’s dismal prisons

26 Sep

September 26, 2009
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s prisons are wildly overcrowded, and most of those behind bars have either completed their sentences or are awaiting trial, a report submitted to the Lebanese government said. An-Nahar on Thursday published the embarrassing details from a damning report by General Ashraf Rifi, head of the Internal Security Forces (ISF), presented to Beirut leaders late last month.

Lebanon’s jails have a total capacity to house 3,653 inmates, but the current number of incarcerated stands at 5,324, Rifi said. In Roumieh prison alone, about 3,500 inmates have been squeezed into a facility with a capacity for 1,500.

In addition, two-thirds of all prisoners have not been formally charged and are awaiting sentencing, the ISF chief said, adding that the normal proportion of pretrial inmates should be one-third.

Some 250 foreign prisoners have completed their sentences but have not been released, mainly because of deportation complications, Rifi added. Most of them are in prison because they do not have the necessary paperwork to remain in Lebanon, he added.

An-Nahar quoted security sources who cited corruption within Roumieh’s administration, saying some ISF officers had provided detainees with drugs, cell phones and maps of the prison’s surroundings.

The report also drew attention to the presence of 280 Islamists in Roumieh who are allowed to mix freely with other prisoners. Despite being a high-security facility, Roumieh lacks electronic surveillance equipment and a professional administration, the report added. The situation in the unpredictable facility could “explode” and cause a “catastrophic” tragedy, Rifi warned.

The ISF chief recommended Islamists be separated from other prisoners, kept under direct surveillance and rehabilitated, partially through visits from Is­lamic leaders who could “direct them toward the true spirit of Islam.” He also called for a new prison to house those with “special cases” and urged the judiciary to speed up trial dates.

The urgent need to reform Lebanon’s penitentiaries was brought to the spotlight last month when a Fatah al-Islam militant escaped from Roumieh. Taha Ahmad Haji Sleiman fled after standing on the shoulders of fellow inmates and jumping over a prison wall. He was caught a day later. Seven other Fatah al-Islam prisoners also tried to escape but were caught by guards.

Lebanon’s prison system was further embarrassed when two inmates escaped from a hospital ward on Monday. Hisham Ali Wehbe, 29, and Ali Hussein al-Sahili, 27, escaped from Nawfal Hospital in Bir Hassan on Monday morning, although Wehbe was recaptured Thursday. – With additional reporting by Carol Rizk

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.