|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.
Gathering at Roumieh prison urges government to abolish capital punishment
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Friday, January 08, 2010
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
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.