Human Rights Watch has reported deteriorating prison conditions in Lebanon due to the country’s ongoing economic crisis. From overcrowding to the denial of medical health care, the poor conditions that inmates face in Lebanon serve as a stark reflection of the country’s economic crisis and the undeniable link between poverty and the prison system.
Background: Lebanon’s Economic Crisis
The root problem of these dire prison conditions in Lebanon is the current economic crisis and rise of poverty. The distressing extent of poverty and food insecurity in Lebanon stems from a decline in economic activity, political instability and the escalating cost of living.
Between November 2021 and January 2022, Human Rights Watch carried out an extensive survey encompassing 1,209 households in Lebanon. Approximately 70% of households reported experiencing difficulties in meeting their financial obligations or consistently falling behind on basic expenses. The survey results underscore the gravity of the situation and how these experiences affect the current prison conditions in the country.
The budget allocated to the interior ministry, responsible for prison management, has indeed seen official increases in recent years. However, the dramatic devaluation of the currency, with the lira losing 98% of its value since 2019, coupled with skyrocketing annual inflation rates, has gradually diminished its effective purchasing power. Inflation further compounds the challenge for families who find it increasingly difficult to purchase additional food to supplement the prisoners’ already meager rations.
The Harrowing Prison Conditions
These budget reductions and high rates of inflation that have afflicted Lebanon since 2019 correlate to the poor state of its prisons.
While family visits have been reinstated, the escalating inflation rates and exorbitant costs of food and fuel have presented formidable obstacles for numerous families who would otherwise provide assistance to their incarcerated loved ones. Simultaneously, the surge in demand for prison-provided meals has coincided with soaring food prices. These challenges along with the devaluation of the Lebanese currency make it challenging to meet financial obligations to contracted food suppliers.
Numerous correctional facilities throughout Lebanon are grappling with severe overcrowding. This over-capacity is a result of a surge in crime rates, protracted trial proceedings leading to delayed releases, and the incapacity of many inmates who have completed their sentences to meet the necessary fees for their release. Detention facilities throughout Lebanon have a collective capacity of 4,760 individuals, yet they currently hold around 8,502 people, of whom only 1,094 have received sentences, according to the Internal Security Forces, responsible for prison management in Lebanon.
The extent of overcrowding within Lebanon’s prison system is deeply troubling and has led to a deterioration in humanitarian and living conditions, causing a decline in health care, food accessibility and overall security.
Alongside budget reductions, incarcerated individuals are being denied vital medical care. In 2018, more than 800 prisoners were transported to hospitals, whereas in 2022, only 107 received such medical attention, despite the overall prison population remaining consistent.
The International Committee of the Red Cross’s (ICRC) Efforts
In 2019, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) engaged in the refurbishment of specific detention facilities, in collaboration with the detaining authorities. It has restored the ventilation system at Rihaniyeh Military Prison and introduced a new ventilation system at Tripoli Prison, which operates under the jurisdiction of the Internal Security Force.
Additionally, it is working alongside detaining authorities to enhance health care services. This includes donating an X-ray machine to the medical center at Roumieh Prison and conducting disinfection procedures within cells at Tripoli Central Prison in 2014, aimed at preventing the transmission of scabies and other contagious diseases. On occasion, it provides detainees with essentials, such as clothing, hygiene items, mattresses and blankets.
In 2015, the ICRC allocated $1 million for the improvement of detainees’ living conditions. A portion of these funds was allocated to the renovation of district prisons. Since their agreement with the government in 2007, they have been conducting regular visits to various detention facilities across Lebanon. From 2014 to 2015, the ICRC conducted more than 200 visits to prisons as part of our commitment to monitor and improve conditions.
The Work of the Association of Justice and Mercy (AJEM)
Since 1998, the Association of Justice and Mercy (AJEM), a Lebanese nonprofit organization, has been actively engaging with all correctional facilities in Lebanon, delivering counseling services to inmates at various locations. This access has enabled them to execute both individual and collective interventions with the incarcerated population, as well as the ability to implement numerous programs and projects over the years.
In order to support prison health care, AJEM carries out HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment and care initiatives. This includes offering voluntary counseling and testing services in both central and regional Lebanese prisons, organizing Information Education and Communication (IEC) sessions within prison facilities for key populations to raise awareness about HIV and other communicable diseases and providing accessible support to individuals at risk in prisons.
The AJEM Rabieh Shelter
The AJEM Rabieh Shelter, founded in 2012 and operates today, is a traditional housing initiative that aims to provide prisoners with an array of extensive support services, empowering them to transition back into self-sustained living, secure employment and permanent housing. This, in turn, serves to mitigate the risk of prison overcrowding. The project guarantees a seamless reintegration into society.
These initiatives serve as a driving force for further transformations. Based on these assessments, it is imperative for the Lebanese government to formulate and execute both immediate and long-term strategies to address the conditions in prisons and ensure the protection of individuals’ rights.
– Susanna Andryan