Former female convicts struggle to reintegrate into society
Source : The Daily Star – Lebanon News 20 May 2017
By : Federica Marsi
BAABDA: Gently spinning in a twirl while letting a piece of red cloth fall over her face, the middle-aged woman uttered a raucous scream. “I have spent a long time here,” she chanted. “My son has seen me, but does not know me.” As the song continued, the woman confessed to having spent 10 years behind a red bolted door of Baabda prison, one of Lebanon’s four female penitentiaries.
The chant voiced by this mother, who wished to remain anonymous, reached the ears of government representatives and members of civil society Friday, thanks to Dar al-Amal, an organization supporting women and children on the path toward social reintegration, both inside and outside prison.
“We seek, together with our partners, to preserve human rights and make the prison not only a place of punishment, but of rehabilitation,” Habib Hatem, Dar al-Amal’s president, said in his opening remarks.
A group of inmates sitting to one side nodded approvingly. They were later invited to collect a certificate verifying their knowledge of the art of embroidery. Their creations – the complexity of which attested to many hours of work – were exhibited and sold at Friday’s event, to generate modest revenues and give a psychological boost to the inmates, as per Dar al-Amal’s vision.
These efforts were followed by social activities, including workshops, professional trainings and classes. “If they are illiterate, we teach them,” Kara said, adding that literacy is essential in order to acquaint the women with “their rights and duties.”
“I would like to stress that anyone can enter prison. We should not judge them,” Kara said. Dar al-Amal works in three of the four female facilities in the country.
According to Kara, the organization provides legal aid, psychological and medical support and a number of other services, including the provision of clothes and detergents.
“NGOs alone cannot cover all these costs,” Kara said. “But if a woman receives this kind of support, you can be sure she won’t go back to jail [a second time].”
Dar al-Amal is supported by Social Affairs Minister Pierre Bou Assi, represented at Friday’s event by Randa Bou Hamdan.
According to Bou Hamdan, the ministry is working to improve assistance to prisons and has started providing needed items, as well as social and medical support.
Hoda Kara, the organization’s director, said the conditions in Baabda had improved since 1996 – when Dar al-Amal first started providing social services inside the prison. “The situation was inhuman,” Kara told The Daily Star. “They [the prisoners] had no place to breathe fresh air or to see the sun.”
Dar al-Amal obtained permission from the Interior Ministry to renovate the facility and build a top floor – a roofless space where inmates can see the sun through an iron grate.
Hot meals used to be prepared in Roumieh’s male prison and then brought to Baabda, but the organization managed to reform this practice too. “We brought one meal to the Interior Ministry and we asked: is this acceptable?” Kara recalled. The organization was granted another renovation permit, this time to build a kitchen where the women could cook for themselves.
“For sure our work in prison is new and we have to do more,” Bou Hamdan explained to The Daily Star. “But we do not have enough money to expand our activities in prison at the moment.”
Head of the Internal Security Forces Prison Department Col. Ghassan Othman said in his remarks that the “Interior Ministry, the municipalities and the Directorate General of the Internal Security Forces will support the development of the prison system with all available means until its fortunes are revived.”
A report published by the Lebanese Center for Human Rights in 2015 found that women are still victims of arbitrary detention as well as other practices that breach international standards ratified by Lebanon, including physical and psychological torture.
Women arrested in Lebanon also face procedural violations and unfair trials, as well as being at increased risk of sexual abuses and violations by investigators and prison guards who are mainly men, the report found.
As part of its services, Dar al-Amal provides psychological assistance and covers the cost of legal services for those who require this kind of support. Another inmate who spoke at the event, identifying herself as Joelle, said that the organization had helped her deal with her paperwork. After spending a year and a half in Baabda, Joelle is set to be released in two months.
“[When I go out] I want to be a proper human being and lead a normal life,” Joelle told The Daily Star. Despite being on her second conviction, she claimed that her reintegration into society will be different this time because of the support she received from Dar al-Amal.
“They helped me a lot,” she said. “The certificate we received today will not be very useful ... You know how difficult it is for us to find a job out there? But it is a nice gesture. It encouraged us to do something good.”
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 20, 2017, on page 3.