The inmates of Roumieh prison, the largest in Lebanon, launched an urgent appeal for help on social media in July. The Delta variant of the coronavirus, they said, was rampant inside the notoriously overcrowded prison, where basic medicines weren't available and sick detainees weren't being transferred out to hospitals. "Roumieh is under a death sentence," the prisoners declared. Lebanon's Internal Security Forces responded with blanket denials, saying that there was no risk of the Delta variant inside the prison and that "there is no truth" to what was circulating on social media.
But back in September 2020, videos had already leaked from inside Roumieh and quickly gone viral on social media. One showed sick prisoners lying on the floor, denied any medical treatment and lacking even basic hygiene. In another video, inmates warned that the coronavirus was spreading throughout their cells: "We are dying inside the prison. There is no food or medicine. There is no protection here." Though the videos could not be independently verified, they caused a massive outcry in Lebanon.
The worsening COVID-19 situation in the prison is another sign of the accelerating economic and social catastrophe in Lebanon. The worst financial crisis seen anywhere in the world since the mid-19th century, according to the World Bank, it has plunged 82 percent of Lebanese into "multidimensional poverty," according to the United Nations. The monthly minimum wage is now only $30 in a country with the highest rate of inflation in the world, surpassing that of Venezuela and Zimbabwe.
Last year, the president of the Beirut Bar Association described the coronavirus's spread in Roumieh prison as a "humanitarian time bomb" and called for immediate measures to reduce overcrowding. There are more than 4,000 prisoners in Roumieh, roughly three times its intended capacity. Yet the situation has only gotten worse. Despite obvious overcrowding and the lack of medicine, food and basic hygiene measures, the Lebanese government has done nothing to address these problems, even with the threat of the Delta variant. The abandoned inmates in Roumieh have gone on hunger strike and rioted; some have tried to escape or attempted to commit suicide.
For years, Lebanese prisons have been lawless zones where torture and ill-treatment are commonplace, in total disregard of the country's international commitments. Why, then, are they funded by the United States?
- Sami Erchoff
As bad as the situation in the prison has become, it is not new, even if it has been accentuated by the pandemic and Lebanon's collapse. For years, Lebanese prisons have been lawless zones where torture and ill-treatment are commonplace, in total disregard of the country's international commitments. Why, then, are they funded by the United States? The U.S. government has given Lebanon's Internal Security Forces nearly $200 million in assistance over the past decade, and in 2019, it committed $2.5 million to a three-year "Corrections Professionalization Program," meant to develop and implement "a system of inmate classification in addition to continuous training for corrections officers."
But according to a report by the Restart Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture, a Lebanese NGO, the conditions inside Lebanon's prisons are abhorrent and do not meet international standards. The services they provide "do not respond to the basic needs" of inmates. Overcrowding is so bad that prisoners in Roumieh have less than 1 square meter of personal space, far less than the International Committee of the Red Cross's standard of 3.4 square meters of space per prisoner.
This neglect has dramatic consequences on prisoners' living conditions. According to a former inmate in Roumieh prison, the water that they are supposed to wash themselves with is brown and muddy. There is only one meal a day, mostly unfit for eating, with most inmates relying on food brought in by their families.
There is also a significant lack of infrastructure for basic hygiene—with an average of just one bathroom and a single toilet for every 60 detainees in Roumieh prison, according to the Restart Center. That leads to the spread of infectious and viral diseases, from tuberculosis to scabies to acute influenza. Thirty-one percent of detention centers in Lebanon don't even have a first aid kit, let alone adequate medical care, according to internal data from the Ministry of Interior.
While many of the inmates in Roumieh and other prisons were incarcerated for selling or using narcotics, drugs freely circulate behind bars. A former inmate told me that while inside Roumieh prison, he became addicted to the amphetamine Captagon, which is easily available in the prison. Corruption is rife, with drug trafficking and other illegal activities operating under the watch of guards and prison officials who directly benefit from them.
While Lebanon ratified the United Nations Convention Against Torture back in 2000—though it waited 17 more years to finally criminalize torture by law—detainees still face the worst kinds of abuses without any respect for basic judicial standards. The nightmare begins with pre-trial detention, which is widely practiced in Lebanon and can last for several years. More than 60 percent of Lebanese detainees are in pre-trial detention. Prisoners are often tortured and abused, forced to confess to crimes they did not commit. All the former prisoners I interviewed said that they heard the screams of people under interrogation as they waited their turn in a small, overcrowded room.
Last year, the president of the Beirut Bar Association described the coronavirus's spread in Roumieh prison as a "humanitarian time bomb" and called for immediate measures to reduce overcrowding. Yet the situation has only gotten worse.
- Sami Erchoff
Without any access to a lawyer, detainees are subjected to the worst abuses. Last year, the then-minister of justice, Marie-Claude Najm, passed an amendment to the Criminal Code allowing defendants to be accompanied by a lawyer during their questioning after arrest. However, a lawyer in Beirut who works at the Lebanese Center for Human Rights told me that this provision does not apply to military arrests. "If a person is arrested by the army, I am not able to intervene to defend my client," the lawyer said. "They forbid me to do so."
Behind bars, detainees are subject to the arbitrariness and cruelty of the prison administration. LGBTIQ people are at particular risk of physical, sexual and psychological abuse. According to the NGO Proud Lebanon, they are systematically insulted and mistreated after their arrest, in some cases spending several months in police custody.
Syrian refugees, meanwhile, are often wrongly imprisoned on terrorism charges and tortured by the military intelligence services. As Amnesty International revealed in a report earlier this year, titled "I Wish I Would Die," Syrian refugees are routinely beaten by Lebanese security agents with metal bars and plastic tubes, and tied by their feet, suffering the same horrors that they tried to escape in Syria. Syrians make up a disproportionate percentage of the prison population in Lebanon: 28 percent of the overall number prisoners and a staggering 85 percent of all juvenile detainees, according to government figures.
Lebanese prisons are filled with people who should not be there, or who are still awaiting trial. They remain behind bars because of the dysfunction of the judicial system, or simply because they have not been able to pay their fine or release warrants. Abused and tortured, they are the victims of a repressive state that sees everything through a security lens. Indeed, prisons are not managed by the Ministry of Justice, but by the Ministry of the Interior, which has led many NGOs to be denied access to prisons for security reasons. "We have been asking for the transfer of the management of prisons to the Ministry of Justice, but this has remained a dead letter," the lawyer at the Lebanese Center for Human Rights told me.
With high rates of recidivism—54 percent at Roumieh prison, according to the Ministry of Interior—Lebanese prisons are also factories for radicalization and criminality. Yet they are still largely supported by the United States. As the American ambassador at the time, Elizabeth Richard, said in unveiling the U.S.-funded Corrections Professionalization Program in 2019, the assistance was meant to "develop improved standardized operating procedures" in Lebanon's prisons, including "internationally recognized best practices." The U.S. is not alone among Western countries supporting Lebanon's Internal Security Forces and the prisons they run, financially and logistically. Italy, for example, signed an agreement in 2015 with the ISF to supposedly improve the conditions in Lebanese jails, and the European Union provided technical assistance to the ISF between 2017 and 2018.
These funds are motivated by narrow security interests, in the name of combating terrorism and radicalization, which are perceived to be particular threats among the huge Syrian refugee population. But according to the lawyer at the Lebanese Center for Human Rights, this assistance has led to more abuses by Lebanese authorities, who have wrongly convicted many detainees of terrorism, especially Syrians, in order to justify the security funds provided by the U.S. and other Western backers.
Bilateral aid could be a tool to force the Lebanese government to put an end to abuse and torture in prisons and reform this rotten prison system. But instead, security assistance to Lebanon, especially from Washington, is helping keep these jails running.