Lebanese prisons are largely populated by young men who have stumbled into multiyear sentences for petty offenses. Many, for example, have been incarcerated for smoking a joint, shoplifting or getting caught up in a fight. Such long-term sentences incur long-term social and economic costs, creating a cohort of young people who have undergone a deeply destabilizing experience and whose social stature and employment prospects may well be marked for life. In the short-term, however, long-term incarceration for petty offenses is surprisingly affordable – and this, ultimately, is part of the problem. Countries like Norway, France, the United States and the Netherlands have in recent years shown growing recognition of the social and economic costs associated with incarceration. As such, they have sought less disruptive alternatives for minor offenders, such as community service, electronic bracelets, citizenship courses or restrictive penalties (e.g. confiscation of passport and driving license). The reason is less lofty idealism than prosaic calculations: In developed countries, the daily cost of a prisoner is relatively high, due to regulations regarding living standards, decent wages paid to prison personnel, and the delivery of basic services. Expenses attached to a single detainee may average $85 per day in the U.S., $125 in France and up to $140 in the U.K.
In Lebanon, by contrast, prisoners are largely taken care of by their families: What few support services exist are provided by NGOs, infrastructure is often built and rehabilitated by foreign donors, and, amazingly, the sector generally functions without a dedicated budget. The problem is that, the cheaper the prisoner, the simpler it is to arrest and incarcerate.
This helps explain the endemic overcrowding in Lebanese prisons. Lebanon does not produce, or at least publish, reliable figures, so analysis of this subject necessarily involves conjecture. Roumieh, which is built to host 1,500 inmates, is widely thought to have 5,000. The Zahle prison, opened in 2009, has already reached double its designated capacity, according to an NGO that operates there. The most recent data released by the Interior Ministry, which harks back to 2010, suggest that authorities made 17,000 arrests in that year alone; although most people apprehended will have been released after “short stays” (ranging from a week to six months) in a police station, this number illustrates the sheer volume of turnover in the detention sector.
Overcrowding has severe social costs. It jeopardizes the safety of both prisoners and guards. It exacerbates mingling between petty criminals and hardcore convicts. It also limits potential for rehabilitation aimed at reducing recidivism. Being forced to share a 9-square-meter room with up to 20 people also has undeniable impacts on physical and mental health. The absence of privacy and dignity – or space to walk and sleep – can only increase feelings of injustice and hatred. This experience, in turn, leaves scars that ex-convicts eventually take with them as they reintegrate into society.
The solution to this problem is not to build more prisons, despite the frequency with which Lebanese authorities and foreign donors repeat this mantra. On the contrary, recent experience suggests that expansion merely serves to enable more arrests: Such was the case with Zahle’s new prison, which not only failed to make a dent on overcrowding elsewhere, but quickly became oversaturated itself. Meanwhile, police stations have in recent years been overflowing with growing numbers of “temporary” detainees who would quickly fill any new formal facility. These would, in turn, promptly be replaced, as current security protocols make it all too easy for security forces to send young people to jail on petty offenses. Such cases inundate a judiciary that itself is understaffed and beleaguered, leading many of the concerned to linger without trial much longer than necessary. More detention centers would make the legal bottleneck so much worse.
Beyond these permissive security procedures, the roots of the problem also lie in how the sector is managed. Prisons fall under the de facto responsibility of the Interior Ministry, because a planned handover to the Justice Ministry has been held off for years. This explains the absence of a dedicated budget, but also the lack of specialized staff, proper training, adequate infrastructure ... even sufficient food and blankets. All expenses incurred by the state – from guard salaries to vehicles and fuel for transporting detainees, through to the latter’s hospital bills – are covered by unrelated lines in the ministry’s operating budget. An activist involved in this field claimed that the daily cost to the Treasury of a Lebanese detainee was as low as $7. Absent reliable figures, the precise figure is anyone’s guess.
Meanwhile, and counterintuitively, prisoners generate resources. On one hand, they do so through the shady economy of drugs, protection and kickbacks that ultimately flow upward from prisons to various segments of the security and political apparatus. On the other, appalling living conditions create the impetus for donors to fund projects supporting the state, sending officers abroad for training, benefiting contractors, supporting NGOs and generally circulating money. In other words, detainees may well generate more resources than they absorb. This idea has even taken the form of a rumor widespread among detainees, according to which some “foreign entity” would pay Lebanon up to $40 a day to keep drug-related offenders incarcerated. However improbable, this story serves as a metaphor through which prisoners rationalize the “value” they seem to take on.
Paradoxically, Lebanon’s broken prison system would hugely benefit from raising the costs of detention, which would create concrete incentives for the Lebanese state to begin exploring sensible alternatives to incarceration by default. For now, we remain in an absurd situation where formal institutions neglect their responsibilities, and well-meaning donors fill in the gaps. This absurdity is perhaps best captured by the Interior Ministry’s creation of an NGO (or “non-governmental organization”) to raise funds for detention-related tasks that should, in a functioning system, be carried out by the government. Foreign donors can play a role in extending this unhealthy status quo, or they can nudge their Lebanese partners toward reform and formalization in this essential field of activity. What needs building is not prisons: it’s the judicial and detention sectors that revolve around them.
Georges Haddad is a fellow with Synaps.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 14, 2017, on page 7.