By Simona Sikimic
Wednesday, January 12, 2011
BEIRUT: Marred by allegations of abuse and torture, Lebanese prisons have offered little hope for inmates who often live in damp, dangerous and overcrowded conditions.
Over the last few years, however, a spate of nongovernmental organizations have started to infiltrate this previously out-of-bounds world, introducing it to the age-old but long-forgotten concept of redemption.
Thanks to the conviction of a few activists who first insisted that even murders and rapists deserve another chance, the range of services available in prisons has grown to include everything from vocational training to sports and even drama therapy.
This approach made headlines in 2009 when actress Zeina Daccache broke taboos and put on a play in Roumieh Prison, the country’s biggest high-security jail. The play, “12 Angry Lebanese,’ which formed the basis of an award-winning documentary, attracted endorsement from a host of political figures, including Interior Minister Ziad Baroud, who attended the premiere.
“From what I am seeing now, every N.G.O. is trying to expand into prisons, even if they have never worked or wanted to work in this field before,” said Daccache. “There is a lot of interest and a lot of people are trying to get involved.”
Daccache, who operates the N.G.O. Catharsis, claims the popularity of her activities has boomed, with swarms of volunteers, and prisoners, now lining up to take part. Offering both drama therapy, which uses acting to overcome psychological issues, and arts and crafts classes that help prisoners relieve anxiety, Catharsis has worked to change the atmosphere inside one of the nation’s most dangerous prisons, while helping its beneficiaries to find work and stay clean once they get out.
“This was a totally new experience for the Arab world and even I wasn’t sure it would work,” said Daccache. “There was a real fear that people would not respond to it at all, that they would think I was crazy.”
Initially stalled by difficulties in getting permission, with authorities citing safety concerns, the project has firmly established itself in Roumieh, with preparations for another play well under way.
For all its success, however, Catharsis was not the first to offer recreational services in prisoners, and it has built up foundations set up by N.G.O. Ajem, which started offering sports and basic educational activities over six years ago.
In the last six months, however, its programs have boomed. With training provided by the Social Affairs Ministry, the organization now offers Arabic, English, Music, Geography and will soon teach computer classes.
“We want to help people learn so that they will have new skills when they exit prison,” said Ajem trainer Ishak Habchi. “We need to support them and trust them because only through this are they going to start a better future.
“Those that receive our support – which can include medical, social and legal help – overwhelmingly want to use their new skills to improve their lives,” he added.
The more inmates prove they have the potential to overcome their past, the easier the work of the organizations becomes. “Our work has improved the situation in the prisons and instances of unrest and violence decreased,” said Habchi. “While it used to be difficult to get permission, the authorities now recognize the benefits and we have a very good relationship.”
The situation is so encouraging that a flutter of smaller, less conventional N.G.O.s, are also breaking into the field.
Association Filhos de Bimba: Lebanon, which promotes the Afro-Brazillian martial arts/dance Capoeira, has held a session at Roumieh and is seeking authorization to become a routine fixture. “Capoeira was started by oppressed people in Brazil who wanted to express themselves and their culture,” said N.G.O. member Nassib Khoury. “It is a great method of stress relief and self-discipline and can have real spiritual and physical benefits to people, especially in small confined spaces.”
As evident in Daccache’s documentary, contact with trained professionals and access to an emotional and creative outlet, have a potential to help prisoners come out of their shells, become less aggressive and start to communicate with each other and work as a team.
“I have always believed in the idea of the project because it is one of the only means that the prisoners have to have a voice outside of those four walls,” she said. “This why the people who got committed, got committed and gained from the experience.”