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The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - OPINION - Ge­orges Had­dad is a fel­low with Sy­naps.

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.

For­mal in­sti­tu­tions ne­glect re­spon­si­bil­i­ties; well-mean­ing donors fill the gaps

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