The troubles of juvenile prisoners in Lebanon.
BEIRUT: Ahmad (not his real name) was condemned to a life of street violence and crime before he ever had a chance to avoid it. A 16-year-old Lebanese boy with a strong build and crooked smile, he began working as a car mechanic four years ago to evade his abusive household. Growing up in a climate of fear, where his father drank heavily before beating his mother, he quickly adopted the tough and cunning persona needed to survive. "I have many friends in prison," Ahmad told The Daily Star. "I thought I might even like it if I was ever taken there."
Last year, his wish was finally granted after he impulsively robbed a corner store for $6,000. When he found out his accomplice committed burglaries before, he was nervous the police would link him to previous crimes. Afraid of harsher consequences, he turned himself in the following week. Once arrested, Ahmad was transferred to the juvenile branch in Roumieh -- the country's central prison -- where he languished until he was sentenced to four more years at Lebanon's only juvenile protection center. He was one of the lucky ones.
"It's [Roumieh] a terrible place," Ahmad said. "Sometimes the police can be very aggressive."
Roumieh is notorious for its overcrowded and extremely poor conditions, running at over double its capacity. Those most vulnerable suffer from abuse at the hands of inmates and guards. And while few reforms are underway to improve conditions for young offenders, prison remains an isolated and violent environment, much like the street life they come from.
Pascale Debs, a social worker at the Fondation Pere Afif Osseiran, a protection center for children and adolescents in Lebanon, says that numerous young offenders have to languish in prison for up to a year before they receive a court hearing.
"There is no standard procedure into how long each person has to wait before they have their day in court," Debs said. "But those without family, legal assistance or money often wait the longest because they have nobody monitoring their case."
Ahmad for one says that he waited a year before he was convicted. And though his mother visited him occasionally, he had little support to navigate Lebanon's legal system. Foreign nationals have an even more difficult time. Syrians in particular make up nearly half of the minors in prison, yet displacement and lack of legal status has deterred many from accessing rights entitled to them.
Ziad Mikati, a public policy analyst and youth development coordinator, says that those who languish the longest behind bars before their trial have no "wasta" -- an Arabic word loosely meaning "inside connection" -- to bail them out. "Kids in prison are generally from the most disadvantaged backgrounds," Mikati told The Daily Star. "Even worse, there is little coordination between the country's various institutions to implement policies to help them."
In 1964, a decree was issued to do just that by transferring the operation of Lebanon's prison facilities from the Internal Security Forces to the civilian-led Justice Ministry. This would have enabled officers to receive adequate instruction from international experts before working in prisons and detention centers, however the decree remains unimplemented until this day.
The lack of trained guards is most apparent in the complete disregard for separating minor offenders from inmates convicted of far graver offenses. In Roumieh, murderers are often locked up with drug addicts and dealers, consequently nurturing a repressive setting where inmates must become aggressive or submit to the will of others to survive.
Judge Mohammad Sab, the legal adviser for Lebanon's justice minister, says that though there is a national plan to eventually solve this issue, the numerous challenges posed by the Syrian crisis has delayed the implementation of many reforms.
"There is a saying in Lebanon that those who enter prison only learn how to execute more serious crimes before they leave," Judge Sab told The Daily Star. "We are trying to reform the prisons but Lebanon has so many other issues which have delayed our efforts."
The acute lack of physical space, ventilation and basic sanitation also takes its toll on juveniles more than any other demographic. In many cases, they are kept indoors for all but six hours during the week. Such conditions foster resentment, and add to conditions producing a generation of offenders who have always been neglected by the state. To make matters worse, many juvenile inmates develop mental illnesses due to their complete isolation from the outside world
"Prison builds anger inside of you," Ahmad said, with a cynical smile. "It makes you tougher."
In the past, some young offenders were at least able to spend part of their sentence in Fanar's juveniles correction center. But after Fanar closed earlier this year, all the children were sent back to Roumieh to serve the rest of their sentence.
To compensate, FPAO is providing as much social support as they can for those behind bars. And while they don't have the resources to bring every young offender to their center, Deb says they are fighting to receive as many as they can.
Despite their efforts, the condition of Lebanon's prisons continues to do more damage than good. And with few services locating work or schooling opportunities for juveniles upon their release, a world of street hustle and crime remains the only option for many.
"I got scores to settle when I leave," Ahmad said, with a solemn expression. "That's the only thing that I ever learned how to do."
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