Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Herat Convicts Retrained for Life Outside

Officials want prisoners to acquire useful trades to prevent them re-offending.
By Sadeq Behnam
  • Security officials tour newly-built prison facilities in Herat. (Photo: ISAF Media)
    Security officials tour newly-built prison facilities in Herat. (Photo: ISAF Media)

Although prison conditions in Afghanistan are often basic, one facility in the western city of Herat has taken unprecedented steps to provide inmates with the skills they will need to find work on the outside.

Inside the prison premises, convicts are gathering together in clusters, making it look at first sight as though mutiny is in the air. On closer inspection, though each group turns out to be busily engaged in a range of trades – some cutting doors and window frames, others weaving carpets and still others making shoes. Various production units, each employing about 100 people, also specialise in sewing scarves, embroidery and tinsmithing.

Officials say 80 per cent of the 2,120 inmates, who include 120 women, are now doing paid work.

Prison governor Abdul Majid Sadiqi says the initiative is the first of its kind in Afghanistan and allows inmates to spend their time productively, learning trades which should help them find work once they are released and thus cut re-offending rates.

“Initially, craftsmen from outside the prison were brought in and paid to teach their professional skills to the inmates,” Sadiqi told IWPR. “But once the convicts had learned these trades, they become leaders and pass on the skills to new arrivals and now all the work is done by the prisoners themselves, who have built up a lot of experience.”

The prison head explained that government funds were used to buy the raw materials, and once the items were sold, the authorities recouped the input costs and took a 40 per cent cut of the rest. The remaining 60 per cent went to the convicts.

The work provides many prisoners with the means to support family members on the outside.

Ahmad, 28, has just completed a carpet he wove as part of a team in the space of a month, and was able to pass on his 60 US dollar share to his wife and two children.

“I will never forget this day, because today I earned my first wages for my hard work,” he said.

Sentenced to one year for threatening someone with a knife, he says his main worry when he was convicted was that he was the family’s sole breadwinner and his imprisonment would leave them bereft.

Gul Ahmad, 23, is half-way through a four-year term for smuggling drugs, and is now a skilled metalworker despite having no previous experience. He earns 110 dollars a month which he uses to support his family, although he complains the 60-40 split is unfair since he argues the prisoners do all the work

Female prisoners like Gulsum, 24, have also found gainful employment. She was imprisoned not for an act of theft or violence, but simple because she ran away from home – a criminal offence in Afghanistan. (See IWPR’s November 2010 report Afghan Runaways Flee Forced Marriages for more on this issue.)

Hard at work embroidering a man’s shirt, she said the thought of imprisonment had made her suicidal, but now she was happy to have something productive to do.

“Now I am doing a good job and all my dark thoughts have gone,” she said. “I can look forward to the future with optimism, because I will be able to earn a good living from the skills I’ve learned.”

For convicts’ families, the money can make the difference between survival and total destitution.

Nuria, 53, has a son in his fourth year of imprisonment for murder. When he was first convicted, she was forced to beg on the streets as her son had been the household’s sole breadwinner, but things have got much better since he found work in the jail and began sending her 50 or 100 dollars a month.

“Although it’s a very small amount, the money has helped me stop begging,” she said.

Overall, the prison is now generating up to 150,000 dollars a year, with plans to increase sales.

Mohammad Yusuf Amin of the provincial chambers of commerce and industry said prison-made carpets, silk scarves and decorative embroidery were being marketed alongside other Herat goods, and some had been exported.

While some commentators praise the employment initiative and argue that many prison inmates are only there because poverty forced them into crime, others are less forgiving.

Social affairs analyst Mohammad Daud Munir acknowledges the benefits of rehabilitation programmes but believes these are outweighed by the risk that crime rates will increase if no one fears going to prison any more.

He also suggested that laxer regulation might encourage prisoners to steal tools and use them to break out of jail.

This view was echoed by Herat residents like shopkeeper Abdul Wahid Nuri, who said, “It used to be that people would shudder at the very mention of prison, but now no one is scared of ending up behind bars – they say it’s nice to spend a few months in there with free food and skills to learn.”

Governor Sadiqi said such concerns were unfounded. The inmates are being properly supervised and guarded, he said, and the employment programme has slashed offending rates.

Sadeq Behnam is an IWPR-trained reporter in Herat.