Prison Breaks the Mould With Rehab Scheme

Programme unusual for a country where prison system is not noted for leniency.

Prison Breaks the Mould With Rehab Scheme

Programme unusual for a country where prison system is not noted for leniency.

Saturday, 11 April, 2009
Deep within the high walls and black iron gates that guard Aleppo’s central prison, an inmate paints elaborate pictures of soaring mountaintops and rolling ocean waves, from images of the outside world that he can see only in his imagination.

Muhammed, serving a jail term for robbery and the murder of two women, is one of 50 prisoners participating in a unique art therapy rehabilitation programme at the facility in northern Syria.

“We select prisoners who perhaps used to draw or build things as children, or who have some experience in creating artwork, and we have them work with inmates who have never created anything before,” explained General Hussein Wahoud, the prison official overseeing the programme. “Some of them will eventually be released, while others will be in prison for the rest of their lives. We try to put together a diverse group so they can learn from one another.”

The prison, which houses 6,000 inmates, receives funding for the programme from the central government in Damascus. After the success of an initial test project in 2006 at the Dara Prison in southern Syria, officials authorised a second such scheme at the Aleppo facility in 2008, Wahoud said.

The inmates meet several times a week to work on projects of their choice, such as stone carving, drawing and pottery. Lecturers and students from the University of Aleppo come to the prison once a week to offer advice and assistance to the art class.

This programme focuses on rehabilitating convicts stands in marked contrast to the rest of Syria’s penal system, which human rights groups characterise as universally poor and mismanaged. The government has come in for harsh criticism from local and international organisations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which allege that prison inmates across the country are mistreated.

Last year, rights groups expressed outrage after reports emerged of inmates being abused at the Saidnaya prison, north of Damascus. Last July, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that least 25 prisoners had been killed by security forces during rioting in the prison, which is known to be used to house dissidents.

“The demonstration started after prisoners demanded improvements to their living and health conditions, and that prison officials provide greater access to information about their trials and convictions,” the rights group told international media.

The official news agency SANA confirmed that “prisoners convicted of terrorism and extremist acts” had rioted and acknowledged that steps had been taken to “maintain order” and “restore calm”. (For more on this, see Concern at Prison Unrest Reports, 11-Apr-08; and Concern for Inmates Following Prison Violence, 10-Jul-08.)

The government in Damascus has never publicly addressed allegations of mistreatment at Saednaya and other facilities.

“Amnesty International is concerned that thus far, no steps have been taken by the authorities to provide redress for past and continuing human rights violations; there have been no investigations into ‘disappearances’, extrajudicial executions, or torture and ill-treatment, including deaths in custody,” the group said in a statement on its website. “Despite numerous allegations of torture, some of which were made in court by the victims themselves, no proper investigations appear to have been carried out by the Syrian authorities.”

The Aleppo prison project is the first to be implemented in Syria, following an initial pilot phase.

While concerns remain high about the general conditions in which detainees, especially political prisoners, some interpret the Aleppo programme as a sign that the authorities are beginning to be interested in rehabilitating criminal.

According to General Wahoud, the program has allowed some inmates to work through feelings of guilt and regret about their crimes.

“I admit I was guilty of stealing, but this is the best way I know of making amends,” said Ahmed, imprisoned for robbery, forging foreign currency and impersonation. “That is why I try to portray how ugly theft is through my artwork.”

Some inmates said they hoped their work could make a practical impact.

“I have made a mistake and now it’s time for me to help rebuild my country,” said an inmate named Mustafa. “I try as hard as I can to make as many copper tools as possible, because Syria is well known for its copper products.”

This year, prison administrators invited family members and members of the public to view the artwork, which went on display inside the prison for the entire month of March. Wahoud said more than 1,000 guests came to see the exhibition.

“The guests could buy the work for 10 US dollars a time, and families were able to see what their sons had created,” he said. “This was the first fair of its kind in Aleppo and the second in the whole of Syria. We got the idea from the pilot programme at the Dara prison.”

Because the exhibition proved so popular, the prison authorities decided this month to move the artwork to Tishreen Hall in Aleppo’s Al-Sabeel neighbourhood to give more people a chance to view the creations.

Some visitors expressed so much enthusiasm for the work that they asked whether they could commission specific drawings and sculptures.

“My view of these inmates as heartless criminals changed after I visited the fair,” said Aleppo resident Khalid Salman. “I have discovered promising talents that should be supported.”

Some visitors were so impressed that they came back again.

“I was astonished to see such talent,” said Rania al-Saad. “I was also impressed that the inmates seemed so polite and proud about what they’d accomplished.”

As the next step, the programme is to be expanded to include a theatrical component, said Wahoud.

“We are hoping some drama students from Aleppo University will come and lead our inmates in a theatrical production,” he said. “We are trying to encourage appreciation and recognise talent in the prisoners… to help them develop the self-confidence to succeed if they are released back into society.”

(Prison officials requested that only the first names of the inmates interviewed should be used. Not all the prisoners agreed to disclose the crimes of which they had been convicted.)

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