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Prison Seeks to Reclaim Lives

A model facility in Herat offers vocational training to both male and female inmates.
By Gol Ahmad Ehsan
A group of about twelve women sit at four looms in a large, well-ventilated room, weaving the beautiful and colourful carpets for which Afghanistan is famous. The women seem cheerful, chatting among themselves as their fingers race through the intricate knots of the design.

There’s nothing to suggest that the women are anything but employees at a typical carpet factory. But in fact they are inmates of the main prison in the western city of Herat.

The prison is the only one of its type in the country, dedicated not merely to holding the men and women incarcerated there but to rehabilitating them as well.

Nooria, 33, is serving a three-and-a-half- year sentence for murdering her husband.

“Before I came to prison I didn’t know how to weave a carpet,” she said, her fingers nimbly combing the threads into place. “It is a good profession, one which will allow me to feed myself and my four children when I am released.”

Carpet-weaving also helps pass the time, said Nooria, and it gives her some income. Still, she grumbles at the small recompense she receives – only 10 per cent of the carpet’s selling price.

“That is very little, considering how much work I put into it,” she said.

The rest of the proceeds go towards buying equipment and raw materials to expand the vocational training project, said Major Sima, head of the women’s section at the prison.

“We can keep them busy and allow them to earn some money,” she said. And while 10 per cent may not seem like much to Nooria, it is twice as much as the men receive. According to Sima, women are given a greater share of the proceeds because prison officials want to encourage them to participate in the programme. In addition, women often have their children with them in prison and need extra money to care for them.

Herat prison houses 37 women along with their 28 children. The children, ranging in age from infant to seven years, attend classes outside the prison during the day and are brought back to their mothers by prison guards in the evenings.

Just 100 metres away is the much larger men’s section, with 700 prisoners. They are also given vocational training in baking, carpentry, carpet weaving, shoemaking, and tailoring. About 370 of the male inmates take advantage of the opportunity to learn a skill and make some money. The other 330 are in literacy training, English classes, or are being tutored in the Koran.

All the classes are taught by fellow-prisoners.

There is also a library in the prison which holds nearly 8,500 books. Prisoner Jalil Ahmad Faizan, who heads the library, boasts that his centre gets busier by the day. “Prisoners are reading more and more books, and it’s all because of the literacy courses,” he said.

Mohammad 33, who is serving a nine-year sentence for armed robbery, is learning to be a tinsmith. “I used to be a simple labourer, and now I can do all this,” he said, gesturing with his heavy hammer to the forge, sheets of metal and other equipment in the workshop.

But Mohammad also complains about what he earns – just five per cent of what his work sells for.

“The money I get paid is only enough for my expenses in prison. But when my wife and children come to visit, they get upset, because I have no money to give them,” he said.

Brigadier General Abdul Majid Sadeqi, the director of Herat jail, is proud of his prison. When he was first appointed governor right after the fall of the Taleban in 2001, conditions were much worse.

“Over the past four years we have built workshops, dug 12 wells, established a health clinic and refurbished prisoners’ cells, all with the proceeds from the prisoners’ work,” he said.

In just two years, added Sadeqi, the prison has generated about 400,000 afghanis (about 8,000 US dollars) by producing 32 carpets, 600 wood-burning heaters, wardrobes, chests and confectionary.

He has received little help from the outside, he explained, except for some clothing distributed by the International Committee of the Red Cross. “We could pay the prisoners more if the government or international organisations would help us,” he said.

Some of Sadeqi’s ideas for prison reform came from abroad.

“Last year I went with a number of high-ranking officials on a tour of prisons in Europe,” he said. “It really opened my eyes. I saw a lot of things that I put into practice here.

“When an Italian PRT [Provincial Reconstruction Team] group visited the prison, they were very encouraging. They said they’d seen a lot of prisons, but that what we have in Herat is an education centre.”

Despite the training, life in the prison is far from easy. Conditions can be rough, especially in the overcrowded men’s section. The 700 male inmates are crammed into 35 cells, with 20 men to a room.

Gul Ahmad is three years into a 12-year sentence for armed robbery. Sitting in a corner wearing his grey prison uniform, the bearded 26-year-old seems angry and depressed.

“There are 20 people in rooms built for five. There is not even enough oxygen to breathe. I just don’t know how I am going to get through the next nine years in here,” he said.

Sadeqi confirmed that space was an issue, and said he had asked the general directorate of Afghan prisons to build another cell-block inside the compound.

Still, he added, things are not so bad. “One PRT member told me jokingly that he wouldn’t mind being in jail in Herat,” Sadeqi said with a laugh.

Ahmad Ehsan Sarwaryar and Maria Tamana are freelance journalists in Herat.

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