After driving an hour outside of Cairo and passing through three imposing gates, I finally arrived at the place I had been waiting to see for eight years—the Al Qanater Prison, the largest of eight female prisons in Egypt. Ever since I first read human rights reports on prison conditions in 2005, I had been hoping to visit one of Egypt’s prisons myself. Al Qanater is the best kept of the eight prisons, with clean grounds and rows of flower beds, because it is the closet to Cairo and the most visited by government officials, human rights organizations, and NGO’s.
Along with the team members from the Children of Female Prisoners Association (CFPA) , I had submitted my identification card one month before to apply for permission to visit the prison. The Association was founded in 1990 by novelist and Social Entrepreneur Nawal Moustafa, who was the chief editor of Akhbar El Youm newspaper and now she is a Columnist. She first gained permission to enter the prison when doing a story on three Lebanese women who had been arrested for dealing drugs. Now she offered to introduce me to the world behind the prison walls.
Al Qanater is a large, fully functioning prison facility with an area for staff and their offices before you reach the actual prison where the cells are located. As you enter, you see personnel and officers of many different rankings, as well as prison guards, social workers, prisoners’ families, and the prisoners themselves, along with their children, who live with them from birth until the age of two. Within the prison there is an unused library, a poorly equipped handicrafts room, and a ruined nursery. Prisoners face a struggle for survival within the prison walls. They pay rent to other prisoners simply to sleep on a bed, with two prisoners to a single bed. New prisoners sleep on the floor and no exceptions are made for children. They have developed a barter system for food and other products in exchange for cigarettes.
For non-prisoners, the prison also represents an opportunity to make a profit.Female prisoners bake fresh bread, wash clothes, and make handmade products that can be sold. Female prisoners and their children have not been allowed out of their cells for longer than two to three hours a day in recent months. When security constraints are heightened, or a prisoner escapes, prisoners are denied their legal right to leave their cells between 7 am and 5 pm.
I sensed the heightened security and discomfort as we passed through each prison gate. Nothing is allowed inside the prison other than the food boxes, which wewouldhand out to the prisonersin exchange for a few minutes to speak with them, quickly and quietly, and hear their complaints. The prison guards at the second gate took our phones to prevent us from giving them to the prisoners or taking pictures. One team member warned me that the guards often look through the phones or wipe them out completely, so it is better not to bring a phone on future visits.
After about forty-five minutes of questioning and negotiating with the guards, all in spite ofour permission forms and necessary documents, we were finally allowed inside. Women in pure white dresses were the first sight that imprinted on my memory. The female prisoners all wore them, along with neatly braided hair, some hints of makeup, and even jewelry. To my surprise, they were more polite and well put together than many women I had seen outside of the prison. White is mandatory for all female prisoners. Male prisoners have different colors, blue meaning convicted and red meaning the death penalty.
I helped unload the food boxes with one of the prisoners then stepped out of the microbus and stood by the women. I counted about fifty female prisoners and twenty children.I have never seen anything so white as those dresses they were wearing.As I had been informed by Nawal, these women were not all criminals. Many of them were simply bearing the burden of society, poverty, and the mistakes of their husbands and fathers. Some were pregnant; others were holding their infants or toddlers.
One prisoner named Mona was serving a sentence because her company went bankrupt and she was unable to pay her bank loan.She was highly educated, looked elegant, and wore glasses. She had means to rent a bed for herself, and had a carpet to decorate her sleeping space, one prison worker told me. In contrast, another prisoner named Nevinewas less educated, wore makeup, and asked for help finding a job after her release in two months.
“In here I have food for my child and a place to sleep, but outside I have no family support and I don’t know what I will do,” she told me. Sabah was a prisoner from Upper Egypt—I could tell by her accent. Her husband made her sign as a guarantor on a loan,and then took the money andtheir child, and left town.A prisoner named Amirawanted to be transferred to another prison closer to where her family was so they could visit her.Nawalused the term “prisoners of poverty”to describes these women. Many of them have been imprisoned after false trials with no lawyers, no evidence, and no due process.
After gathering mental notes of all the cases, trying to remember names so I could report them to Nawallater, I was called away by the social worker,who hurried over to tell me that my permission did not include “speaking to the prisoners.”
“So, does my permission only include staring at the prisoners like animals in a zoo?” I thought sarcastically in my mind. I apologized to her and stayed silent for a while. When she was distracted, I told the women I had been forbidden from speaking to them and they should approach the case worker from our team to report their requests while receiving their boxes of food.
Many of the women’s children were running around playing, while others were too little to walk. Some of the children suffer from skin and respiratory diseases due tolack of ventilation and little access to sunlight. One little girl was playing in the flowers, while another boy was running towards a ditch where some workers who had been fixing a broken pipeline had left their tools behind. The little boy ran barefoot into the ditch to grab a hammer.After watching his mother pick him up out of the ditch twice, I was curious to see how she would convince him to stay away. It was quite simple; all she had to say was,
“Come on, the officer is coming” and the child instantly ran back to her. At the age of one and a half, he had already formed an automatic response of fear to the word “officer.”
After the age of two, the children are sent away to an orphanage.In most cases the family cannot afford the expenses of another child and the child is often negatively stigmatized along with the mother. By the time the mother gets out of prison, the child is sometimes lost forever in the system or may be living on the street or have joined a gang. Nawal’s CSO (Civil Society Organization) tries to locate the children of prisoners in order to track them, pay for their school fees, and secure housing for them until their mother is released.
Some years ago, Nawal convinced the prison to build a nursery inside the prison. However, during the revolution it was destroyed by police from the Ministry of the Interior who used it as their living quarters. The semi-functionalhandicrafts workshop sells handmade clothes at a minimal cost to the Ministry of the Interior.Aside from this, the prisoners are not currently involved in any extracurricular or vocational activities; neither do the children receive any special accommodations. However, the children’s situation has improved greatly since Nawal started her organization in 1990. She managed to convince the prison system to register the children and issue birth certificates for them, and they continueto do so at her expense. In the past, the children were born and died in the prison, as if they never existed. Now, they have their own food rations, a nurse, and doctors’ visits. Also, a nurse comes to pierce the ears of the girls, as is Egyptian custom.
In another section of the prison yard, we saw two blond foreigners. Foreigners are usually arrested for false residency papers, prostitution, or drug dealing. One foreigner was immediately thrown in prison –regarding to her story- last year because her lawyer had cheated her and given her a counterfeit visa. With no questions asked she was taken directly from El Mogamma, the administrative government building in Tahrir Square, and transported to Al Qantera Prison for ten days. There was one Russian and one African prisoner who were in prison because they failed to pay back loans they had taken out to start small businesses.
After handing out the food boxes, with extra bags for the children, the visit ended quickly and we were led outside of the prison yard. One woman named Amna clearly wanted to speak to us, but as the last boxes were being handed out, the social worker sternly yelled at her and two others to get out immediately, humiliating them with insults. However, Amna stayed behind and insisted on making her complaint clear.She was mute, but she wrote her request for us: she wanted someone from her family to come visit her.As Nawal was calming her down and telling her not to cry, the social worker looked at Nawal with a smirk, saying,
“Nawal, I should give you a course on how to stop feeling empathy for the prisoners; after twenty years you still never learn.”
In response, Nawal smiled with difficulty and asked that the social worker to call the remaining prisoners. There were four missing, which we knew becausethe boxes had been counted exactly according to the number of women in the group cell of the prison. Nawal knew that the social worker had not allowed these fourwomen out of their cell, so she insisted that they come to pick up their boxes. The social worker responded by saying,
“They are spoiled and taking their time, I don’t know where they are,” and then went to call them. Afterwards, Nawal told me she knew they were being punished and not allowed out of their cell.
“The number of prisoners is increasing, and more children are being born, but the number of cells stays the same,” one of the prisoners complained.
After leaving the prison yard, we were finally allowed to sit with the officer in charge, who was a member of the investigative police, and was much more cooperative than the social worker had been. We discussed the cases involving women who were jailed because of their inability to pay off loans.The officer was exceptionally helpful and interested in assisting the women as much as he could. He welcomed Nawal’s efforts to appeal some of the cases and to buy the prisoners’ freedom by paying off their loans and signing a settlement agreement with the prison that filed the case.
When we mentioned Amna, the old woman we’d met earlier who wanted her family to visit her, the officer said he had tried many times to reach her family, but they had denied their affiliation with her and said they wanted nothing to do with her. The full story behind her case remains unknown and there is no full record of the accusations or the date that she entered the prison. Some prisoners are lost within the system due to insufficient records on their case. Different prison authorities, the courts, and the prisons themselves fail to coordinate, losing records in the process, and leaving women to wait, perhaps forever, for release.
The officer showed us the full list of prisoners along with their case numbers, which we would need to find necessary records in order to file appeals. Unlike the social worker, who remained with us throughout the meeting, he was quite eager to solve some of the cases and to reduce the social and economic burden of housing so many prisoners. He said he had just released one woman who had been wrongly arrested and sent to prison in another woman’s place. While we were sitting with the officer, we noticed all the prison activity in the background. Family members visited prisoners in a closed glass room. A non-profit organization running a home for prisoners’ children had brought the children to visit their mothers. A man with a bread cart from outside entered through the prison gate. One staff member complained loudly that people had been disrespectful to her during a family visitation.
The officer, however, spoke politely to the prisoners and the staff and called for Amna, the prisoner we had met earlier, so that we could try to help her. I shifted to make room for her to sit next to me on the small bench. Even though she was mute and old, she could still read and write well. We asked her questions and she answered in writing. The officer said she is always ready to present her case and has her documents with her. She took out a small plastic bag containing crumbling documents. They were copies of her court documents. She was sentenced to twenty years in prison after her employer in a government ministry won a case accusing her of forgery. According to Amna, there was no proof of the accusation and she could not afford to hire a lawyer to defend her.
After collecting enough information on her case, along with others, to follow up with the lawyers, we thanked the officer and made our way out. Forgetting where I was for a moment, I naively tried to open the first prison gate, then stepped back as the guard came to open it. As we were leaving the prison, we met a prison worker named Amani who was leaving at the same time. We offered her a ride in our microbus, which had extra space. Amani had gone through basic training with the Ministry of the Interior and worked outside of the innermost gate, coordinating the visitors entering the prison with supplies. Prison jobs are often passed down within a family. Amani’s mother and aunt also worked at Al Qanater prison. However, Amani insisted that she was accepted to work at the prison on her own merit and had gone through intensive training and a series of background checks.
Amani traveled 2.5 hours every day to reach her job. She was working as hard as possible to make ends meet, even though she was seven months pregnant and broughther three year old girl with her to work. Her mother took care of her older child who is school age. In dealing with the families of prisoners for years now, Amani noted how much she empathizes with them, saying,
“The prisoners are stuck inside so all they do is ask for things, it is the families who have to run around and find enough money to afford the needs of their family member in prison.” The struggles of poverty, fighting for economic survival and trying to keep a family together, exist both inside and outside the prison walls.
Other prisoners are not as fortunate as those at Al Qanater. An experienced member of Nawal’s team is a retired employee of the Ministry of Justice. During one of his visits to El Minya Prison, a smaller facility farther south of Cairo, he witnessed the officer in charge using electric shocks and fire hoses to torture the women prisoners. Prison facilities far from Cairo receive little attention from government inspectors, who rarely make the trip to check on operations and conditions. The distance also deters NGO’s and CSO’s from visiting, as the trip requires extra time, money, and capacity.
Sadly, some civil society organizations use needyprison cases to serve their own monetary or personal interests. Misr El Kheir, an organization with access to large amounts of Zakat funding (which refers to the Muslim principle of charity giving) has kept back money intended for “poverty prisoners.” As described earlier, the term “poverty prisoners” refers to prisoners serving years behind bars because of the circumstances of their poverty, usually due to their inability to pay back loans. After the issue gained momentum, Misr El Kheir raised a lot of funds to pay off these loans, but the program was never implemented and no prisoners have been released.
There are only a few social services available to non-political prisoners, and few civil society actors focus on this large segment of the prison population. The multiple layers of social stigma against non-political prisoners, especially women, have started to be exposed thanks to Nawal’s work along with a handful of other civil society actors. They have revealed the social and economic injustices that are the root causes of the imprisonment of many poverty prisoners. A warped criminal justice system with discriminatory legal sentencing and differential treatment based on favoritism and economic status further compounds the problem. However, by working as an ally tocooperative prison staff, like the Al Qanater officer, Nawal has been making great strides towards improving the conditions inside the prison, offering legal recourse, and providing women who are released with employment.
Institutions are made up of people. Thus, reforming institutions requires changing the long-standing and deeply ingrained ideologies of individuals. By giving actors in power support and positive incentives to do their jobs better, agents of change like Nawal can begin to challenge corrupt institutions. Addressing each stakeholder in their own language and logic is crucial to winning their trust and their willingness to listen to alternative options. Attacking an institution is like attacking a person, he or she will automatically put up a defense mechanism, blocking out criticism. Thus, providing positive incentives to government officials and prison workers, and positive examples to society of former prisoners who have once again rejoined their communities, is essential to creating a movement of change. Then Egypt can see those women in white dresses as women once again, and welcome them back to their homes, jobs, and children.