BEIRUT (IPS) - Lebanon's notorious Roumieh prison, the scene of a stand-off between inmates and security personnel this month, is no stranger to rioting, escapes, corruption and abuse.
An army helicopter flies over Roumieh Prison, Lebanon's biggest jail, in the hilly eastern suburb overlooking the capital Beirut, Lebanon, August, 2009. (AP Photo).
"Another riot took place last October," says Hannah Nassif, general secretary of the non-government organization AJEM, which works with Lebanese prisoners.
Riots were also reported in the months of August and September 2009, while a Fatah al-Islam inmate escaped only to be caught after a 24-hour manhunt by the Lebanese army's special forces.
In April 2008, seven policemen were taken hostage by prisoners. They were released after nine hours of negotiations between high-ranking police officers and inmate representatives.
"This penitentiary, which was built in 1964, was initially envisioned as a model jail. With a capacity of 1,400, it holds today some 3,700 inmates," says Nassif, adding that poor living conditions in the prison are exacerbated by overcrowding.
Part of the problem, she says, is caused by the slowness of the Lebanese judicial system with delays in sentencing often resulting in prisoners serving more time in prison than their sentences warrant.
Lebanese prisoners stroll inside Roumieh Prison. (AFP/Ramzi Haidar)
Within the prison walls, other factors also contribute to the deteriorating conditions, including acts of violence as well as drug smuggling and drug use. This is particularly hard on first-time offenders and may lead to their relapse into criminal activity rather than reformed behavior said one observer.
Nassif estimates that during the period of July - October 2009, there was at least one violent incident reported every week. According to a security source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, prisoners are often found high on drugs and in a state of stupor.
"Drug use, weapons and mobile phone smuggling have been on the rise lately," he said. "Drug trafficking includes the sale of medication such as Rivotril (a sedative used to alleviate anxiety and to treat epilepsy), Tramal (a strong analgesic) and Benzhexol (an antispasmodic used for Parkinson's disease)."
The drugs are usually traded for cigarettes, and are often smuggled in by prison guards. "Hashish and cocaine can also be found inside Roumieh, but are usually brought in by the families of the inmates," according to the source.
Hierarchy exists in the prison. Distinctions are made between the haves and have-nots, with many drug lords and wealthy criminals buying small luxuries from the security personnel. According to the source, the pittance paid to the prison guards, who are often there on a punishment posting, has facilitated rampant corruption.
Nassif said one problem is that guards may be related to prisoners or come from the same region.
Another concern is the division of the prison along political and sectarian lines. The growing number of Fatah al-Islam inmates - all members of the minority Sunni community - has strained the prison's already volatile atmosphere.
"When tensions in the country's overall political environment are on the rise, this affects the prison and we observe more brawls among inmates from different sects," said the source.
What is perceived by other prisoners as lenient treatment given to Fatah al-Islam prisoners may be enough to trigger clashes.
According to the source, some Fatah al-Islam members have their own water pump, and sell water to selected inmates. They enjoy liberal visiting hours, are allowed special diets and get visits from religious figures who are believed to be smuggling in phones and electronic equipment.
Acts of violence are sometimes instigated by security personnel. "In 2007, in the wake of the Nahr el-Bared war, we saw guards encouraging other prisoners to beat a teenager who was accused of being a Fatah al-Islam member. The same thing happens when prisoners accused of collaborating with Israel are transferred to Roumieh," said the source.