Friday, December 16, 2011

Touchy-Feely

Here's a recent piece for the Armenian Weekly.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Lebanese Prison


I spent time in a Lebanese prison today. When I told my dad via Skype, he said, “I hope it was a tour.”

It was, in fact, a tour of the prison in Tripoli, Lebanon. Our host organization, Restart, went through the arduous process of gaining permission to visit the prison for their work, and they faxed copies of my and my colleagues’ passports so that we could witness the conditions ourselves. The visit provided a great deal of perspective on a day that I might have otherwise spent mindlessly drinking tea between meetings.

The women’s prison housed just fewer than 100 women of various nationalities. They walked freely around the two main corridors, and even cooked their own meals. In each room about 14 women slept in bunks, where they also kept their modest belongings. Some were illegal immigrants, some thieves, some murderers, yet they were all mixed up regardless of age, ethnicity, status of case (pre-trial or convicted), or type of offense. It wasn’t a place I’d choose to live, but it wasn’t altogether horrible either.

The men’s prison was another matter entirely. A prison population of 950, with 70 men in each cell, it’s hard to imagine spending 24 hours a day 7 days a week in such a cramped, stinky, damp place – eating, smoking, sleeping, bathing, crapping. A note from the doctor is required to make use of the small outdoor space with nothing but block walls two stories high, a concrete floor, and a metal lattice roof. Even my lily-white skin couldn’t get sunburned in that place.

Restart is doing the work of the government there. They paid for the infrastructure to provide hot water in each cell for bathing, and ventilators above the locked doors. Their psychologists provide mental health and social work services to a number of prisoners, along with Arabic lessons for the illiterate and English lessons for the especially curious. There’s a small library with about 100 patrons, and a computer lab that hasn’t been used since a prisoner took some people hostage in it a year ago. As we walked the corridors, I saw a dumbbell that someone had jerry-rigged from about 10 filled water bottles. Further evidence that I have no excuse for not exercising more.

A cell was opened for us and we saw how the men’s beds – mere blankets on the floor – were jammed into rows, the facility overcrowded beyond belief. They were all sitting on the floor watching television. With so many male prisoners in one room, you could imagine the fights that would break out and how difficult for the few prison guards to manage. The man holding the door, also a prisoner, obviously held some kind of authority or power. When he told the others to back up, they did so immediately. When we continued on the tour, he shut the door so the guards could lock it. On the inside, he was shutting us out.

One man and his assistant are charged with the Herculean task of feeding all of these men, along with others at the police station – every day, three times a day. His lower back hurts, but his commitment to the work is touching. “I can’t get sick,” he said, “If I get sick, no one eats.” He pointed to the enormous vats of whole chickens, complete with heads, and other pots of beans and rice. He was clearly pleased when I said it looked good (and it honestly did). Another man showed me can after can of food in the supply room, pointing out the expiration date to show that they’re not serving bad food to the prisoners. It was a good reminder that we should all take pride in our work, and that we should do what we can with what we have.

Looking at the pots of chickens, I thought of those contests people have, where you’re supposed to guess how many M&Ms are in the jar. I would guess that there were 60-80 whole chickens in each pot. That’s a big range, but I never have been good at those contests. I asked the cook if he cooks much at home (it was a joke). His response was emphatic: “No, Madam!”

There are too few guards for the facility, with just one on each floor. A few dozen prisoners have some kind of special status that allows them to walk around the entire day, and about six of them were with us during the entire tour. The prison director said, “Between us, the prisoners protect the guards.” I mentally re-framed what I’d say to dad when I called him later that night. “Dad, I spent time in a Lebanese prison today. But don’t worry, the prisoners were protecting me.”

I must say that the prisoners were very respectful. I expected a cat-call or two, but if anything the prisoners met my eyes, nodded, said bonjour or hello, or even laughed (when I spotted the dumbbell and smiled). It’s odd to walk around a prison and peer into rooms where people may spend much of their lives. Do you look into their eyes, do you say hello, do you ask how they are? Or do you ignore them, do you pretend they’re not there, do you wish them away? The former, of course, but it’s not an everyday experience (for me).

There were many parts of the tour that I found remarkable, but it was perhaps when we exited that I was most touched. A woman and her son were waiting outside to be let in. We can assume that they were there to visit another son. In the Arab culture of shame, or in any culture for that matter, I was moved that they would still love and visit their family member, whether a drug dealer or a common thief or a murderer.

When I asked someone at the center about it, she said that the social workers often call the prisoners’ mothers to ask them to visit their sons, to say that their sons need them. The mothers’ first response is typically “We don’t know anyone by that name,” but they eventually agree. What a gift they give their sons when they allow for faults and missteps in life. It was comforting to be reminded that some things are stronger than hate and judgment. Some things are about unconditional love.