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Life after prison in Egypt: Integration or permanent alienation

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Physical and psychological torture in Egyptian prisons has lasting effects on survivors, who struggle to reintegrate into their own societies after their release, a new report by the Committee for Justice has revealed.

The report, titled: “Life after prison in Egypt: Integration or permanent alienation?” comes within the framework of CFJ’s Detention Watch project, which has been documenting many patterns of physical, psychological and sexual torture in Egyptian prisons since 2017.

Prisoners and detainees in Egyptian prisons and detention facilities are subjected to many forms of physical and psychological torture, not only to force them to make false confessions. It also seeks to humiliate them and perpetuate their feelings of helplessness and despair, undermine their dignity and privacy, and to torture them with constant fear of dying or being killed, or being held in disciplinary cells, which are known as “cemeteries for the living.”

The report outlines survivors’ testimonies about completed and unsuccessful suicide attempts, and the impact of those experiences of torture and imprisonment on their lives. It concludes with recommendations, based on the testimonies, urging the amendment of security and administrative policies inside prisons, reviewing mental health care policies for prisoners and the rehabilitation policies for survivors of penal institutions and their reintegration into society.

The report sounds the alarm on the consequences of psychological and physical torture practices and mechanisms inside Egyptian prisons and detention centers. It seeks to highlight the impact of torture in causing prisoners to attempt suicide and harming victims of torture, who are themselves witnesses to completed and unsuccessful suicide attempts. The experience leads to their loss of hope, meaning, societal attractiveness, the ability to communicate, and societal effectiveness in their environments after their release from prison.

Although the report stresses that its findings are not generalisable, it acknowledges what prison studies have highlighted for years regarding the link between prisoners’ exposure to patterns of psychological and physical torture and their feeling of loss of hope, loss of meaning and dark thoughts, leading to suicide attempts. It also emphasizes the impact of subjective and historical factors in pushing individuals – especially survivors and respondents in the report – away from or close to this fate. The report adds to existing prison studies by conducting interviews, not with the authorities responsible for torture but with the former prisoners (survivors) themselves, to find out the key reasons and practices of torture that drive inmates of Egyptian penal institutions to attempt suicide.

The report cites the testimonies of five survivors, who are young people of average age 18-35 years, two females and three males to highlight the patterns of psychological torture used in Egyptian prisons and detention centers. They include torture by exclusion and isolation, physical torture, humiliation and assault on the psychological and sexual integrity of the victims, as well as torture by manipulating the senses, and torture by constant tension, which push the victim to commit suicide inside prison, and sometimes the thought of suicide haults him even after release.

The report also narrates testimonies about suicide attempts in prisons, the primary motive being patterns of physical and psychological torture and the unfairness of sentences. It points to the state of “losing hope” that victims suffer from due to the repercussions of the torture they were subjected to.

Psychological and physical torture and suicide testimonies inside Egyptian prisons and places of detention added many lessons to the lives of survivors, especially the lesson of survival and not being defeated by thoughts of death. However, all participants emphasized the need for psychological support and social rehabilitation after leaving prison. They explain that the current state of affairs in Egyptian society and economic and political conditions mean that prisoners leave prison to another prison dominated by isolation and lack of financial and social security. That reality is the opposite of what the Egyptian government is promoting now through its “national dialogue” initiative, which the regime claims will lead to the release of thousands of detainees and facilitating their rehabilitation and reintegration into society.

The report recommended criminalizing all forms of psychological and physical torture inside prisons and detention centers, including National Security headquarters and disciplinary cells and solitary confinement in prisons, especially those in southern Egypt, where expulsion of prisoners to a distant prison is a common punishment and where disciplinary cells cause the prisoners to starve to death, drown, or attempt suicide.

The CFJ report also recommended reviewing the concept, tools and practices of “discipline”, especially in Upper Egypt prisons, to conform to minimum standards of human rights to life, water, food and human dignity, with the need to provide access to psychological counselors inside the prison or qualified prisoners to deal with victims of bullying, or providing mobile phones to report attacks, facilitating communication with families and involving them in managing risk factors that lead to suicide, and providing first-night support centers for prisoners upon their arrival at prison and qualified medical units for follow-up and treatment of prisoners receiving psychological treatment.

The report also called for the criminalization of sexual torture committed under the pretext of searching prisoners and their families, and to hold accountable those responsible for the incidents of sexual assault under the pretext of search.

CFJ also called for holding detention officials accountable for the incidents of punishing victims whose suicide attempts were not completed, while providing training, support and monitoring for prison staff to provide the necessary or adequate care and to communicate with cases at risk of starting or completing suicide attempts and effectively dealing with them.

As for survivors’ testimonies about the impact of prison experiences on their lives, the report recommended combating the social stigma of released political prisoners, and rehabilitating them for employment and a safe living within the community.

The report also called for a review of the travel ban policies, the withdrawal of travel documents, the intransigence in issuing official and identification papers to those with criminal/political cases, enabling them to work, travel and study abroad, and compensating the victims for the psychological, social and financial damages they sustained as a result of arbitrary arrest and imprisonment.

The CFJ’s Justice Watch Archive platform provides the first and largest database on prisons and places of detention in Egypt. It gives researchers with the opportunity to obtain documented information on incidents of torture and many other violations that detainees are subjected to in detention facilities in the country.

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