The free-for-all inside Lebanon's most notorious prison.
ROUMIEH, Lebanon — The smell of Roumieh prison hits you as soon as the gates open. It's the unmistakable odor of thousands of unwashed bodies mingled with human excrement, and it clings stubbornly to the gray walls surrounding the dismal courtyard where prisoners congregate. This morning, a face appears briefly in one of the barred windows about three floors up -- it's a bearded sheikh holding a cell phone to his ear. He surveys the inmates, who are just beginning to gather in the sunlight; then he retreats out of sight.
ROUMIEH, Lebanon — The smell of Roumieh prison hits you as soon as the gates open. It’s the unmistakable odor of thousands of unwashed bodies mingled with human excrement, and it clings stubbornly to the gray walls surrounding the dismal courtyard where prisoners congregate. This morning, a face appears briefly in one of the barred windows about three floors up — it’s a bearded sheikh holding a cell phone to his ear. He surveys the inmates, who are just beginning to gather in the sunlight; then he retreats out of sight.
"This place is just like the rest of Lebanon, but inside four walls," says Georges, a neat, grandfatherly-looking man in his 60s. "It’s almost better here than outside because we’ve become a kind of family."
Georges, whose name has been changed, has served 24 years of the life sentence he received after being convicted of murdering his wife, a crime that he denies. A Maronite Christian, he is one of the prisoners, known as shaweesh, who are assigned responsibility over the other inmates in his block.
"Every day, we have difficulties here," he says. "It’s terrible. Too many people, bad food, no clean water to drink.… The food is a little better since two years ago, when some of the prisoners made a sort of intifada and burned down the kitchen. So the government bought us a new one."
Roumieh is the largest prison in Lebanon, housing around 3,700 inmates, and it has long had a reputation for human rights violations. Recently, however, it has been making headlines for another reason: The inmates seem to be running the prison. Since the beginning of the year, there have been three riots — one in which 10 guards were taken hostage — and two foiled jailbreak attempts. In an apparent effort to minimize such incidents, the state has largely abdicated responsibility for what goes on inside Roumieh.
In perhaps the most depressing way, Roumieh is a microcosm of Lebanese life outside the prison walls. Just as on the outside, political connections and money are the most powerful currencies, violence is used to solve disputes, and the state is virtually absent.
Block B, which houses suspected Sunni Islamist militants, is the focal point for the vast majority of security breaches inside Roumieh. Some of the Islamists belong to the militant Salafi organization Fatah al-Islam, which clashed with the Lebanese Army at the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in 2007, leaving 168 soldiers dead. Some 215 Fatah al-Islam members were subsequently arrested, most of whom call Roumieh’s Block B home. These Islamists have now assumed a position at the top of the prison’s bizarre sociopolitical hierarchy.
According to Father Marwan Ghanem, former general chaplain of prisons in Lebanon and president of Nusroto, an NGO that works in Roumieh, the Islamists draw on a deep reservoir of resources not available to your average inmate.
"They’re kind of an Islamic mafia," he says. "They have a lot of political support from the Lebanese government and from Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. If the police want to raid Block B, they immediately get a phone call from someone telling them not to."
Ghanem says the Islamist prisoners receive special treatment and privileges: They are sent hot meals during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, he claims, and have cell phones, which are technically banned in Roumieh. Inmates confirm that such favoritism is common inside the prison and that guards can easily be bribed to provide amenities such as air-conditioning and better rooms, or to turn a blind eye to contraband.
"The more money you have, the better you’re treated by the police and the prisoners," says Georges. "If you’re rich, you eat well, sleep well, and live well."
Just like outside the prison walls, political clout is even more valuable than wealth.
"It’s not fair that a couple of hundred guys can have everything their own way all the time, but that’s the way it goes here — politics and wasta are the most important things," says another inmate, Elias, using an Arabic term that loosely translates as nepotism or connections.
Those inmates without wealth or wasta are often forced to sell their services — or their bodies — to those at the top of the totem pole.
"Illegal immigrants and poor Lebanese often work as maids for the other prisoners," says Mohanna Ishak, an attorney for the Association of Justice and Mercy, an NGO that provides services inside Roumieh. "They have no families to support them, so they are forced to work for cigarettes, which they sell in exchange for money at a little store they have in the prison. Money of any kind isn’t technically allowed in the prison, but they get around it."
Sometimes, an inmate’s only currency is sexual favors. "Prison is all about deprivation, and that includes deprivation of heterosexual activity," says Omar Nashabi, a sociology professor at the Lebanese American University who has studied Lebanese prisons. "Many prisoners force others to engage in sexual activities with them — that is, rape. Prostitution is also a problem.… Some men will wear makeup, perfume, and wigs and pretend to be women. The other prisoners call them ‘rabbits.’"
"The major problem is that the police are not trained to run a prison," Nashabi adds. "It’s not their job, and they’re not qualified … so they’re forced to enter negotiations with these prisoners. And these negotiations sometimes go too far."
Georges says the prisoners are almost completely autonomous and usually govern each other with hardly any interference on the part of the guards.
"We deal with our problems ourselves," he says. "The police rarely get involved unless we ask them to. They’re basically just here to open and close the gates."
Joseph Moussallem, spokesman for the Lebanese Internal Security Forces, doesn’t want to get dragged into a discussion of the Islamists’ influence inside Roumieh.
"There’s no problem there right now, today," he says. "There used to be some problems, but I can’t get into the reasons. It’s a big question, and I don’t think I can answer that over the phone … or without permission from my superiors."
Security forces do raid Block B from time to time, and some attempts have recently been made to curb the Islamists’ power inside the prison. In January, their notorious leader, Mohammad Youssef, was charged and sentenced to death for the murder of a fellow inmate.
Given such crackdowns, the Islamists dismiss suggestions that they dominate the prison. Their advocate on the outside, Sheikh Nabil Rahim, was himself imprisoned in Roumieh in 2008 for alleged ties to Fatah al-Islam. He has an impressive air-conditioned office in the northern city of Tripoli, by far the nicest building on the block. Rahim — a polite, careful man dressed in black sheikh’s robes — denies the allegations of special treatment and rabble-rousing leveled against the Islamist inmates.
"It’s not true that these Islamist prisoners have it better than the others," he says. "On the contrary, they’re searched far more than the other prisoners.… The reason people think that they en
joy more privileges is because there are around 200 of these Islamist prisoners in Roumieh and they are united under one leadership, so when they have demands, they send a very strong message."
Asked to explain reports that the Islamists often refuse to allow prison guards access to Block B, the sheikh smiles patiently.
"That was a misunderstanding between the Islamists inside Roumieh prison and the security forces," he says. "The security forces sent a new team to the prison, and the Islamists assumed that this team was there to give them a hard time or to try and divide them. At the same time, these police told their superiors that they didn’t want to enter Block B because the Islamists could be dangerous terrorists."
Hassan, another sheikh who leads a Salafi militia in Tripoli, has been an inmate in Roumieh on more than one occasion. His last stint was a year and a half long, and he served out his sentence in Block B. He sips a cup of tea at his apartment in the Tripoli neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh, a predominantly Sunni area that often serves as a flash point for bloody clashes with an adjacent Alawite neighborhood.
Hassan was released from Roumieh in 2008 and paints a picture of an existence that may be, in many ways, more comfortable than life in this impoverished, violent northern city.
"When I was in Block B, they had just started to give us things … so we’d get microwaves, TVs, MP3 players, fridges, things like that," he says. "I heard that the first washing machine to enter Roumieh prison was brought in for our guys in 2004. The first fridge came later."
According to Hassan, many inmates in Block B are foreign militants, some arrested in transit across the Middle East.
"There are a lot of prisoners from the Gulf, and consulates from their embassies come and make sure they have everything they need," he says. "One of the guys I was friends with was Algerian. He said he was arrested while traveling from Syria to fight against the Israelis in Gaza."
However, Hassan is indignant at the suggestion that the Islamists in Block B are responsible for all the security incidents inside Roumieh.
"I was in prison in 2003, before the Islamists became so powerful, and there were always problems," he says. "Beatings, murders, things like that. The only difference is that we’re united in a way that the other prisoners aren’t."
While the Islamists seem to enjoy the relative comforts of their little fiefdom, less politically connected inmates are left to fend for themselves. Yousef has been an inmate at Roumieh for 22 years, serving two back-to-back life sentences for murder. Lanky and quiet, he speaks perfect English and sits with his hands folded in his lap.
"I was 16 when I committed my crime," he says bitterly. "I was originally supposed to be hanged; then they commuted my sentence to life in prison. I know I made a mistake, and I have to accept responsibility for what I did. But some of the people here have done much worse things, and they only spend a year or two in jail. I feel like I don’t belong here."
Asked what he thinks is the primary problem with Roumieh prison, Yousef’s lips twist in a cynical smile.
"Inside and out, it’s the same," he says. "It’s all about politics. That’s the main virus of this country."
Sulome Anderson is a journalist based between Beirut and New York City. Follow her on Twitter: @SulomeAnderson.
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