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Life Foundation & the Egyptian Prison System

Prison systems exist for the social rehabilitation of offenders, with the vast majority of people imprisoned eventually returning to their community after termination of their sentences. A key area neglected in most prison systems is the need to assist and facilitate prisoners’ transition to the outside world, with comprehensive preparation for release and post-release support programmes. As per the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners , social rehabilitation and preparation for release of prisoners should begin during a prisoner’s sentence and continue into the post release period. Unfortunately, rehabilitation remains an under prioritized area in the Egyptian prison system due to a range of factors including limited resources and inadequate attention given to the post-release needs of prisoners.
As Egypt’s population increases, so does the percentage of people living below national poverty line which reached 26.3% in 2014 and unemployment rate reaching 12.9% . Life after prison can be harsh for most prisoners as employment opportunities become difficult either for the lack of labour skills or for the stigma and discrimination faced when it comes to employing a former offender. Studies show that ex-offenders who are unable to find work are three to five times more likely to commit another crime than are those who find employment . The chances of reoffending also increases for former prisoners with a history of drug use and trafficking, prostitution and debt related offenses.
The post-release transition period can be particularly harsh for women. Many female prisoners stay in prison way over their due sentences due to, often minor, administrative, legal procedures and release documents that need to be issued and the lack of support from family to assist in their release. Upon release some women are rejected by their families, denied to come back home and faced with devastating socioeconomic impacts. This is why effective social reintegration programmes are urgently required, taking into account the gender-specific needs of women.
Drug dependence inside prison, coupled with psychosocial disorders could often hinder a former prisoner’s adaptation to the outside world. Upon release, some prisoners return to the community where they can engage in unsafe sexual behaviours and/or high risk drug use especially when they cannot find adequate health services including for drug dependence treatment. A large proportion of offenders thus keep reoffending often for relatively minor crimes, serving successive and relatively short terms of imprisonment. The impact of these repeat offenders on the community is large.
In the absence of legal, psychological and social support at the time of their release, former prisoners may have a very difficult time breaking the cycle of release and re-offending. Life foundation works to promote women’s empowerment towards an easier reintegration to society after prison life through the provision of legal aid, psychosocial rehabilitation, vocational training and job creation/job placement services.
Life Project location:
Based in Sharqia Governorate, Life Foundation provides services specifically to post-release prisoners (specifically females) and their families in Qalyubia, Sharqia, Port Said and Beheira Governorates. Under the proposed project, Memoranda of Understanding will be developed with prions in PortSaid, Damanhour, Banha and Zagazig to reach pre-release prisoners.
Banha in Qalyubia Governorate
Zagazig in Sharqia
Port said in port said
Damanhur is a city in Lower Egypt, and the capital of the Beheira Governorate.
Female convicts from Sharqeia and Ismalia governorates are often incarcerated in the Port Said prison for women, while female convicts residing in Alexandria and Damanhour governorates are incarcerated in Damanhour prison.
Portsaid, Banha and Damanhour prisons house both male and female prisoners, while Zagazig prison houses only male prisoners.
– Project environment and Problem description
More socioeconomic data
According to the King’s College London World Prison Brief, the last known independent statistics of the Egyptian prison system were taken as part of the United Nations 10th Survey in December 2006. The results of the survey numbered the prison population at approximately 64,000, with pre-trial detainees making up 9.9%. The same survey indicated the existence of 44 prisons across the country. Unfortunately, no prison data is available on the number of inmates per prison or on the national rates of reoffending.
Psychosocial challenges
Prisons are challenging environments, often tense and sometimes violent, for the mental well-being for prisoners. When offenders first enter prison, they find themselves being forced to adapt to an often harsh and rigid institutional routine, deprived of privacy and liberty, and subjected to a diminished and stigmatized status. This is often stressful, unpleasant, and difficult. Isolation from society, poor prison conditions, overcrowding, lack of privacy, in addition to inadequate health services, especially mental health services, induce stress, depression and anxiety among prisoners. This may develop into more serious mental health disorders, which occurs irrespective of whether prisoners had particular mental health care needs on entry. Life Foundation has reported a high level of major depression cases and anxiety disorders among former prisoners.
In most prisons in Egypt initial proper psychiatric screening, follow-up through during transfers and establishment of individual treatment plans are either inadequate or non-existent. Prisoners with existing mental health disorders are therefore not identified on entry and left untreated in an environment that is particularly harmful to their mental well-being. Many people who have both mental health care needs and drug dependence (referred to as co-occurring disorders or co-morbidity) are at particular risk of imprisonment and re-offending. It is important, that during the period leading up to an individual’s release from prison, direct contact and planning with psychosocial support services should start so as to ensure a smooth transition to care in the community.
In Egypt drug use is a penal offence subject to punishment. Hence, drug users also constitute part of the prison population. Some prisoners continue using drugs while incarcerated, while others initiate drug use during imprisonment. In view of the strict prison regulations against drug use and drug supply in prisons, the limited amounts of drugs tend to be shared communally. In the case of injectable drugs, prisoners share the same injecting equipment among themselves. Injecting drugs with shared, non-sterile equipment is one of the leading factors for transmission of HIV and other blood-borne diseases such as hepatitis B and C in prisons. When drug dependence is untreated in prison, the likelihood of re-offending is high, as the former prisoner is prone to committing offences, often to finance the addiction.
Women are particularly vulnerable in prison as women’s psychological, social and health care needs are different. Most women in prison are from socially marginalized groups and some of which have been engaged in sex work. Many have also been victims of gender-based violence. Violence, stigma and discrimination, poor nutrition, early and unwanted pregnancies that women might have been exposed to will require a different set of psychological, social and health care approaches than those needed by men. Many women need support in finding accommodation, especially for those who have no means and are rejected by families.
Legal challenges
Access to legal counsel is a basic right to all persons detained, sentenced and imprisoned throughout the criminal justice process. In Egypt the court is obliged to provide a lawyer to indigent defendants. Nevertheless, defendants and sentenced persons often face administrative, and in some cases political, obstacles and are unable to secure regular access to lawyers or family.
In Egypt the judicial system is characterized by weak administrative capacity and a lack of adequate infrastructure. The litigation process is slow with inordinate delays in getting cases resolved. Many female prisoners stay longer than they ought to be with an overall incarceration period longer than the sentence incurred. One of the reasons is the absence of proper legal support for pre-release female prisoners to assist in the procedures of discharge. Prisoners face many problems caused by bureaucratic hurdles whereby the judicial and prison files are not updated. Though a prisoner might have terminated the sentenced period of incarceration, the system does not immediately reflect this. Life Foundation supports women in discharge cases and assists male prisoners in decisions regarding early conditional release (parole) on the basis of medical conditions.
Many female prisoners have little information on their legal rights to enable them and their families to resolve existing legal bottlenecks before and after their release. Specifically, families with no social means and cannot afford private lawyers. Illiteracy constitutes an obstacle to prisoners’ access to justice, especially women. This further exacerbates the long procedures in front of the court, the difficult execution of the decisions rendered by the judges and the lack of access to legal and judicial information.

Women are also disadvantaged in accessing legal counsel in view of societal stigma and discrimination. Women who bore children while in prison, often need to register their children’s birth at the local register office. Unfortunately, in Egypt many births still exist outside the bounds of the state, unrecognized and unaccounted for with children often have difficulty accessing health-care and education; they also have no right to vote.
Police and law enforcement brutality and misconduct in places of detention have been widely reported by human rights organizations and media. Many former prisoners often feel intimidated to report any cases of abuse, assault, threat, harassment or misconduct that took place especially in view that they are former offenders hence perceive that they might not be equal before the law. There are several reports of women facing abuse and assault during detention and incarceration. Life Foundation with its team of social workers, psychologists and lawyers provides a safe haven for former female prisoners to disclose and redress for violations of rights and misconducts.

Unemployment and return to reoffending

The current financial situation in Egypt and high levels of unemployment make it particularly difficult for former prisoners to find suitable employment. According to the World Bank , Egypt’s economic growth has been moderate, albeit insufficient to absorb the rapidly growing population and labour force. Average per capita income growth has been around 2% per year since 1980 resulting in an increase in unemployment rates and poverty rates.
According to the latest report of the Millennium Development Goals , unemployment in Egypt is concentrated among women and youth. Unemployment rate of women at the national level in 2009 reached 22.9%, which is 4.3 times more the rate for men, estimated at 5.27 %. Numerous indicators are showing a poor quality of jobs created in the Egyptian labor market in recent years. Women as the most vulnerable group within the labor market are highly affected from the general unemployment level since female unemployment is four times the corresponding rate for males and the highest percentage of women are working in the informal sector, or are non-wage family workers. A large proportion of women who have white-collar jobs, work in the government. Accordingly they will be affected by any cuts in the state budget and public expenditure leading to reduction in employment in government and public sector.
Employers are often reluctant to hire former offenders. The stigma associated with imprisonment is clearly a factor, but so is the fact that many former prisoners do not have the education nor the skills to find employment. Employment is a key factor in the successful reintegration of former prisoners. Besides being a source of income, employment provides routine and stability and it contributes to enhanced self-esteem and self-confidence of a former prisoner.
NGO previous experience in the community/with same beneficiaries
Life Foundation has been providing legal, psychosocial and job creation services to former prisoners since 2013. Discussions are underway with National Security and Prison Directorate to initiate the provision of services to pre-release prisoners. This can be undertaken by asking the Prison Directorate to refer to the Initiative names of prisoners about to be released for Life Foundation’s social workers to meet with them in prison and explore the services they will require upon release.
Services provided include:
1) Access to justice and legal aid: Many former prisoners avoid contact with the criminal justice system, viewing it as a last resort to resolve disputes or existing legal bottlenecks after their release. Instead, where they have the means and ability, they turn to private lawyers. However, prisoners who are unemployed and those with no social means are often disadvantaged to access justice and cannot afford private lawyers. Life Foundation provides legal aid and ensures that former prisoners, particularly women, understand and claim their rights and are treated equally under the law.
2) Psychosocial programme: During incarceration challenges such as isolation from society, poor prison conditions, overcrowding, lack of privacy, and various forms of violence, induce stress, depression and anxiety in many prisoners, which may develop into more serious mental health disorders. Life Foundation provides psychosocial care to address underlying problems among post-release prisoners such as drug dependency and mental health disorders, thus supporting their psychosocial rehabilitation to post prison life. This specifically includes a multidisciplinary psychosocial programme for dealing with post-release stigma and discrimination that supports societal reintegration and a programme for the prevention of re-offending.
3) Shelter for former female prisoners: Upon release from prison some women are unable to return to their homes and are rejected due to the perceived shame they bring on their family members. The shame is often related to the criminal offence as well as to the incarceration itself which carries stigma and diverges from what is perceived as the traditional role of a woman. Life Foundation helps women through family reunification programmes to return to their families. This is conducted through mediation by lawyers and social workers, which has proven to be successful. When family reunification is not an option, a shelter is offered for women in need of protection, but also to those who are not immediately able to find accommodation or employment. Social services, vocational training, psychological counselling and legal assistance are offered.
4) Vocational training, job placement and job creation (micro-enterprise) programme: Employment reduces recidivism among formerly incarcerated men and women. Beyond providing a paycheck, employment builds work experience, expands skills, and gives the former prisoner a chance to successfully reintegrate into society. Life Foundation undertakes initiatives that strengthen women’s capacity in the job market and for them to become critical agents of social change. This includes provision of educational, vocational training, employment, cultural and recreational activities which are most beneficial to the rehabilitation of prisoners.
5) Research: Life Foundation develops sound research as a basis for informed policy formulation in responding to the needs of post-release prisoners. This ensures that policies and strategies aimed at reducing the imprisonment of former prisoners, meet their social reintegration needs in a relevant and effective manner. The research unit is also responsible for the monitoring and evaluation of programmes, whereby further support is required to enhance the M&E system for improved monitoring and evaluation.
6) Advocacy and communication: Public awareness raising and dissemination of information on matters relating to prisons are very important, for successful prison reform strategies. For this reason, Life Foundation disseminates reports, surveys and assessments to decision makers in the field, the media, civil society organisations and the public in general in order to advocate for prison reform programmes. The communication strategy includes disseminating information, case studies and assessment reports through social media outlets, press releases, video and photographic documentation.
NGO analysis of the problems and opportunities in relation to the proposed project
• The Foundation’s strengths stand in the team of dedicated professionals including lawyers, psychologists and social workers working directly with former prisoners and their families and focusing their work specifically in Sharqeia, Ismalia and Port Said Governorates.
• The Foundation works closely with criminal justice professionals and civil society organizations to provide rehabilitation programmes to support former prisoners to lead socially integrated lives upon release. Over the years it has gained the trust of the Prison Directorate at the Ministry of Interior.
• The Foundation works under the overall framework of a Strategic Action Plan (2013-2016) with set indicators that guide the programmes and services.
• Funding challenges: Life Foundation programmes have been supported thanks to the generous contribution from the Global Fund for Women, Amnesty International and the Euro Mediterranean Foundation. Unfortunately with the lack of funding there is a risk of cutting valuable services to female prisoners including the shelter and psychosocial support programme. The current political climate in the country has not been conducive for donor funding of civil society organizations. Life Foundation is the only organization providing these services in Ismailia and Port Said.
• Need to strengthen institutional capacity to provide better quality services and measurable outcomes: In order to improve the quality of services provided to former female prisoners, current staff needs to be trained on legal representation, psychosocial support and healthcare issues to better serve former prisoners and to train law enforcement and prison officials. A monitoring and evaluation system needs to be developed with proper indicators and baseline data to improve monitoring and evaluation.

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