Women Prisoners Conditions, Harsh & Distressing [Archives:2001/18/Reportage]

April 30 2001

Tawfeek al-Sharaabi
Yemen Times
Following unity in 1990, women’s issues were stressed as a direct result of the new democratic system adopted. Consequently, Yemeni women came to realize more about their rights and roles in the development process of the country. Societies supporting women’s issues started to be set up, though with no strong basis to ensure their development and prosperity.
Due to many deep rooted traditional, cultural factors and stock social conventions, women prisoners remain ostracized and shunned by society. The society’s attitude is rigid in this regard. The time a woman comes to law enforcing authorities, she is stigmatized by the whole society. The society does not savor the idea that women can take to crime. The society is still looking at them from the traditional point of view. However, due to the social changes and economic hardships that have befallen the people of the society, women started going out looking for jobs to help the menfolk meet the difficulties of life. As a result they became more vulnerable to crime.
However, the negative attitude of the society on women prisoners has reflected itself on all the circumstances surrounding them. This includes attitudes of those in law enforcing authorities, pending investigation offices, courts, etc. Women are convicted even if there is not strong proof of guilt. Moreover, they are ostracized, shunned or may even be killed by their families. While in prison they are disconnected with the outside world. Their families never contact them. Obviously, this creates serious physiological problems for them. The weak medical, physical, and educational attention in prisons tend to affect them considerably. After finishing their jail sentence, they are not out until their families come to take them. Most of these families do not come. On the other hand, women prisoners prefer to stay in prison lest they are killed by their families.


“Women Conditions in Prisons” was the topic of discussion in a seminar held in al-Afif Cultural Corporation. A paper was presented by Mrs. Shatha Nasser, lawyer and activist on women issues. The paper was on women prisoners’ conditions, based on a survey conducted in Sana’a Central Prison. The seminar was attended by Abdullah Mahyoob al-Usfi, representative of the attorney general, Lieutenant Fawziah Hassan, in charge of women prisoners in the Sana’a Central Prison, many representatives from NGOs, people interested in women’s issues and the media.
Mrs. Shatha Nasser gave a detailed account of the miserable and distressed conditions of women prisoners in the prison and said “Sana’a Central Prison was established in 1977 and is divided into three sections: one for men, one for women and one for juveniles.
The women’s section contains nine rooms, 6 bathrooms and one kitchen. Rooms are not well ventilated. Each room is 3,65m X 4,5m. There are between 12-14 prisoners in each room. Women prisoners are ranging between 77-80, and 25 children.
There is no telephone inside the prison to contact the administration in case of any emergency. Of the nine rooms one is specified for Somali women prisoners with their kids. There are two AIDS cases from al-Habasha kept in another room. The other 80 women prisoners with some kids are distributed in seven rooms.
Prison Structure:
Rooms lack any furniture. Six filthy bathrooms. There are no siphons and heaters. Water is scarce and there are no lights in the kitchen.
The prison campus is a hell and heaven for women prisoners. It is a heaven as they come out of their constricted and unventilated rooms to smell some air and to hang washing. It is also hell as this ground turns into a swamped and diseased area due to stagnant rain water.
In the prison campus there are also three 1X1.5 m cells with no bathroom or electricity. These are used for women troublemakers. The administration said “They are kept only for 30 minutes.”
Rooms are not furnished. Whatever they have, including clothes, kitchen tools, food, etc. are kept in sacks.
Cleanness is very important, especially for women. The prison administration says that there is a well inside the prison and that water is always available. However, prisoners say that water is scarce and that it is only available three days a week. The school at the prison is in need of support. There is only one female teacher who is teaching 40 female students. She is teaching them all subjects. She is also teaching illiterate women prisoners and level one of the preparatory school.
She stated that she is doing her best, though, students lack all the basic needs including schools’ uniforms, shoes, books, notebooks, pens, pencils, sharpeners, etc. All these prerequisites are not there. The administration of the prison and Interior Ministry seem to be unaware of all these issues viewing them as unnecessary.
No Proper Medical Care for Women Prisoners:
The medical assistant in the prison said women were in need of a women specialist doctor, physical examination room and fully equipped delivery room. Women giving births have no facilities and no access to medical services in hospitals except for difficult delivery cases. However, there is no ambulance at the prison.
Many diseases are spread in the prison including skin diseases, diarrhea and malaria. Despite the statements of the administration of the prison that medicine is available, doctors in prison contended there is a lack of medicine and medical tools. The mosque in the prison is nothing but 4X5 m yard covered with cement.
Most of the supervisors of women prisoners are not qualified and are illiterate, except for two cases who have primary and preparatory education.
The bad psychological situation of women in the prison made them suffer from dyspea, hair falling out, and panghao. The administration of the prison contended that they have been calling for help and sending petitions to all the authorities concerned including the Health Ministry, Interior Ministry, etc. However, all to no avail.
Foreign Women Prisoners:
Some women prisoners are from the African Horn, and are serving jail sentences in Sana’a Central Prison. According to the international conventions they have to be expatriated and handed over to authorities concerned in their homelands. However, the administration contended that they can hardly do anything as the Passport Authority and Interior Ministry do not respond positively to their requests.
Research Doctors Requests:
Research doctors in the Central Prison said “We are doing our best to help prisoners out of their depression. We lack many means of importance to prisoners. For example, we want to keep an application and a file for every prisoner. We have been asking the administration to provide us with them. On its part, the administration issued a memo to the authority concerned. However, so far we have received no reply. We have worked in the prison for a year. Prisons Authority and Interior Ministry did not bother to meet our demands.”Women Prisoners’ Classification:
Age of women prisoners is ranging between 15-60 years. They are all mixed together. According to the administration of the prison, crimes vary between stealing, adultery and murders. Most of women prisoners belong to the poor section of the society. This makes it evident that poverty, and hard economic conditions are the main factors behind women’s crime.
Mothers & their Children in Prison:
There are about 25 children with their mothers behind bars. Most of the mothers want to study, learn any crafts or be involved in any kind of activity. However, there is no one to attend to their children while they are studying or working.
Prison: No Reformatory House
If women lack the basic needs for a living including good food, medical care, water, mosque and education, let alone other facilities. There is nothing that women can do to pass their time. There is no library, no books, no newspapers, no magazines, no TV, etc. So as to pass their time they chew Qat and smoke cigarettes.
Food Served:
Four “kudams” meaning hard bread is served on a daily basis with a big bowl of rice. Meat and chickens are served once a week. Chopped meat is served for the rest of the week. These meals are badly cooked and can hardly be eaten by prisoners. Women prisoners said that they do cook themselves inside the prison using old instruments as access to gas working tools is restricted.
Women Prisoners, “We Have no Rights.”:
Some spoke about their situation and said “We have nothing so as to ask for other things. We have no right to ask. We lack all the basic needs for living. We lack good food, medical care, blankets, sheets, education, clean cells and campus, water, training, cleaning tools, etc. Our children are hungry, no clothes to wear and protect them from the heat and the cold, no centers to teach them, no toys to play, just nothing.”** Balqis al-Lahabi, al-Fif Girls Forum, said “Many women are sent to prison after being accused of “al-ekhtela’a crime” meaning a girl found in the company of a man in public place or in a park. What is the basis for this procedure? What is its legal reference?”She highlighted the commendable projects of the International Committee for Red Cross, National Society for Women Protection and Rights Care and Youths Development Center funded by the Denmark government to improve conditions of women prisoners.
** Raja’a Ahmad Abdullah, vice chairman of Arab Sisters Forum and in charge of promoting awareness on women prisoners’ rights, said “We are going to launch a project to promote awareness on women prisoners’ rights in Sana’a soon. We also have a program on relieving the violence on women which we are working on with 10 NGOs and National Women Committee (NWC) as a governmental organization and in collaboration with the OXFAM as an international committee. Every organization is going to work on specific stages so activities are not repeated and wasted. We work on three dimensions; developing awareness of the society, of those in charge of prisons and on the basis of prisoners. Each organization will be a complementary to the other.
Rights of women prisoners’ are trampled and obliterated the time they enter the prison. As prisons are punishment establishments, they are reformatory establishments too. If a person commits a crime and was sent to prison as punishment, do we have to make him more corrupt and perverted or help him to become a good person again?!”
** Soha Mohammed said “Civil society establishments have to do a great deal in relieving this suffering. There are many NGOs working in the field of providing free medical care. Why not specifying some days to enter these prisons and do some work there?
In the educational field there are about 8 organizations. They can specify some of their programs for women prisoners. By this the burden on the government will be relieved and women inside prison will be more connected to the society outside prison.”
** Abdulhakim al-Sharjabi, working on a study on conditions of women prisoners for the Women National Committee, said ” I conducted the study in 20 governorates. I beg to disagree with some of those who stated requests to improve conditions of women prisoners. I am not as ambitious as they are. I have a small ambition. It is that there should be prisons for women accused of crimes in governorates. There are nine governorates in the Republic where no prisons are established for women. Instead they are imprisoned in the Sheikh’s or Security Directors’ houses.
Another important issue is the integration of women into the society after they go out of prisons. This does not mean that their conditions inside prisons are not important. On the contrary they do lack lots of important things. One of these things which agitate women is the lack of sanitary napkins.”
** Fawziah Hussain, lieutenant, and in charge of women prison at Central Prison in Sana’a, said “We do want the humanitarian and charitable NGOs to come to the prison to see the problems, difficulties and help solve them. Talking from their ivory towers does not make a difference. They have to practice what they preach!
There are not places with negative aspects. There are merits and demerits in the prison which exist due to the limitation of resources. If these organizations do their share, things will improve.
I want to stress a point, especially as there is a representative from the prosecution. If there is a young girl who for the first time makes a mistake, the prosecution should contact her family. However, the first action the prosecution does is to send her to the central prison. In the prison there are lots of women accused of different crimes. So what happens is that this young girl enters prison with a small crime. Later on, she may show recidivist tendencies. There are no classification of crimes inside the prison mainly because of the limited resources available.”
** Dr. Mohammed al-Saqqaf, said “What is the role of the government if every thing will be done by the NGOs and civil society establishments. The government has to takecare of every thing otherwise what its use is.
The problem should be looked at seriously and thoughtfully. Everybody has to look at it as if it is his own concern so as to exercise pressure to find solutions.”
** Mr. Abdullah Mahyoob al-Yousfi, attorney general representative, said “There are four new pending investigation offices. These will be used for keeping whoever has not yet been sentenced to jail terms. The Labor and Social Affairs is now working to establish a house for perverted females which will host all women whose families renounce them. In this house they will be trained and qualified to be able to depend on themselves for a living.”** Mrs. Sameerah Haidar, chairman of Camal Corporation for the Development of Children, expressed the establishment’s willingness to provide some toys and games for children in women’s prison.”The discussion session came out with the following recommendations to all the authorities, particularly, the Prisons Authority and Interior Ministry:
1- Urging the Interior Ministry to establish special police to look into the issue of attack against women within the family and propose solutions for these problems.
2- Urging the Interior Ministry and Prisons Authority to establish good prisons ensuring their basic needs of living including food, clothes, medical care, education, and other cultural tools.
3- Asking all the centers and universities to conduct studies and researches on women prisoners conditions and include this within the work of graduate studies program.
4- Calling all the NGOs to work in cooperation to conduct training programs and ensure the protection of their rights.
5- Urging the Interior Ministry to employ qualified women cadre in women prison to improve their conditions.
6- Urging all lawyers and scholars to study the condition of women prisoners, conducting promotion awareness programs inside prisons, calling women who have been exposed to violence in any form to produce their witnesses.
7- Establishing special buildings for pending investigation offices.
8- Urging the Interior, Social Security, and Education Ministries to provide women prisoners with education and training to qualify them and integrate them into the society after getting out of prison.
9- Calling the national capital to establish projects for women prisoners.
10- Calling women activists and administration of the prison to listen to worries of women prisoner trying to help integrate those whose jail sentences are about to end, into society.
11- establishing a school or a teaching center for children living with their mums inside the prison.