Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?
As in other developing countries, Egypt does not uphold the Standard of Minimum Rules for the treatment of prisoners (SMR) according to international law. Prisoners of Egypt’s nine all-female prions suffer conditions in which they live in over-crowded spaces with other inmates, each sleeping on a ten-square foot dirty cement floor without running water and very little light. Poor ventilation causes skin infections, such as scabies, that spread easily. Other respiratory, chest, and stomach infections are also common.
Complicating the harsh living conditions, within Egypt’s female prisons, there are approximately 3,200 incarcerated women who are either pregnant or are mothers of young children. The Egyptian prison system permits children to reside in women’s prisons—in the same living conditions as their mothers—until the age of four. There are no special accommodations provided for pregnant inmates or those who have children living with them. Further, in many of the prisons, the mothers are forced to use their own resources or those of family members to procure items such as food, medicine, milk, clothing, and blankets. These mothers and children literally live in extreme poverty within the prison walls.
After the children of the prison turn four they cannot stay in the prison even if there is no stable family to receive them. They are required to either live with a family member or are placed in an orphanage until the mother has finished her term. Before Nawal’s work, these children did not have birth certificates and were not registered in the system, so were unable to access any basic rights such as health care, education, work, etc. It is often difficult for these children to integrate back into society. Many of them end up living on the streets or get picked up by gang leaders who force them to be involved in illegal activities.
In the early 1990s, Egypt’s prison system allowed children to stay in the prison with their mothers until just the age of two. At the time, nearly 700 children between the ages of 0-2 were living in prisons with their mothers and an estimated 2,500 children, ages 2-15, were living in orphanages, on the streets, or in extreme poverty because their mothers were in prison. Today, these numbers have increased but there is still an unknown number of female prisoners and children living in prison. These figures are not released by the government so as to silence the problem and reduce any pressure on the government to attend to it. Children living inside prisons under these harsh realities are literally invisible to the public eye.
Conditions within female prisons are often worse than male prisons because of the additional level of stigma placed on female inmates. Not only are they considered criminals but are often branded as prostitutes and threats to society; there is moral judgment placed on female prisoners blaming the woman for having been involved in an illicit activity. Thus, it is very difficult for women to gain support from family or a community while serving a prison sentence. The majority of female prisoners in Egypt, however, are serving terms because of unpaid loans or petty misdemeanours due to poverty conditions. Very few have a prior criminal record. Upon being released, however, these women still face severe social stigma and find it difficult to receive support from friends and family. Without a job or means to take care of a family they continue to remain in poverty and many of them end back up in prison.
Moreover, working to expose prison violations has historically been challenging as one would have to work under a police state with closed state institutions and no access to any prison records. It is a neglected topic in society and on government agendas.
Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!
Nawal Moustafa is organizing the first efforts in Egypt to change the treatment of female prisoners as well as their young children living within the prison. She identified a special group of female prisoners whom she calls “poverty prisoners” who are imprisoned not necessarily because of a criminal record but because they had become victims of poverty and debt with loans they were unable to pay off. Nawal’s work aims to not only improve conditions within female prisons, but to help rehabilitate female inmates and their children during their term and upon release and in turn, lessening the stigma attached to such poverty prisoners.
Nawal has successfully navigated the prison system—one of Egypt’s most difficult institutions to penetrate—in order to implement new laws and regulations in female prisons. Moreover, by breaking the barrier between the outside world and the prison, she is paving the way for other citizen sector organizations to enter the prison walls and provide assistance to this invisible population. Nawal has successfully implemented reform within the prison and legal system including an agreement with the courts to grant a special provision to the law—in the case of poverty prisoners—whereby cases can be re-visited and appealed after a person has been convicted. This innovation applies to cases where there is a minor infraction with no prior criminal record and creates a precedent in the justice system that can be applied to any prisoner.
She is leading policy reform efforts, while changing public perceptions that all prisoners are alike and connecting women with the interventions that address their poverty needs before it results in further imprisonment with its exponential social costs. Nawal has designed a systematic process for family reconciliation for prisoners one year before their release to ensure a safe integration back in to society after being released and to prevent recidivism, the rate of prisoners who return back to prison because the conditions outside are the same and they fall in to the same trap more than once.
With the transition in Egypt’s government and the writing of a new Constitution, Nawal’s policy work is crucial and her contribution to public discourse has already stimulated policy reform and spread cultural awareness on an issue that was once hidden to the public. Her work is being widely replicated in Egypt’s female prisons and has received significant attention throughout the Arab world.