MENA Prison Forum
Exploring Political Prison Culture and Practices in the MENA Region
مُنْتَدى المَشْرِقِ والمَغْرِبِ للشُّؤونِ السِّجْنِيَّة
Since 2018
Supported by Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen, medico international & Arab Fund for Art and Culture

In 2018, UMAM Documentation & Research launched the "MENA Prison Forum" (MPF). Two main factors influenced our decision to do so: first, the overwhelming presence of the prison in our day-to-day praxis; and second, the initiatives and programs UMAM D&R has already been involved with that address prison issues.

UMAM D&R's starting point in establishing a multidisciplinary forum dealing with prison-related problems was that "prison” in each country, as well as prison on a MENA regional scale, deserves to be addressed as a standalone issue that cannot be reduced to any single one of its various judicial, political, artistic, historical, or social expressions and emanations. Nonetheless, taking note of the sheer variety of these expressions and emanations is a necessary precondition to meaningful engagement with the prison in both individual country contexts and regional backdrops.

From the outset, the MPF has not exclusively focused on political imprisonment at the expense of criminal punishment for the simple reason that there is no clear line dividing political and criminal accusations, which merge into one another in rhetoric and legal proceedings. In terms of human rights, the violations are countless and prison is a key tool in the suppression of freedom of expression. From the artistic and literary perspective, prisons have inspired an impressive body of work. Social violence and extremism lead to and are fed by prisons. However laughable it may seem, accusations and counter-accusations centering around human rights and especially prison-related concerns are gaining currency in exchanges between competing MENA tyrannies. Even in the case of MENA "success stories" and transitions away from repression (Morocco and Tunisia), dealing with the past and helping victims heal from their trauma does not seem to be an easy or smooth task. 

The MPF project takes as its starting point the centrality of the prison, and in particular of the prison as a site of political incarceration, to the MENA region's political culture, future trajectory, identity, and mindset. Therefore, a deeper understanding and acknowledgment of this central position is required if the region is to move on from the past, implement meaningful reforms, and reduce its reliance on detention as a political strategy.

In recent years, new wars, various uprisings, and changes of power have given way to a boom in the number of prisons and detention facilities run by states and non-state actors, both in and by countries preserving their territorial integrity (UAE or Egypt) and those which lost it (Yemen or Syria). Moreover, there has been an accompanying expansion in the number of individuals held at such facilities. Finally, and most importantly, the centrality of the prison has been unquestionably confirmed not only within specific country contexts – or perhaps "ex-country contexts" as one might term the countries in the region where regimes no longer enjoy full sovereignty over their territory – but also in the region as a whole. Lest we forget that ISIS traces its roots back to the Camp Bucca concentration center in Iraq.

The MENA region's special relationship with the prison has deep historical roots, and the reasons for its continuance and development are likewise rooted in structural, systematic factors that are not easily overturned. The MPF was therefore created with a medium- to long-term framework in mind, seeking to help serve as the impetus for gradual but important shifts in discourse surrounding carceral issues in the region. Moreover, the project attempts to bolster recognition of both the role played by prisons in perpetuating the woes of the region and the attendant necessity of dealing with them in an effort to move on from the past in a constructive fashion.

Thus, the MPF uses three central tracks as the structural underpinning for the project. Through the "documentation and research" track, original research has been conducted on carceral topics on a country-by-country basis as well as on a broader regional level, with various publications produced as a result of this work. As with all of UMAM D&R's work, the most effective way in which to analyze events of today and drive change is through a nuanced understanding of the past, an understanding that is grounded in documentation and research. Furthermore, under the "advocacy and networking" track, the project regularly organizes country, region, and topic-specific conferences and meetings to build interdisciplinary connections that transcend geographical boundaries, individual experiences, and fields of expertise. Finally, "public outreach" is used to advertise the efforts of the MPF. The multidisciplinary, nuanced work of the project serves very little purpose if it is not accessible to the public and used to help foster a deeper understanding of carceral issues in the region. Through this bolstered public understanding, the project seeks to help influence the levers of regional power as it relates to imprisonment and detainment.

While the project has now been around for a few years, it is still in its beginning stage. A solid base has been established from which numerous sub-projects will continue developing, new collaborative connections will be created, and intra-regional dialogue involving a myriad of experts, practitioners, perspectives, and backgrounds will continue to grow new roots. Ultimately, the MENA Prison Forum hopes to use its position as a nexus between historical, criminal, and political imprisonment and that which is occurring today to grease the gears of reform and help make it easier for the prison’s centrality to be better understood and more justly incorporated into systems governing the countries of the Middle East and North Africa.

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