Rights group slams Egyptian prison healthcare system

The health system in Egypt’s prisons is inadequate and does not meet basic requirements as set out by the country’s constitutions, its laws and international conventions it has signed, the Cairo-based Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), a human rights group, said in a report released yesterday.

By examining health conditions in 16 prisons and police stations in Egypt through interviews with 37 people, including former inmates and prison doctors, lawyers and experts, EIPR found that prison life meant poor availability of healthcare services and incompetence among its healthcare providers.

Poor health and living conditions in Egypt’s prisons, as well as poor treatment by prison authorities has been a theme repeatedly highlighted by detainees.

Political detainee Mohamed Soltan, for example, had to be admitted last week to the intensive care unit of a Cairo hospital a day after the Interior Ministry, which oversees Egypt’s prisons and police forces, refused to allow him a medical stay in the hospital and insisted he be returned to prison. His health has been deteriorating rapidly after hunger striking for more than 130 days. A prisoner solidarity group said the actions of the Interior Ministry have rendered Soltan “closer to a state of death than life.”

EIPR’s study team was unable to visit any of the detention facilities, and relied instead on face-to-face and telephone interviews. An official request was filed with the Interior Ministry for permission to visit clinics and hospitals in several Egyptian prisons and to meet with the healthcare team members, but it received no response, it said. It also found a scarcity of published literature on conditions in Egyptian prisons.

EIPR’s research finds that there are shortcomings in the provision of urgent services in emergency cases, which the report says is significant, given that physicians in prisons are not affiliated to the Ministry of Health but the Ministry of Interior. “This has a negative impact on the independence of medical opinion in prisons,” it said.

Psychiatric care is entirely absent, and the combination of severe overcrowding, poor ventilation, and a lack of cleanliness, with some cells even lacking beds, creates an environment conducive to the transmission of skin and respiratory diseases that most prisoners interviewed complained of, EIPR adds.

Other recent examples of poor health conditions in Egypt’s prisons include the detained Al Jazeera journalists.

Mohamed Fahmy, Al Jazeera English’s bureau chief, who has spent the last six months in jail, has not received sufficient medical care for an injured shoulder, and has permanently lost his full range of motion in one arm as a result.

Abdullah al-Shamy, an Al Jazeera Arabic news reporter, was released yesterday on health grounds after ten months in prison without charge or trial, and more than 100 days on a hunger strike. Last month, he described his conditions in Cairo’s Tora prison as a “pit hole” not fit for animals. After being admitted into solitary confinement, he was allegedly force-fed by prison authorities.  

In January, Al Jazeera English correspondent Peter Greste wrote a letter from what he described as a “cold” prison cell in which he was locked for 24 hours a day, and wrote of his Egyptian colleagues as being held in mosquito-infested cells, sleeping on the floor with no books, or writing materials “to break the soul-destroying tedium.”

Security officials have estimated that they arrested at least 16,000 people between July 2013 and March 2014, while independent Egyptian human rights groups claim the number is higher. This marks the period after the ousting of former president Mohamed Morsi by the military, after a mass wave of protests calling on him to resign.

EIPR said that on May 10 it sent hard copies of the report to the Prison Authority, the Ministry of Interior’s Human Rights Division and the Ministry of Health’s Preventive Medicine Sector, enclosing a letter detailing the most significant findings and recommendations of the report. By the time of the report’s release, it had received no response from any official body, it said.

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