For inmates at Aqrab (Scorpion) Prison, there was a small window of time when life got a little better — but that window has already slammed shut, according to their families.
In December, the state-run National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) made visits to the notorious maximum-security sector of Cairo’s Tora Prison complex following media uproar against allegedly inhumane conditions. Inmates’ families say prison authorities seemed to have briefly succumbed to outside pressure that month, loosening their grip on things like visitation rights and allowing inmates to receive food and clothes.
In the days leading up to January 25, however, family visitations once again were restricted — and reportedly still are, even now that the revolution’s anniversary has passed — and inmates are renewing their cries against brutal living conditions.
Families of Aqrab inmates told Mada Masr that prison authorities have once again become highly selective regarding who is allowed to enter. Visitation starts at 6 am, but many families say they are arbitrarily turned away each morning, even if they had been waiting to enter since the night before.
Mona Azzam’s brother has been detained at Aqrab since October pending investigations into criminal charges. She says she arrived to visit him last Saturday at 6:30 am, but wasn’t allowed in the prison.
“Can you imagine waiting in this cold only to be turned away?” she tells Mada Masr. “I asked politely why they wouldn’t let us in, and they [security officials] yelled at me.”
Azzam says that even lawyers who have permits from the prosecution often aren’t allowed to enter the complex.
“It’s just according to their [prison authorities’] whim,” she argues.
Visiting restrictions had reportedly eased in December following the NCHR’s visit. That month, visits could last up to five minutes, according to Azzam, and guests were allowed to go behind the glass partitions separating them from the inmates and properly greet their detained family members.
“We were allowed to shake their hands. I can’t tell you how happy we were,” Azzam says.
In the beginning of January, the NCHR issued a statement following a visit to Aqrab asserting that conditions at the prison had improved, and that families were allowed to visit and bring in warm clothing and a day’s worth of food.
But Azzam says that by the last time she visited on January 20, the visiting period had again shrunk down to two minutes, she was not allowed to cross behind the glass partition, and only half the food she brought for her brother was delivered to him after being dumped into a plastic bag.
“If there’s half a chicken, they split it into two. If there’s rice, they take two spoons, and dump everything in one bag,” she claims. “I serve my dog food that’s in better condition. How can a human being live like this?”
Worse, her brother was still wearing his summer uniform despite the winter cold, she continues.
“I was only able to give him underwear and a pair of socks,” says Azzam. “When I wanted to give him more clothes, they said, ‘Why? They have a lot.’ How can you sleep at night knowing someone else is sleeping in this cold in summer clothes?”
Moaaz Shehab says he hasn’t been able to visit his father, Sayed Shehab — who is serving a life sentence at Aqrab — since January 17. “Exceptional visits” were supposed to be allowed on the occasion of January 25, but some families were still not allowed in, he claims.
Shehab echoed Azzam’s story of watching the meals families brought for the inmates dumped into plastic bags and served to them “like cattle.”
Sara Abdel Moneim hasn’t been able to visit her father since January 13. She believes the prison authorities tightened restrictions on visits when word got out through a lawyer that an inmate had tried to commit suicide.
“Out of 100 families, they allow 10” in the facility to visit, she says. “We don’t know anything about people inside, but hear that their conditions are deteriorating again.”
The last time Abdel Moneim saw her father, he was also in summer clothes despite the weather. She says she fought with the prison guards when they wouldn’t allow her to bring in warm clothing.
And the price of food in the prison commissary has now tripled, according to Azzam, Abdel Moneim and Shehab.
“They are annoyed because there is less demand for food in the commissary because of the meals we bring them. They said, ‘you visit too much’,” Shehab says, “so they increase the prices.”
Inmates are now asking for more money in their commissary deposit every month, the families say. Shehab says his father currently needs LE1,500-2,000 each month for basic goods.
The families all attribute the temporary improvement in conditions to the NCHR visit and the surrounding media attention, but “the rights group went and left, so now things will return to the way they were,” Shehab asserts.
Azzam thinks something about the January 25 anniversary prompted the officials to crack down inside the prison again, but she isn’t sure why.
“Did something happen that we don’t know about? Did you realize how much people hate you?” she asks. “You are killing people inside. They are dying.”