As children were busy preparing decorations and putting them up in the streets ahead of Ramadan, and adults were listening to weather forecasts and advice not to expose themselves to the sun after predictions of temperatures exceeding 40 degrees Celsius, Heba Ghareeb was preparing for her second encounter with her fiancé in two years.
Ghareeb woke up at 3 am, prepared some food and drink, and made her way to Cairo from Qanater in the Qalyubiya Governorate on the outskirts of the capital. At 7 am, she reached her destination: the Aqrab maximum-security prison in the Tora Prison compound. The name means scorpion, but it’s often called the “ghoul prison” by families of detainees. Her fiancé Ahmed Ali was being held there ahead of a court session in which he was accused of spying for Qatar alongside former President Mohamed Morsi. His death sentence was confirmed on June 18.
Ghareeb says she managed to meet her fiancé only once during the past two years, when he was sick and had to be taken to the hospital. Later attempts at a visit failed. She gets to know his news from families of other prisoners who manage to visit their relatives.
After Ahmed’s papers were sent to the grand mufti on May 8, Ghareeb realized that her fiancé would spend Ramadan, and maybe many more months, in Ward H4, whose cells were originally toilets. The administration decided to use the toilets as detention places for those sentenced to death due to the large increase in the death penalty over the past three years, according to Ghareeb.
In a letter that Ahmed managed to send to Ghareeb, he describes the new detention conditions in Ward H4: “When I lie down, my feet reach the place we use as a toilet. There is no window in the cell, except a slit in the cell door, which is opened or closed according to the whims of the prison administration. There are no sheets or covers, fans are prohibited, no time outside the cell, the prison food is nonedible. The wall is covered with writing — the life stories of every prisoner who was held here. Many contemplated suicide because of the isolation they suffered here.”
Ghareeb stood in line in a queue of over 200 people in front of the prison gate, she recalls. When she reached the front, she was informed, as she had been many times over the past two years, that there would be no visit that day. This time, the reason Mohamed Fawzy, the officer in charge of organizing prison visits, gave her was that she came later than her 6 am appointment.
“I had reserved this visit several days before,” Ghareeb says. “I was hoping to meet Ahmed before Ramadan. I was only one hour late, while on previous occasions, we would arrive at 5 am and wait for four or five hours, and whether we would get in or not all depended on our luck. They only want to harass us.”
Ghareeb also notes that the suffering of other families, who come from distant governorates, doubles in Ramadan. “Some people come from Sinai, Monufiya and Gharbiya. They have to come twice: once to schedule the visit, and again for the visit itself. Then what happened to me will happen to many of them — they come all the way and then they are prevented from visiting their relative. Some spend the night in front of the prison gate to be there as early as possible.”
The prison officers refused to take the food she brought for Ahmed.
“Mostly, they refuse to let the food in,” Ghareeb complains. “Sometimes they let some of it in and confiscate the rest. On a previous visit, a family had brought a chicken for their relative. The officer ordered it to be quartered and allowed only a quarter of the chicken in, then he took the rest.”
“I was hoping the administration would be a little more lenient in Ramadan,” she adds ruefully.
Ghareeb thinks officials at Aqrab Prison adopt this hardline stance to compel prisoners to use the prison canteen, where the price of a single meal can be LE70-100.
“The only thing they allow us to do is deposit money in the canteen in the name of our relative,” she explains.
The Interior Ministry says that a 1998 ministerial decree stipulated nutritional requirements for prisoners “based on studies by the prison authorities and the National Institute for Nutrition at the Ministry of Health. These amendments doubled the cost of the previous nutrition dictates, making prisoners’ meals equal to those consumed by Egyptian middle-class families. The amendment also stipulated a special diet for ill and pregnant prisoners, breastfeeding mothers, newborns and during the weaning period.”
Complaints about the bad quality of prison food were nevertheless common among all those interviewed by Mada Masr. Most prisoners depend on food from outside the prison, especially in Ramadan. Families and volunteers have developed a system called “tableyya,” whereby they contribute to preparing meals for all the inmates in a certain cell and bring the food to the prison during visit days, thus ensuring the regular delivery of food throughout the week.
At Giza Central Prison, inmates are provided with a single dry meal of bread, cheese and jam, a prisoner in pretrial detention tells Mada Masr. They depend on the tableyya system for food, he says, “and it comes in abundance, but most of it goes bad because of the heat and because there is no fridge.”
Hend al-Qahwagy, sister of Loai al-Qahwagy and wife of Amr Atef, both held in Borg al-Arab Prison for two years in a case relating to a protest in Alexandria, says, “Don’t ever believe what is written in the newspapers regarding Borg al-Arab Prison being five stars. My brother and husband told me cats refuse to eat the meat they serve them twice a week. Prison food is very bad. That is why families set up a system to deliver food to prison every day.”
Prisoners in pretrial detention are entitled to a visit every week, while those serving sentences have a visit once a month. In Ramadan there are two extra visits for everybody.
“I agreed with a number of families to prepare enough food for everybody in the cell — about 27 prisoners — and to deliver it daily, alternating among ourselves,” Qahwagy explains.
Since the major rise in the prices of food, she estimates that the two weekly visits to her brother and husband are costing her LE500 each, amounting to LE2,000 a month.
“If it was only about the cost of the food, there would be no problem,” Qahwagy says. “The problem is that the conditions in the cell are really bad, especially with the severe heat.”
“My brother tells me they had to make a second row for sleeping. They use ropes to tie sacks between walls to sleep on, because the floor is crowded. Still, they suffocate from the heat, although they are allowed fans inside,” she explains.
Similarly, at Giza Central Prison, the administration has allowed families to bring fans, but they’re useless in view of the large numbers of inmates, the heat and the high humidity.
Held in a cell that is 12 x 6 meters and holding 34 other people, a prisoner in pretrial detention says, “We wish the fans would work just to renew the air in the cell. We’re living through a disaster, especially in Ramadan, because there is no water most of the time.”
Omar Hazek, who spent two years in Borg al-Arab Prison before he was released by presidential pardon last September, says the prison administration confiscated fans last Ramadan, returning them only after a prisoner died.
Overcrowding is one of the major problems now facing Egypt’s prison system. With 62,000 inmates behind bars, according to 2011 data, Egypt ranked 25 out of 223 countries for the highest number prisoners, said a report by the International Center for Prison Studies. Various observers say these numbers have now spiked dramatically, especially with the increase in political prisoners as part of the crackdown following Morsi’s 2013 ouster. Despite government promises to build nine new prisons, the problem seems to continue.
Mada Masr contacted Hassan al-Sohagy, head of the prison department, to comment on the testimonies by prisoners and their families. His office told us that he was in a meeting and he would call back as soon as he finished. However, he did not return the call.