Baabda Women's Prison, Lebanon - To a soundtrack of almost constant pounding of fists against iron doors, drama therapist Zeina Daccache is trying to capture the attention of a group of women prisoners. Many of the 45 women are suffering from drug withdrawal and alternately appear agitated, upset, energised and detached. Others chat loudly, take long puffs off cigarettes, or pace the room.
But it doesn’t take long for Daccache, who is also a well-regarded comedian on Lebanese television, to bring calm to the chaotic scene. After a few warm-up games intended to break the ice, she has several of the women relating their life stories and future ambitions, envisioning a world beyond the confines of bolted doors and barred windows.
Daccache has come to Baabda as part of her goal to bring drama therapy inside Lebanese prisons. Her organisation, the Lebanese Centre for Drama Therapy (CATHARSIS), is the only one of its kind in the Arab world and one of very few offering rehabilitation services to those behind bars.
Following an adaptation and award-winning documentary of the 1950s U.S. play ‘12 Angry Men’ (renamed ‘12 Angry Lebanese’) with inmates from Lebanon’s high-security Roumieh prison, Daccache decided to expand her drama therapy programme to other prisons in the country. With support from the Drosos Foundation, she is also training dozens more individuals to become drama therapists in the hope of encouraging a new generation of professionals combining theatre with rehabilitation. Although she has only been working in Baabda for a few weeks, Daccache is already seeing some of the prisoners shrug off their initial caution to embrace the therapy.
"I’m very sad because of my situation and I’m sad because my daughter is far away," says D.W., who is serving time for drug offences. "I have a good heart but I didn’t think of my daughter," she says, crying quietly. "I didn’t know right from wrong."
Drama therapy gained popularity in the 1970s and has been used ever since in schools, rehabilitative clinics, bereavement centres and prisons to help individuals overcome personal problems, promote critical thinking, teach teamwork skills and improve self-esteem. Through role-play, group therapy sessions and dramatisation, many of the women in Baabda are gaining greater self-awareness and reflecting on the events that led them into conflict with the law.
"The aim in the end of this current project in Baabda is to have a theatre performance," Daccache says. Because of the high turnover in prisoners, the group will create a montage of monologues as opposed to a full play, giving newcomers the chance to participate and explore their personal history. "Each one of them is a scene by herself," says Daccache. "Each one by themselves fills the room."
N.L., who has been using drugs since she was 15, clutches a sketch of herself on a stage. "My role in the past was addiction, humiliation," she tells the group. Although she awaits sentencing for drug trafficking charges, she says she’d "like to be a wife, a mother, someone who is respected, happy."
Daccache is passionate about the power of drama in rehabilitating prisoners and combating recidivism. At Roumieh prison, "the inmates started working on themselves instead of blaming their situation entirely on society the whole time," she says. "Depression diminished and the inmates were able to plan a future for themselves outside of prison." Some of the men became so passionate about theatre that they sought out acting jobs after leaving prison.
The need for such rehabilitative services is especially important given the dismal conditions in Lebanese prisons. Notoriously overcrowded, 19 out of Lebanon’s 20 penitentiaries were not originally built to serve as such, says MP Ghassan Moukheiber, who as head of the Parliamentary Human Rights Committee recently presented a detailed report on prison reform. "Prison conditions are to be considered in themselves a form of torture, cruel and degrading punishment," he told IPS. "There is an urgent need to shift prisons from being places of punishment to places of rehabilitation."
Besides segregated quarters in mixed prisons, Lebanon has four women’s prisons. Women count for only around 300 of Lebanon’s roughly 5,000 prisoners, all of whom are kept in overcrowded penitentiaries that fail to meet the standard minimum treatment recommended by the United Nations.
Poor holding conditions lead to frequent rebellions and riots. In April, Roumieh prison experienced the worst uprising in Lebanese history. Prisoners protesting a lack of access to medical care and poor services broke down doors, started fires and took control of much of the prison in a standoff which resulted in the death of four inmates.
Earlier this month, Lebanon’s Parliament rejected a proposal to reduce the prison "year" from 12 to nine months, prompting three inmates to set fire to themselves, resulting in the death of one, and hundreds of others to initiate hunger strikes. Last weekend, five prisoners from Roumieh managed a jail-break by scaling the prison walls with bed sheets. Experts are now warning that another prison riot there is looming on the horizon.
While in better condition than many of Lebanon’s larger prisons, Baabda offers no exercise facilities, and women only have access to sunlight filtered through a caged-in rooftop. Many prisoners complain of inadequate medical treatment and unhygienic conditions, and have little to no recourse to legal counsel. Frustrations often lead to spats among the inmates.
Amidst such circumstances, the group therapy offered by CATHARSIS takes on additional importance. "The sharing of experiences and the group dynamic helps them find a way to channel their anxieties," Daccache says. "The new social interaction has given them back a sense of worth and has made them feel as though they are part of a community."
Perhaps most importantly, says Daccache, drama therapy offers prisoners a sense of hope at a time when many experience an overwhelming sense of despair. "They are learning that there is still a chance to change even while they are still in prison," she says.