Expose’: Prison Reform in Jordan. Is it Possible?


Published in Living Well Magazine. June 2009.

Despite negative perceptions about Jordan’s penitentiary system, officials say they want all prisons in Jordan to eventually become centers for vocational training and rehabilitation. Is change possible?

By Rana F. Sweis

When Um Dia’a speaks, her eyes squint and her voice is barely audible. Upon recalling the story that landed her in Jordan’s Juweideh Correctional and Rehabilitation Center, she regurgitates it quickly. “It is a story of theft that turned deadly,” she announces. “Poverty and debt pushed my brother and I to steal from a farm, but things went wrong and my brother killed a man.” Um Dia’a and her brother, also in prison, confessed to murdering a farm owner in Madaba.

Today, Um Dia’a spends her days in confinement – knitting, attending lectures, learning to bake pastries, and watching television. Though their first aim is to take away freedoms enjoyed within society, prisons are looking to new ways of development. Juweideh prison for women underwent renovation in 2000 to see it turn into a correctional and rehabilitation center (CRC) aimed at reforming character through exercise, work, training, and social care. “Change and reform continue to take place because we feel there is a need for it,” says Khaled AlMajali, director of CRC Training and Development. “We are not apart from the Public Security Directorate, but at the same time we are not only focusing on law enforcement, but rather on training individuals whose mentality is more aligned with rehabilitating.”

The white stone building of Juweideh’s CRC for women looks more like a two-story apartment building with a balcony and small rectangular-shaped windows. Guards stand inside and outside a large black gate. Cellular phones are not permitted. The parking lot is empty with only an ambulance on standby, while from a distance, a guard leaning on his rifle can be seen from the high-rise compound of Juweideh prison for men, which hosts almost 1,300 persons. Accommodating up to 450 inmates, the CRC for women  boasts 14 rooms, 450 beds, and 300 security officers. At present, the total number of prisoners held in Jordan is 7,834, of which 235 are women, this according to a May 7, 2009 daily report distributed by the Administration of the CRC.
“My main concern is to provide the best possible services to the women here and make sure they are safe,” explains Fatima Al Badarein, director of Juweideh CRC for women. “We think the reform that is taking place is a good step forward but much more needs to be done,” says Nisreen Zerikat, an advocate at the National Center for Human Rights (NCHR) in Jordan. “Yes, there are activities that are being provided like baking and sewing, but we need to really focus on the rehabilitation process in the sense of psychological care, and to help individuals integrate back into society once they are out.” Prison is a part of any society and the way prisoners do time may also affect their lives after incarceration. “The truth is, nothing compensates for freedom, but while they are here we try to offer good services and protection,” says Al Badarein.

Finding a way to integrate back into society after being in a CRC or prison facility remains an obstacle for these men and women in Jordan, especially since some even face internment by their own families and society at large. “The perception of prisoners among Jordanians is they are deviant, criminals, and dangerous,” says Musa Sheitwi, a sociologist and director of the Jordan Center for Social Research. “It is even more so for women, and the stigma against them is greater,” he adds. “The perception is that she has done wrong morally and accepting her in society is very difficult.”

For many institutions and ministries, including the Ministry of Social Development (MoSD) who work on rehabilitation and reintegration into society, it remains a new and challenging concept. It is usually difficult for prisoners to become reacquainted with freedom, and at least a quarter of those who are released will commit an act that will lead them back to the prison or center. “Around 25 to 30 percent of those who are released from prison will return,” says AlMajali. “That is why we need to work on all fronts to make sure that they don’t commit a crime again.”

The most popular activity these days at the Juweideh CRC for women is learning how to make and bake desserts, which Um Dia’a participates in. “Prior to coming to the center, I didn’t know how to make anything,” says Um Dia’a, wearing a navy blue robe over her jeans. “I was illiterate, but now I am learning how to read.” She also admits to feeling anxious about returning to her poverty-ridden neighborhood and providing her five children with food and shelter. “At the CRC, there are many services,” she explains. “I want to be free, but I would be lying to you if I said I was not nervous about my future.”

Security and government officials all agree that if Jordanian society does not begin to change their attitude towards prisoners, giving them a second chance, their efforts will not completely succeed. “In cooperation with the Police Security Directorate we are trying to change the concept of prison as being a place solely for punishment to one that rehabilitates,” says Mohammad Khasawneh, secretary general of the MoSD. “On our part, we are accepting that concept more rapidly than the average Jordanian citizen, who perhaps still struggles to recognize that a prison can actually be a place for rehabilitation.”

The burden to step up the training process (including providing teachers and doctors) seems to be placed mainly on government agencies and the Police Security Directorate. “We do a lot of training, and we are trying our best to do our part, but there needs to be more effort on the part of civil society,” says AlMajali. A recent study conducted by the Higher Council for Science and Technology revealed that Jordan suffers from a shortage in mental health services, and finding mental health professionals who are willing to work with prisoners is even more difficult, admits Hatem Al-Azraai, spokesperson for the Ministry of Health. “It is a nationwide problem, but we are working on encouraging more Jordanians to specialize in this field and we are offering residency programs twice a year,” he points out.

When Um Dia’a talks about feeling guilty about participating in a crime, she also mentions her five children and begins to cry. “I rarely see my children,” she complains, having been at the center for five months now. “It’s not easy for my mother to come here, as she is an old lady and is the only one taking care of my children.” Things are progressing though; the MoSD opened a nursery inside the facility for women only recently, with Khasawneh remarking that, “After examining cases inside the prison, the idea of opening a nursery became something that we needed to do. By depriving the mother from her children, we would be depriving the child from healthy development, and in the end, the children are not to blame for their mother’s wrong-doing.”

Currently, five social workers take care of infants at the nursery, along with five security officers assigned with them as a precaution. There are women requesting to be reunited with their infants, and the only psychologist assigned to the CRC will assess whether they are mentally stable to be with their children. Indeed, sometimes children under three years old may find themselves in prison or CRC with a parent, especially when there are no extended family members to help. And, although some have lauded the creation of the nursery in Juweideh’s CRC, for others it raises concern. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) advises that infants should be accommodated with their mothers where possible, although, the environment is a totally unnatural one for a child. “The truth is even if it’s a rehabilitation center, it is not an environment for an infant or a child to be in,” says Yazan Abdo, an expert in development and education. “I would prefer to see the child or infant in an adjacent or nearby place where the mothers would spend time with them, but it would not be at the CRC.”

Worldwide, the goal of the first modern prisons was to enforce strict regulations, confinement, and forced and deliberate labor. It was not until the late 19th Century that rehabilitation through education and vocational training became the standard goal of prisons. Muwaqar 1, a prison in Jordan for men, was turned into a CRC only two years ago. The implementation of programs such as The Twinning Project at this facility, which includes the implementation of human rights principles and international standards, may determine the direction of reform elsewhere, with one of the main articles in this project including developing classification for prisoners. “Right now classification is implemented according to the crime,” proclaims AlMajali. “This is incorrect because not all who are convicted of theft or murder should be together,” he adds. “The personality of the prisoner, his integration into the center or prison, and overall behavior should be the determining factors.”

At the police training and development center on the outskirts of Amman, women in uniforms were attending a several day workshop on human rights and safeguarding prisoners. Not far from this training room, another workshop is taking place for higher-ranking male officers; Krista Schipper, a prison director in Austria and Irene Kock, a lead prosecutor at the Ministry of Justice in Austria, discuss short and long-term goals with them. They exchange ideas on procedures to release prisoners earlier, a change in the visit system, as well as infrastructure. Large flip-chart notes hang in front of the room, filled with answers and suggestions by the Jordanian high-ranking officers. In a parking lot outside the training center, police officers dressed in blue uniforms, helmets, and carrying clear shields with black rims, move in unison from left to right.

Back in the female training workshop, Abdullat is demonstrating the new technique of handcuffing from the front instead of the back of the body due to health reasons; the women are enthusiastic to learn the procedure. “Watch each step and tell your colleague if she is doing something wrong,” explains Abdullat. “Look at the angle she is standing – did she insert her finger between the handcuffs and the prisoner’s wrist to make sure there is enough blood circulation?” The women, mostly in their twenties and thirties nod enthusiastically. Suddenly the officer holding the handcuffs realizes she is standing too close to the woman she is handcuffing, causing her harm if the prisoner should become violent. “This is my first time at this,” she says looking at the other women sitting. “This is all new – I need more time and I will get it right.” The other officers encourage her to repeat the process from the beginning, and she succeeds the second time around. “Every time there is change, there is struggle and resistance,” says AlMajali. “Otherwise it is not really change.”

May 7, 2009

Facility Holding Most Prisoners (Sawqa)     2059 Individuals

Correctional and Rehabilitation Centers and Prisons (Total)    12 Facilities

Total  Men:  7834   Women: 235

Source: Jordan Correctional and Rehabilitation Centers (Administration)

NOTE: 6 months after this article was published incidents of police violence towards citizens including those detained at police stations seem to have increased. More specifically 3 incidents, 2 of them leading to death have been reported. This is a letter to the editor published in the Jordan Times.

November 18, 2009

Cause for Concern

The recently publicised cases of alleged abuse by Public Security Directorate (PSD) personnel are indeed a cause for serious concern. Notwithstanding the results of the investigations and associated legal processes currently under way, an in-depth and professionally conducted analysis of the inner workings of the PSD is needed to correctly pinpoint the causes of such alleged behaviour and recommend the necessary remedies to stop their reoccurrence.

The first major modernisation and reform programme at PSD started in the mid-1980s. The programme was initiated and driven by a forward thinking PSD director and his team who quickly and correctly realised that the three main tracks of the programme (manpower, equipment and regulatory) are totally integrated, complementary and their development should go hand in hand.

They also concluded that by delaying reforms in one track for any reason would have a detrimental effect on the remaining tracks.

The programme proceeded in full force as planned until the late 1980s or early 1990s, when two major obstacles crossed its path. One was internal (our own financial crisis of 1988) and the other external (the first Gulf war of 1990). Both obstacles had a severe and negative impact on the programme. Funding came to a standstill and focus shifted from internal law and order issues to external or regional ones, and remained so for quite a few years.

Once the general financial situation started to stabilise, the equipment-related track of the programme was restarted, but the other two lagged behind. This created a sizeable gap between the modern operational systems and equipment currently deployed at PSD, and the development in the training, psychological, basic human rights and legal background of PSD personnel assigned to interact with citizens and use such systems and equipment on daily basis.

Fresh reform efforts are now required on the manpower and regulatory tracks in order to bring them up to speed.

Maybe a qualified civilian will be considered for appointment as the next director of PSD in order to lead such an effort when the time for change arrives.
Vatche Dakessian,

18 November 2009


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