Egypt’s Egregious Prison Conditions

Prominent Egyptian human rights lawyer Malek Adly, head of the legal unit for the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, has been held by Egyptian authorities in solitary confinement for 80 days. He is detained in a two by three square-meter cell and is not allowed recreation or exercise time. He is denied proper blood pressure medication, is not allowed to visit the prison mosque, and does not have access to a radio, newspaper, and books. His visits with family and counsel are monitored. But Adly’s case is not an aberration, but rather, the rule.

In the wake of an escalating crackdown on independent voices, Egypt has witnessed an upsurge in detentions, bringing the country’s prisons to 160 percent of capacity and lockups in police stations to 300 percent of capacity. Egyptian authorities have also been increasingly using pretrial detention as a punitive measure to silence activists, journalists, and peaceful political dissidents. The number of pretrial detainees in Egypt has exponentially increased under Al Sisi regime and the periods of pretrial detention have exceeded international legal standards and even domestic maximums.

These unprecedented numbers have created unsafe, overcrowded prison conditions. Additionally, detainees have been subjected to inadequate medical care, excessive disciplinary penalties like long-term solitary confinement, and the denial of family visits. Egyptian NGO El-Nadeem has documented 239 deaths in detention, 915 incidents of torture, and 597 cases of inadequate medical care over the last two years in the country’s prisons.

With Egypt ranking 15 among countries in the list of countries by population, with a population of 93,496,914, overcrowding is one of the most significant problems facing the country’s prison system. Small detention cells are shared by a large number of prisoners, with little to no space for beds and furniture, and insufficient space on the floor to sleep. Such conditions, coupled with the lack of hygiene, constitute an ideal breeding ground for the spread of infectious disease.

Hisham Abd al-Hamid, the Forensic Medical Authority spokesman, has previously stated that overcrowding is the main cause behind the increase in deaths in detention. Abd al-Hamid has stated that prisons lack the capacity to hold an influx of short-term prisoners. Authorities hold prisoners in cramped police stations and other facilities where, on average, each prisoner is only allocated one-half of a square meter of space. He also explains that rising summer temperatures and the spread of disease in the winter have led to a “natural” increase in detainee deaths.

Detainees also suffer from a lack of food, water, clothing, and medication. Prisoners rely mainly on family visits to obtain adequate food and necessities. According to prisoner complaints, the prison administration provides small portions of poor quality food in order to compel detainees to buy expensive food from the prion’s canteen. Families of various prisoners tend to partake in scheduled meal preparations for all inmates in a single cell. Despite this, prisons have been known to set arbitrary restrictions on the entry of outside food and to institute visitation bans.

The Aqrab Prison (also known as the Scorpion Prison) provides a window into the systematic violations against prisoner rights in Egypt. Numerous families have been denied visitation rights. Even when visits have been permitted, the prison administration has set forth various obstacles, including requiring pre-registration, forcing the family to spend the night in front of the prison, and denying the entry of food, clothing, and medication.

Although the Prison Regulations clearly provide for the right to weekly one-hour visits for those held in pretrial detention and bimonthly visits for convicted prisoners, the Aqrab Prison administration ignores these rights, arbitrarily prohibiting visits whenever it wishes. Last year, the prison administration, overseen by the Interior Ministry, denied visits altogether for two months from March to May.

The series of violations at Aqrab Prison sparked a mass hunger strike among prisoners in March 2015 in protest of poor detention condition and the prison’s systematic punitive and harsh treatment approach of the prisoners and their families. Despite this and outside calls for reform, no investigations have yet to be conducted and egregious prison conditions continue.

Articles 55 and 56 of the Egyptian Constitution stipulate that the objective of the Egyptian prison system is correction and rehabilitation. Although Egypt’s Prison Law and the Prison Regulations set forth minimum standards for detention conditions on everything from the fitness of prisoners to the quality of food and the right to religious worship, the standards are consistently violated. Several ministerial decrees, including Interior Ministry Decree No. 691 of 1998 on the minimum standards for prisoner conditions, are also largely ignored.

Various international treaties which Egypt has ratified including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights , also safeguard prisoner rights. The United Nations Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners, adopted by the General Assembly in 1990, should also be met.

However, Egypt continues to subject its detainees to egregious conditions that occur in violation of the country’s Constitution and international legal obligations. With little to no accountability for cases of inadequate medical care, torture, and deaths in detention, the cycle is only likely to continue.