Economic crisis and the rising cost of living are having a serious impact on people in prison, with many prisons unable to provide basic necessities including adequate nutrition. In this expert blog, Pascale Bafitos, Detention Program Director at Restart Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture, describes the impact in Qobbeh Prison in Lebanon.
Lebanon has 25 prisons, accommodating 6,989 people. Qobbeh prison is the largest correctional facility in Northern Lebanon, located in the city of Tripoli.
According to my observations from over 17 years of working inside places of detention, the detention conditions in this prison do not comply with international standards, such as the UN Mandela Rules (the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners), especially in relation to physical exercise, medical services, provision of basic services, classification of people in prison, etc.
Furthermore, Qobbeh prison is significantly overcrowded due to the length of pretrial procedures – which can be indefinite in some cases. Qobbeh prison for men can accommodate 320 individuals while the number of people detained has sometimes exceeded 1,000. The current number of detained people in Qobbeh prisons is 838 (771 men and 67 women), with 88% of them having not been definitively sentenced yet.
The provision of food of nutritional value for the prison population is the responsibility of government, as stated in Rule 22.1 of the UN Mandela Rules: “Every prisoner shall be provided by the prison administration at the usual hours with food of nutritional value adequate for health and strength, of wholesome quality and well prepared and served”.
This guidance, as much in terms of quantity, quality as of nutritional value, is not respected in Qobbeh prison – with a big impact on the health and mental health of the people detained, especially the most vulnerable such as women or refugees.
persons deprived of their liberty are at a higher risk, as the crisis pushed the most vulnerable further into poverty
Discussions about the food quality in Lebanese prisons, including the nutritional needs of diabetic individuals, are not new; as they are mainly related to the budget allocated by the Lebanese Government, which has long been not enough. However, this situation has gotten worse due to the rise in food prices, a consequence of the historic economic crisis that Lebanon has been facing since 2019 and the deterioration of the exchange rate of the national currency, that recently reached 35,000 Lebanese pounds to the US dollar. While most Lebanese people are strongly affected by the economic crisis and its major impact on food and nutrition security, persons deprived of their liberty are at a higher risk, since the crisis pushed the most vulnerable people further into poverty and weakened their ability to access adequate food.
With the intensification of the crisis, several questions have thus arisen: Is the prison administration still able to provide food for the people it is housing, at a time when even the salaries of its personnel have become worthless? How are individuals behind bars, whose families are most often from the poorer class that was plunged into extreme poverty in the past three years, managing to survive?
Previously, most of the people detained relied on food brought to them by their families. However, the latter are no longer allowed to bring homemade food to their relatives in prison for security reasons (some families tried to bring prohibited items into prison through food).
Buying from the store has become a dream for most people
Prisoners and their families are only allowed to buy their provisions from a small shop near the prison that has an official agreement with the prison administration. However, the items there are limited and, due to the economic crisis, the prison shop has witnessed a crazy inflation over the past two or three years. Buying from the store has thus become a dream for most people, despite it being the main way for them to get sufficient food.
Furthermore, the Internal Security Forces, that are in charge of the prison’s management, are no longer able to provide the same quantities of food to the people in prison. This problem is caused on the one hand by the Lebanese economic crisis, and, on the other hand, by the contractors, who deliberately changed the types of food they deliver according to the amounts agreed on with the State and their value today. The lives of people detained have thus become exposed to a great danger due to the lack of resources to provide proper healthy nutrition.
The meals, distributed twice a day, remain acceptable in terms of overall quantity, the people in prison are still getting sufficient food (breakfast, lunch and dinner); with complaints usually being raised with regards to its quality – the food’s presentation and taste. However, due to the high prices of materials and goods and the great shortage of the budget, traders are now no longer able to deliver the same previous quantities for some types of food, especially meat and chicken, the provision of which has been reduced to twice per week instead of four times. Some other foods have been excluded from meals because of their high cost, such as cheese, eggs, and some vegetables (especially tomatoes and cucumbers). Some assorted veggies and fruits are provided to prisoners only one day per week (e.g. cabbages, onions, lettuce, lemon, garlic, potatoes, apples, oranges), and they also receive vegetable oil, sugar and tahini.
Prisoners and their families raised their voices, warning of “starvation” if the quantities of food they receive continue to decline.
the price of goods at the prison store doubled
A detained person disclosed: “We used to avoid eating prison meals, but now we don’t have another choice but to eat them and the quantity of chicken and meat has been reduced, due to the State’s inability to provide them to the huge amount of detained people”.
Another incarcerated individual stated: “The situation inside the prison is no longer tolerable. We suffocate, even the amount of food is no longer the same as before, and the quality of food differed, as the meat disappeared from the meals and the quantity of chicken decreased.”
He added: “the price of goods at the prison store doubled due to the rise in the dollar exchange rate. This problem is accompanied by an economic hardship that our families are going through, because their incomes have not changed”.
To face these challenges, I have noticed that people in prison are trying to support each other through sharing meals bought by their relatives from the prison’s shop. Also, the Lebanese authorities have asked civil society organizations to support providing food inside prison facilities, which several associations, such as Restart, are trying to do.
However, the situation requires a State plan and a large budget, at a time when Lebanon’s treasury has been emptied of money and the whole country is suffering.
 A food kit distributed by the CSO Restart to people in Qobbeh prison. It contains American rice, lentils, white sugar, red beans, table salt, chickpeas, brown and white bulgur, spaghetti, Aleppo zaatar and Lebanese zaatar (dried thyme with sesame), white flour for all uses, a bottle of sunflower oil, Turkish coffee, dried black tea leaves, processed cheese portions, and a bottle of lemon juice.