The cells and their equipment
Prisoners are held in groups. They are gathered in large dormitories of between 50 and 200 m². These contain two or even three levels of bunk beds, a water tap and toilets.
The dormitories are invariably overcrowded in relation to the capacity they were designed to house. Not all inmates have their own bed. Some share a bed, others sleep on the floor.
The authorities do not provide furniture for the dormitories. Prisoners hang their belongings on the bedposts or the window sills. They dry their washing by the windows or in the exercise yard.
Buildings are dilapidated, poorly lit, insanitary and lacking fresh air. They are not heated or air-conditioned. The permanently damp atmosphere leads to mould appearing on the walls.
In Mornaguia Prison inmates are held in separate sections. Each one consists of three dormitories and a concrete exercise yard with a wire-netting roof. Each dormitory contains some 60 bunk beds on two or three levels on either side with less than one metre between them. Each dormitory holds between 80 and 120 inmates. Overcrowding rates of two, three or on occasion up to ten times capacity are the norm. Some inmates may therefore not have a bed at all.
Each inmate is provided with two blankets. Dormitories often have ceiling fans. Toilet facilities (toilets, wash basins) are at the end of each cell. If there is a television, it is placed above the entrance to the dormitory.
The DGPR provides three meals per day. They are served at irregular times in a large cauldron.
The quality and quantity of food supplied are considered inadequate (vegetable stew and bread). Food depends primarily on food parcels brought in by families. These form a central feature of prison life: a means of barter and exchanging services between prisoners. The guards consider it as a way of maintaining social harmony. It can also become a means of exclusion for some prisoners, especially those who do not have family support.
Food may also be bought from the ‘shop’ or the prison canteen using a special prison currency and placing an order through the dormitory head.
The prison authorities do not supply uniforms. Inmates wear their own clothes, brought in by their families. They do their washing in the exercise yard.
Cleaning products are available from the shop.
Communal areas are cleaned by inmates designated for domestic tasks or on fatigue.
Overcrowding creates serious hygiene problems. Toilets in dormitories are overused and don’t work properly. Some inmates state that they always wash in cold water throughout the year, using a cup and bowl. Some women prisoners say that they are entitled to one supervised hot shower per week. The rest of the time they wash in cold water. There are insufficient showers outside the dormitories. Prison regulations stipulate one shower a week for each inmate. Harmful insects and parasites are common. In some institutions the prison authorities have to provide antiseptic soap in the showers to limit the spread of an epidemic.
The prison health service still comes under the Ministry of Justice. A reform seeking to transfer it to the Ministry of Health has been under consideration since 2011, supported by the International Committee of the Red Cross (CICR). It has still not been carried out in 2017, mainly for budgetary reasons.
Human rights organisations criticise this lack of independence in the practice of medicine in prisons (link in French) and identify it as one of the causes of impunity where torture and mistreatment are concerned. Since 2014 the prison authorities, in collaboration with the International Committee of the Red Cross, have provided training for prison doctors in detecting signs of torture.
A medical examination is programmed for those entering prison. It is not always carried out because of overcrowding and the shortage of doctors. The medical examination includes tests for infectious diseases, especially HIV and tuberculosis. Those suffering from tuberculosis are isolated in special units.
Apart from the model medical unit in Mornaguia Prison, prisons are unable to provide treatment because they lack the equipment and personnel. The shortage of medical staff is mainly due to the geographical location of institutions and recruitment problems. Prison warders may provide nursing care and dependent prisoners are aided by their peers.
In emergencies inmates may be taken to hospital, in which case they are handcuffed during the journey.
A medical treatment protocol for prisoners on hunger strike has been formulated with the help of the CIRC.
There is no treatment programme for drug addicts. Drug-taking is widespread in prisons. Some prisoners say that warders bring drugs into prison for sale and that there is significant trafficking of medicines. One woman prisoner with a cannabis addiction states that she took mixtures concocted from toothpaste and medicines to satisfy her withdrawal symptoms.
Prison regulations detail certain activities for inmates : a minimum of one hour’s exercise per day; access to a library; the opportunity to study; access to cultural and sporting activities; the opportunity for prisoners to apply for paid work within the institution.
There is, in fact, little organised activity available owing to the lack of resources, overcrowding and strict security. Only a limited number of detainees have access to the existing facilities (training, work, sport). A lot of evidence suggests that corruption is widespread in gaining this access.
As a result most prisoners remain locked in their dormitories throughout their detention, except for one hour a day spent in a concreted exercise yard (aria) with no sports facilities.
The model prison of Monaguia possesses many facilities such as football pitches. However, prisoners are rarely given access.
Work in prisons is not compulsory, except in semi-open institutions, where participating in agricultural work is a condition of entry. Since 2011 these programmes have been abandoned because of the reinforcement of escape prevention measures.
In other institutions, in particular in detention centres for those awaiting trial, there is little work available. It mainly consists of cleaning duties in communal areas, preparing meals or orders from the prison shop. Mornaguia Prison has large workshops (carpentry, ironworking, bookbinding etc.) in which authorised prisoners may be employed. They are poorly paid and only open to prisoners with the approval of the authorities.
Schooling and professional training
Officially the Ministry of Justice supports education in prisons. In fact, there is little access to education and training. Half of all inmates are at primary school level or below.
There is access to television in prisons.
Radio and newspapers are permitted in theory, but only available with difficulty.
There is no organised collective religious observance. Inmates may pray in their dormitories. Institutions do not possess a prayer room or chaplaincy.
Prisoners giving spiritual guidance are suspected of radicalisation and having terrorist links.
The minority group of Christian inmates may have access to a chaplain and prison visitors. This is also the case, in theory, for Jewish inmates.
Involvement from outside sources has greatly increased since the revolution of 2011, concerning the inspection of conditions of detention, support for prison reform and assistance for detainees.
The main organisations involved are:
- The International Committee of the Red Cross (since 2005): visits to prisoners, improvement in conditions of detention. From 2011 it has undertaken reforms in collaboration with the Tunisian authorities to transfer responsibility for prison medical services to the Ministry of Health. In addition, since 2014 training has been given to prison doctors in the detection of signs of torture.
- Penal Reform International (since 2014): improvement in conditions of detention, reintegration programmes.
- Tunisian League for Human Rights (since 2013): overseeing the respect of prisoners’ rights, preventing violations of human rights.
Other associations for the defence of human rights are involved as part of a team monitoring conditions of detention, but they do not always have real access to institutions and prisoners.
International organisations within the UN system (HCDH, ONUDC and, for minors, UNICEF) take part in inspections of detention conditions and advising on prison reform.
Financial resources and destitution
Families may deposit money at the accounts office during their visits. Detainees do not hold cash, but a prison currency, in the form of vouchers, which allows them to make purchases from the prison shop. Most purchases are made collectively by a dormitory through the dormitory head.
Extortion is widespread with cigarettes used as an alternative form of money. Prison regulations specify financial assistance to those who are destitute when they leave prison.
Means of communication for the inmates
Detainees may make petitions to the guards, the welfarel office, the prison governor or the judge responsible for oversight of sentences. In practice they often have to proceed via the dormitory head, which limits the scope for complaints 1.
Collective petitions and demands are not allowed.
MCT Tunisie, “Rapport relatif à la mise en œuvre d’un dispositif de réclamations dans les prisons de Tunisie” (link in French), 2015. ↩
The most serious collective movements in Tunisian prisons occurred in 2011 during the revolutionary uprising. Extensive riots took place leading to the death of 86 people (in particular in the Monastir Prison fire where 49 detainees died). It is estimated that about 11,000 prisoners escaped, one third of the prison population at the time, in the days following the fall of the regime on the 14 January 2011. Further large-scale escapes occurred in the following months.
Political detainees, as well as common law prisoners, use hunger strikes as a form of protest. In November 2012 two prisoners who were Salafist leaders died as a result of a hunger strike. In a show of solidarity several hundred prisoners also took part in a hunger strike. Following this collective action the authorities signed an agreement with certain outside associations permitting their presence in prisons.
Security and safety
Searches are carried out on detainees and cells.
Special security conditions apply to prisoners who are considered dangerous and they are placed in high security institutions and separate blocks.
Disciplinary action may include denial of visits, post and food parcels from families.
Prison regulations only allow solitary confinement as a last resort, for a maximum of ten days and following medical advice. In practice, medical examinations are not always conducted. Confinement may continue without any real possibility of appeal. Isolation cells (called ‘siloun’) are cramped (about 1m x 2m). They are entirely unfurnished and have a hole as a toilet. Prisoners are left in darkness with only a blanket. Two or three inmates are usually placed in there at the same time. The prison staff justify this by the need to prevent suicides.
Previously prisoners sentenced to death were kept permanently chained. This practice was abolished in 2011.
Fetters and handcuffs are still used during judicial and medical transfers.