The prison population in Tunisia in December 2016 was 23,553 in a country of 11 million inhabitants. The rate of imprisonment is 206. The number of detainees has remained broadly stable since 1996, varying from 21,000 to 26,000 with a peak of 31,000 during the uprising of December 2010-January 2011.
The Tunisian authorities have not published prison occupation rates since November 2013. At that time they stood at 138.9%. It is below 100% in women’s prisons.
Overcrowding is assessed by the number of beds, not by the space available per inmate. In many prisons the number of inmates is double the capacity of the number of beds.
The occupation rate at Mornaguia Prison (Tunis), for example, is 125.6%. In 2014 it held 6,308 prisoners for 5,021 beds. 1
In theory prisoners on remand and those convicted should be separated. In practice this does not happen for lack of infrastructure.
Mornag Prison usually holds 950 inmates, almost all on remand, in its 400 places. Only about 20 have been sentenced and they fulfil communal tasks such as cooking and cleaning.
Mornaguia is divided into different blocks. Prisoners on remand and those sentenced are separated from “terrorists”, “VIPs”, the sick and homosexuals. About a quarter of inmates have been sentenced for drugs-related offences (under “Law 52”) for which the minimum sentence is a year’s imprisonment for consumption. Short sentences (between one week and six months) are handed down for offences like issuing unpaid cheques, public drunkenness or selling alcohol without a licence. According to Lawyers Without Borders (link in French), ‘three out of four prisoners are detained on suspicion of or conviction for minor offences : theft (31%), drug consumption or dealing (26%) and other minor offences (17%) in particular dishonoured cheques’.
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights - Office of Tunisia, “La situation des prisons en Tunisie, entre les standards internationaux et la réalité” (link in French), 2014, p.17. ↩
In December 2016 there were 661 women in prison, representing 2.8% of the prison population. The most common offences in March 2014 were theft (22%), drug-related offences (19%), adultery and prostitution (18%). 1
Tunisia has been a signatory to the UN Bangkok Rules since 2011. Restrictions on their application were lifted in 2014.
Men and women are strictly separated. The staff in women’s prisons is exclusively female.
There is only one women’s prison: Manouba Prison near Tunis. Eight other institutions contain wings specifically for women.
Women’s facilities have a lower rate of occupation than men’s and women are held in dormitories of about forty. In 2015 Manouba Prison held 416 women for its 453 places. 2
A law of 2008 entitles pregnant women prisoners and nursing mothers to be held in special units. Supervision must be provided by non-uniformed staff 3. Infants accompanying their mothers or born in detention may remain in the unit up to a maximum age of two. Manouba Prison has an area specially equipped to take care of young children. The NGO Penal Reform International carried out refurbishment work at this nursery in 2016.
Penal Reform International, “Who are women prisoners? Survey results from Jordan and Tunisia”, 2014, p. 26. ↩
OMCT Tunisie, “Rapport relatif à la mise en œuvre d’un dispositif de réclamations dans les prisons de Tunisie” (link in French), 2015, p. 7. ↩
The Ministry of Justice is in charge of the legal system for minors. Juvenile detention centres are subject to the Directorate General for Prisons and Rehabilitation (Direction Générale des Prisons et de la Réhabilitation, (DGPR) which, since 2001, also comes under the Ministry of Justice.
Separation of minors and adults is rigorously applied.
Minors are held in rehabilitation centres for young offenders. In 2017 there are seven of these in Tunisia. Conditions are less unsatisfactory than in adult institutions. There are serious shortcomings in hygiene and basic facilities. Professional training programmes are anticipated.
Number of specific institutions for juveniles/minors
Foreign nationals are treated no differently from Tunisian detainees. They are held in the same blocks.
Conditions for foreign detainees differ greatly depending on whether or not they have consular support. Citizens of Western countries (Europe, USA etc.) may receive visits by consular officials, prison visitors and chaplains. Those without consular support suffer greatly from isolation. They are often natives of sub-Saharan Africa. Black detainees, both foreign and Tunisian, are frequently victims of racism and discrimination in Tunisia.
Those without permission to remain in the country are held in remand centres run by the Interior Ministry or in police custody, especially at airports, pending their expulsion.
Holders of dual nationality are considered to be Tunisian in Tunisian territory.
Ethnic or religious minorities
Islam is the majority religion in Tunisia. Christian and Jewish detainees may request spiritual support from outside in order to practise their religion.
Homosexuality is a criminal offence under Article 230 of the Criminal Code.
It is heavily condemned in Tunisia. Those identified as homosexual, transsexual or transgender may be held together for their own protection. There is a special dormitory for them in Mornaguia Prison.
This is not always sufficient to protect them from verbal and physical abuse by guards and other prisoners. 1
Tunisian Coalition for the Rights of LGBTQI People, “Rapport sur la situation des personnes LGBTQI en Tunisie” (link in French), May 2017, p. 17. ↩
Prisoners of conscience
Tunisian law does not recognize the status of political prisoners.
The charge of belonging to a terrorist group has been used in recent years to arrest political activists (link in French). References to offences under the criminal code such as breach of accepted standards of behaviour’, ‘infringement of public morality’ or ‘offence against decency’ have also provided grounds for arrests, particularly of journalists or artists. Journalists (link in French) have also been prosecuted under the Military Criminal Code. The blogger Yassine Ayari (link in French) was sentenced to six months imprisonment in 2015 for “damaging the honour of the army”.
Political prisoners are not necessarily kept apart from common law prisoners.
Those who have held political office or important posts in government are detained in so-called VIP quarters.
Those charged with terrorist offences undergo especially severe conditions in detention. They may be held together in specific units or on the other hand mixed with other detainees. According to one former prisoner: “Those arrested for terrorism are in a place on their own. Prison staff can do whatever they like with them. Anything goes.”1
The prison authorities do not separate inmates by age. The sick or those requiring assistance do receive some relief in their conditions of detention in certain institutions such as Mornaguia Prison.
The sick and the disabled
Absence of criminal responsibility because of mental illness is recognized in Tunisian law. Those accepted as lacking criminal responsibility are held in the secure unit of Mannouba Hospital.
The presence of mentally-ill patients in Tunisian prisons is not a problem that is publicly acknowledged. Prison staff acknowledge problems relating to mental health: suicides and attempted suicides, hunger strikes and self-harming. Psychiatric care is seriously inadequate. According to a 2012 study by the French NGO Together Against the Death Penalty (Ensemble Contre la Peine de Mort, (ECPM)) (link in French), treatment for prisoners awaiting death sentences consists of a “chemical straitjacket” of psychotropic drugs.