Experience our photographers’ unique views on detention by browsing the picture gallery below. These photographers have generously shared their portfolios with us.
Cinema in prison
"Even if they are deprived of freedom, they are not deprived of their rights. This is also a means of showing them that they are not cut off.”
A first in Tunisia. About 100 inmates from the Mahdia prison made up the audience of the Egyptian film Out of the Ordinary, produced by Daoud Abdel Sayed. In this new annex of the prison, soon to be dedicated to rehabilitation activities, the excitement was palpable.
During the 2015 Carthage Film Festival from November 21 to 28, four Tunisian prisons, including Mahdia and Borj Erroumi (Bizerte), were selected to host film projections.
At the end of the projection at Borj Erroumi, abundant questions and reactions poured out from the 200 inmates. Egyptian actor Khaled Naga saw it as an opportunity to discuss the values upheld in his film, like living collectively and mutual respect, despite differences.
Through this initiative, carried out by the JCC and World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), more than 500 prisoners were able to escape their day-to-day prison life. But going beyond this temporary distraction, the initiative sought to open a debate on incarceration in Tunisia. In fact, for Emtyez Bellali, head of the awareness programme at the OMCT, “the prisoners are also Tunisian citizens and, as such, have the right to feel this way. Even if they are deprived of freedom, they are not deprived of their rights. This is also a means of showing them that they are not cut off.”
Hidden at the back of the projection room, Mahdi (name changed) put the finishing touches on his portrait of actor Khaled Abol Naga, painted for the occasion. He had been there for four years and still had three more to go before getting out. “Today, I have all the time in the world to paint in prison,” Mahdi explained. “Even though I know it will be difficult to find a job after prison, I dream of being able to open my own painting workshop when I get out.”
After he personally gave his painting to the actor, cameras rushed to Mahdi for an interview. It was the chance to highlight his work, and his minute of fame rang like a taste of freedom in the face of his daily detention.
- Augustin Le Gall
"There are major challenges; however, there is as much a will to change the situation within the government as in civil society itself."
The context in Tunisia
Between 1987 and 2011, when Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was in power in Tunisia, crackdowns, arbitrary arrests, torture, mistreatment, and harassment were frequent and regular occurrences. The regime governed through terror despite the good external image that the country wanted to maintain at the time. No civil society organisation had the right to access any detention centre during this period.
The fall of the authoritarian regime in 2011 and the establishment of a national constituent assembly lead to an evolution of the situation. Civil society in Tunisia could now enter prisons, to some extent, and this lead to an awareness of the alarming conditions in prisons and other detention centres.
A report put together by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights1 (OHCHR) brought photographic proof of the real state of affairs in Tunisian prisons. Overpopulation can reach 150% of the holding capacity of establishments, which are dilapidated centres that were built in the 1950s.
Available space per inmate in prisons has been declining in recent years, according to the organisation Lawyers Without Borders2; from 2m² per inmate in 2012 to 1.41m² in 2014 and then to 2.1m² in 20163, which is still considerably far from international norms that recommend 4m².
4:Information from the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices issued by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Affairs (the United States Department of State), 2016.
5:Lawyers Without Borders, Detention in Tunisia: Sanctions Beyond the Deprivation of Freedom, March 2015. Détention en Tunisie : des sanctions au-delà de la privation de liberté.
“Such overpopulation and establishments in poor condition are often the cause of deterioration in the health of inmates,” explained Mazen Chaquoura from the Tunis Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Prisoners suffer from resulting social and psychological consequences after their liberation. There is little initiative to help former inmates reintegrate into society. Having been imprisoned results in them being perceived negatively by society and sometimes even within their close entourage. Prisoners eventually find solidarity with former fellow inmates or in criminal or extremist networks.
There are major challenges; however, there is as much a will to change the situation within the government as in civil society itself. In January 2017, the Minister of Justice, Ghazi Jeribi, sounded the alarm on these catastrophic prison conditions.
He affirmed the desire to repair dilapidated prisons and increase the holding capacity of certain others.
Different initiatives are also seeing the light of day. This report presents one example, getting into the heart of a major cultural event in Tunisia that provides hope with the help and support of civil society. It breathes ‘escape’ to the inmates. And perhaps, just as important, the feeling that they have not been forgotten.
6:Tunis Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, The Prison Situation in Tunisia, International Standards Versus Reality, March 2014. La situation des prisons en Tunisie entre les standards internationaux et la réalité.
Augustin Le Gall
Augustin Le Gall
Augustin Le Gall lives and works between France and Tunisia. His work focuses on documentary and narrative photography, in which the portrait-report is central. He collaborates mainly with the international press, non-governmental organisations, and international institutions. He has been part of the Haytham Pictures agency (France) since 2013.
With a keen interest in the Mediterranean area, humans and their habits are at the core of his work. He considers his photography to be about collective memory and identity constructions, notably in the context of traumatic experiences with a long-term perspective.
His work has been showcased regularly, especially at the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations (MuCEM) in Marseille, the Islamic Culture Institute in Paris, the Amnesty International headquarters in London, Amnesty International Canada in Montreal, the film festival and International Forum for Human Rights in Geneva (2015) and in Paris (2016), the national library in Tunis, and the French Institute in Tunisia.