Baghdad prison life: Pay or get in the hole

Baghdad prison life: Pay or get in the hole
Feature: Prisoners allege guards force families to pay thousands of dollars to keep them out of solitary confinement, or pay backhanders through elaborate schemes for access to medicine.
4 min read
16 February, 2015
The Baghdad Centre for Human Rights said prisoners are bullied to pay [AFP]

Alwan Karim al-Sheikhly had not heard from his son for a year, but the joy he felt on receiving a call from a Baghdad prison did not last long.

Sheikhly's son was begging him to pay $1,000 to the prison administration to stop them punishing him, as they had other inmates who refused.

Sheikhly told al-Araby al-Jadeed that his son was told to ask his family to put the money in an envelope with the prisoner's name on it, and deliver it to a contact at the main gate.

Abu Alaa's family have a similar story. Their caller was their son's cellmate, who told them that he was spending his third day in solitary confinement because he refused to ask his family for $1,000.

"My son preferred to serve his brutal punishment in a cold and damp solitary cell than to make me borrow or ask for money from our relatives," his father said. "He knows very well how our family was financially, with two old parents and six children, four of whom still go to school, all barely making ends meet using the father's pension of 450,000 Dinars ($350)," Hayali told al-Araby.

$1,000 to stay out of solitary

The administration of the al-Adalah II prison in Kadhimiyah, north of Baghdad, justifies requests for money by saying it needs it for renovations, fixtures and fittings, and providing chronically ill prisoners with medicine.

went to the Baghdad Centre for Human Rights, which specialises in documenting violations in Iraqi prison and is known for its impartiality.

In its statement, the centre said some prisoners refused to call their families for money, as most were desperately poor. They also feared their families might be killed or abducted upon arrival at the prison when they delivered the money.

Among the violations documented by the centre was the managers of al-Adalah II prison putting prisoners, many of whom were old or sick, in dark and cold solitary cells if they refused to pay.

The centre called on parliament to investigate the scheme.

Toping up your salary

Salah Hussein al-Jabouri told al-Araby of an elaborate bribery scheme at al-Rasafa prison in Baghdad, where guards would use the cover of mobile phone top-up cards extort cash from inmates' families.

Guards would tell an inmate to call those on the outside to tell them to buy the top-up cards, which would then be bought back by the shop at a lesser price, and the difference split between the guards and the shop. The benefit for inmates? They would be treated better by the guards, and would have access to better goods, such as medication and food.

Bilal al-Majmaei, who was recently released from prison, said that such goods are often available but sold at five times the market price. Prices are even higher for medicines.

Majmaei says the highest price of all is that of the "first call", which is a service offered to new prisoners, whose families do not know where they are. It is usually allowed no less than a month after their arrest, and that is to ensure the families' willingness to pay whatever it takes to make sure their sons are safe.

     Goods are often available but sold at five times the market price. Prices are even higher for medicines.

Majmaei told al-Araby that the family of a young man in his mid-twenties paid $600 for a phone call that lasted less than a minute and a half. The call was made from the mobile phone of a prison guard who worked in the 5th division of al-Rasafa prison. He later received the payment in a public place, at the farmers' market in al-Dawra, south of Baghdad.

The law is the law

Legal expert Akram Farhad al-Jaf said that collecting money from prisoners was against the law. Article Four of the prisoners' correction law approved by parliament last year states that all the prisoner's belongings, including money, must be returned to him upon his release.

The justice ministry's corrections department is obliged to provide healthy living conditions for prisoners, such as cleanliness, air conditioning, ventilation, lighting, and free medical care, Jaf added.

The department must also cooperate with the ministry of health to determine the quantity, quality and diversity of food for prisoners.

Prisoners are also entitled to access to television and radio, libraries and writing materials to correspond with those on the outside, he said.

Solitary confinement is admissable only if a prisoner strongly violated prison rules or committed a hostile act against other prisoners or employees, and only for a set time, he said.

Nothing to see here

A justice ministry media office source, who refused to be named, told al-Araby that employees assigned to monitor the performance of prisons had not seen one case of collecting money from prisoners.

The source called anyone with a complaint to submit it to the ministry's office of inspections, who would investigate the claim and prosecute those involved.

For Alwan al-Sheikhly, the father of a prisoner given the choice of paying protection money, those are hollow words. A complaint would be useless, he says, because those behind the scheme have the authority to close any investigation launched.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.