By Asma and Tamjid
Aml found herself in prosecution at noon one day and 10 hours later, she was accused and transferred to the Central Prison. After she got her Master’s degree in IT from Dubai, Aml came back to Yemen and worked as a secretary in a money transfer company. Unfortunately, her boss accused her of embezzling 11 million YR. She was shocked when the police arrested her. The girl’s reputation was shattered when she entered prison and she prayed for her release as soon as possible. Prosecutors were unable finish the investigations in the same day, so they could not release her. At the same time, there weren’t additional prisons for women and she was forced to remain in the Central Prison.
“My suffering was exacerbated because of the unfair system in the Yemeni courts. They were supposed to finish the investigation before transferring me to the central prison and made me a criminal without evidence,” Aml said.
Unlike some families who abandon their daughters after entering prison and consider them shameful, Aml’s family supported her and hired a lawyer for her. But her family was poor and for every session in court they have to pay the lawyer 200,000 YR, so they stopped paying. In the absence of a lawyer, the court sentenced her to seven months in prison, forcing her to pay the 11 million YR. Now Aml is spending her fifth year in prison because no one can pay the amount of money on her behalf.
“To accuse a person in this country is easy, you just pay money to the officials and have a lawyer. The accused either pays millions of riyals or goes to prison,” Aml added.
Sifan al-Hujairi, the Director of the Central Prison, said there are no additional prisons for women so they are sent to the Central Prison. “I really hope to have additional prisons. I ask the Constitution Drafting Committee to include laws for female prisoners, including additional prisons. I hope the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) outputs to be real, not only wishes,” she said.
Women have always been forced to fight for their rights and to gain respect and freedom. In Yemen, this is especially true. Females, from their childhood on through their adult life, experience various violations of their rights – be it in the workplace, in their families, or in their married lives or as they pursue an education. However, those battling through such fights do, in fact, have a luxury that isn’t granted to a group of Yemeni women who stand separate and apart.
Women in prison are exposed to abuses and hardships, which are rarely spoken of outside their cell walls; all the more so since they are the forgotten in Yemen’s conservative and reserved society.
Women who leave prison find it hard to be accepted by their families, as well as by society, due to them being looked at as shameful. Najla al-Sani, the lawyer and director of the legal department for Yemeni Women’s Union in the Executive Office, said that family abandonment is a huge problem because it traps women in a life of crime.
“Some female prisoners enter the prison because of very simple charges, but in prison they recognize women who are professionals in crimes and prostitution cases, so they sympathize with them. When they leave, these professionals send them to another network to adopt them and employ them in other big crimes.”
Female prisoners also face many difficulties inside prison. According to al-Sani, the biggest problems facing women prisoners are strikes among judges and prosecutors, which can push back their sentences for months, since the sentences are only handed out once a month.
Al-Sani says that fortunately, female prisoners are safer in more developed prisons.
“Prison managers are striving to provide a better atmosphere for the prisoners and more organizations have become interested in women’s prisons. Before, it was not allowed for anyone to visit the prison so no one knew what was happening. But now, there is more control because researchers and NGOs can access prisons and notes can be taken.”
Mother prisoners have additional hardships. Sometimes they keep their children with them inside the prison because no one in their families agrees to raise them, while some families take the children and prevent the mother from seeing them. Aisha al-Mattari, a prisoner, said, “I entered prison while my baby was three years old and his older sister five years. I didn’t see them for three years because their father didn’t allow it.”
The number of crimes committed by women varies from one province to another. For example, murders are more common in Ibb, while Aden and Hodeida are dominated by issues like prostitution, wine, and drugs. In Sana’a, all kinds of crimes can be found. There are currently 75 female prisoners in Sana’a.
According to al-Hujairi, three months ago the number of female prisoners in the Central Prison in Sana’a was 100, but it decreased to 55 because most debts and payments were paid off.
Although some are in prison unluckily, others have chosen to live there for their entire lives because there is no one to receive them on the outside. Samira, a prisoner, said that she put drugs in her own bag and wanted to the police to claim that she uses drugs. “I did it because my husband divorced me while I was pregnant and I have no money to eat and no place to live, so the prison was the only solution.”
The Yemeni Women’s Union plays a significant role for these women, such as through Al-Weam House, which houses female prisoners and rehabilitates women who were abandoned by their parents.
A report by Col. Abdullah Abdul-Karim al-Hakim called Addressing Prison Conditions In Light Of The National Dialogue Outputs revealed that prisons in Yemen are bitter reality as a result of the difficulties and obstacles in different fields, which have led violated rights of prisoners of both genders.
Prisoners suffer from the weakness of organization and administration of central reformism where policies and goals aren’t implemented well. There are no lists or decisions to organize work in prisons and most staff aren’t qualified. There is an absence of specialized cadres in the fields of health, education, and social welfare, and guards only know the language of violence.
Because of underfunding, prisoners lack the necessities of life such as enough cells for all the prisoners, nurseries in women’s prisons, sewage systems in 50% of prisons, and halls for eating. There is also a failure to provide a lot of personal thing such as cleaning tools, water, and suitable rooms for sleeping.
Al-Hakim confirmed that prisoners suffer from bad health because of the lack of health care facilities in 40% of prisons, the decline in funds for health care to 7 dollars per prisoner every year, an absence of medical equipment and disease prevention programs in most prisons, a lack of isolated places in prisons for those with chronic diseases and the elderly, and no care for psychiatric and mental illnesses.
Despite prison being considered a place to rehabilitate prisoners in order to incorporate them into the community after serving their sentence, there are no programs for teaching and training, except some sewing factories at women’s prisons sponsored by some feminist organizations such as the Yemeni Women’s Union.
The most prominent problem in prisons today is the lack of a registry system for prisoners. There isn’t any legal classification for prisoners according to age or seriousness of crime. The only classification is the separation of males and females, which has led to prisons to go from being a place of reform and refinement to a place for hatred and vindictiveness.
Sociologist Samar Najeep says that prison should not be seen as just a cell for punishment. Rather, it should be a platform for correcting someone’s life path and balancing their future.
“I wonder if the lives and futures of some prisoners stop when entering prison, not because they are afraid of it, but because society is afraid, and then they become a prisoner of their own suspicions, doubts, and bleak future.”
Al-Hakim suggested some recommendations that can develop the situation of the prisons in Yemen, such as the application of laws to make them consistent with the conventions, treaties and international covenants on human rights, building modern prisons in Sana’a and Aden on the basis of modern science, and accommodating international standards for the treatment of prisoners and building centers for women and minors outside the walls of prison.