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“A prison within a prison”

Gaza, Palestine - 10/07/2015: Umm Ahmed, a prison officer and social worker checks on the inmates at the Reform and Rehabilitation Centre for Women. The inmate numbers vary from 40-70 as the officers try to solve issues by communicating between the arrested parties before the cases reach the court.

“With entry and exit tightly controlled by Israel, Gaza is often referred to as an ‘open air prison’. Situated inside the Strip’s largest jail is the ‘Reform and Rehabilitation Centre for Women’ – a prison, within a prison, within a prison. I’ve spent time documenting life in a number of British institutions, but nothing prepared me for this. At first the penal centre seemed more like a girl’s boarding school, albeit one soundtracked by the clanging of tin cups on steel bars at night. I witnessed a level of compassion between the inmates and the guards that I wasn’t expecting, and the more time I spent there, the more I realised you couldn’t compare it with prisons in the West – the crimes people are serving time for and the environment are so different.

The prison is run by Hamas – a terrorist organization according to Israel and the United States, but a key part of Palestine’s unity government. Since the closing of many of the tunnels to Egypt in 2013, the Palestinian government has suffered financially, a situation made worse by the flooding of the few remaining tunnels between Gaza and Sinai in September 2015. Public sector employees, including prison officers, have not been paid their proper salaries for a year and a half. The dozen or so officers at the prison instead receive a token 1,000 shekels (£170) every three months.”

“Before 2007 there was no women’s prison, and female offenders would be held in police stations for years. Amal Nofal (above, seated behind desk), the head of the Reform and Rehabilitation Centre for Women, says it’s important not to simply label it as a prison: the key focus for her and her team is on helping the women retake their place in conservative Palestinian society after their release. ‘I hope this place will be empty one day,’ Nofal told me. The same spirit of determination has led to each of Nofal’s officers voluntarily taking on extra work despite receiving no salary. Everyone has two jobs – their official role and a ‘humanitarian’ one aimed at helping to rehabilitate prisoners.”

“Each room in the prison contains eight bunk beds. The majority of prisoners are aged between 20 and 40 and most have been convicted of “moral crimes”. A moral crime can be anything from taking banned painkillers to prostitution, but everyone I met who had been convicted of a moral crime was there for being with a man behind closed doors and out of wedlock. Men and women can be arrested for the same crime and sometimes they are made to marry in return for a reduction in their sentence. The family disapproval can be as damaging as imprisonment. ‘Palestinian society is very conservative, and it is a huge shame for a woman to go to prison,’ Nofal told me. One prisoner I met, Fahima, is serving four years for a moral crime. Fahima could be freed but as her father currently rejects her and refuses to pay the 3,000 shekel fine, she will remain inside unless he changes his mind. ‘Life is not beautiful, it is a prison,’ she said to me. ‘I want my family back and to accept me, and to continue my studies. I want to leave this place.’”

“What really struck me is the incredible pride the women working in the prison take in everything they do. There is little recognition, almost no money – but they go beyond the call of duty time and time again. When a prisoner leaves, Nofal takes a personal interest in ensuring they do not come back. She calls them, mediates with families; she even helped one ostracised woman set up a grocery to support herself. Some prisoners come back as volunteers.”

“The lady in black is a former convict who willingly comes back to teach the inmates how to make bags and other textiles. The guards sell them and all the money goes directly to the inmates. The commitment of the team isn’t confined to the prison walls. They want to help prisoners re-integrate on their release. ‘We are suffering, everyone is suffering in the Gaza Strip,’ Nofal told me. ‘Despite that, we will never stop. These prisoners are guilty but they are the daughters of our society, and tomorrow they will be mothers in our society, and one day they will be grandmothers. We stand behind them and we will never give up.’”

“I spent Ramadan in the prison. The holy month involves fasting all day and the families of the prisoners are invited to join them for Iftar, the breaking of the fast at sunset. The outside yard fills up with male prisoners and their families and has the feel of a picnic in a park. Inside, meanwhile, female prisoners have Iftar in a room used as both a mosque and a courtroom, with a large metal cage in the corner used to detain prisoners (see top photo). Only two families made it to join the inmates during Ramadan, and 80 percent of the prisoners will receive no visitors at all during their entire incarceration. Families either do not want, or can’t afford to see them. ‘I wish that the country had an ability to help these kind of people because these women are powerful, and they deserve help,’ Nofal told me. ‘Everyone can do something wrong. We are all human. We are not angels.’”

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