A cell for every citizen: 8 new prisons built in Egypt

The Egyptian Minister of Interior, Major General Mahmoud Tawfiq, has issued a decision to build eight new central prisons, bringing the number of prisons established since 2013 to about 40, which reflects the significant increase in the number of prisoners according to human rights estimates.

Types of Egyptian prisons

Prisons in Egypt are divided into five types, in which prisoners are distributed according to the type of sentences issued against them (aggravated prison – prison – simple imprisonment).

The types of prisons in Egypt are defined according to the Prisons Organisation Law No. 396 of 1956, and they are as follows:

  1. Limans: where hard labour sentences are issued for men on death row.
  2. Public prisons: women sentenced to life or for aggravated assault, men sentenced to life or hard labour who are transferred from prisons for health reasons, reaching the age of 60 or for good behaviour, and those sentenced to imprisonment for a period of more than three months.
  3. Central prisons: for people sentenced to simple imprisonment or imprisonment with hard labour for a period not exceeding three months, and to people who are subject to physical coercion in the implementation of financial provisions.
  4. Private prisons: established by a decision of the president in which the categories of prisoners are to be placed therein, the manner of their treatment and the conditions of their release are specified.
  5. Any place specified by a decision of the Minister of Interior.

How many prisons are there in Egypt?

The number of limans and public prisons is 48. As for the central prisons, it is unclear how many there are, however, we have estimated that the approximate number is 170. This is in addition to hundreds of places of detention attached to police stations, criminal investigation departments or their branches, all of which are considered legal places of detention, and therefore fall within the definition of prisons.

In addition, there are “illegal” places of detention such as security forces’ camps and military prisons. The state does not admit that they are used to detain citizens, despite the numerous testimonies given by former detainees after their release.

Absent judicial oversight

The level of judicial supervision varies according to the type of prison. Public penitentiaries and prisons are affiliated to the Prisons Authority sector of the Ministry of Interior and are subject – albeit nominally – to full judicial supervision in accordance with the provisions of Articles 85 and 86 of the Prison Organisation Law.

As for central prisons and other places of detention attached to police stations, police points and others, which are determined by a decision of the Minister of Interior, the security directorates in the governorates report independently from the Prisons Authority, and the right to enter them to implement supervision is restricted to the Attorney General alone, or to whomever he delegates from among the public prosecutors, at least a Chief Prosecutor. Accordingly, a judge is not allowed to enter these places and inspect them, unlike what happens in the penitentiaries and public prisons.

Prisoners placed in prisons and public prisons enjoy – even in theory – rights stipulated by law. As for other prisons that are not affiliated with the Prisons Authority, the rights of prisoners are non-existent. For example, in theory, there is a minimum amount of food, clothing and living utensils allocated to prisoners in prisons affiliated with the Prisons Authority, which is provided from the budget of the authority, while prisons that are not affiliated with the Prisons Authority do not have a budget allocated for living in terms of food and clothing, and prisoners who are placed here depend entirely on what is provided to them by their families when they visit.

The law also requires the presence of at least one resident doctor in each public prison and liman, and this was not required in central prisons. Police stations do not have a doctor or medical equipment, and the Medical Department of the Prisons Authority has no connection with central prisons, police stations and other places of detention.

Prisons for all

The huge number of prisons of all kinds reflects what is confirmed by many human rights reports about the growing number of prisoners in Egypt. The Ministry of Interior refuses to disclose the number of prisoners in Egypt, claiming that it changes from day to day, with prisoners entering and leaving on a daily basis. However, it is certain that there are tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people, languishing in prisons, including about 65,000 political detainees.

Despite this expansion in the number of prisons, which the Ministry of Interior says is to reduce overcrowding in police stations, this did not happen. According to a report issued by Amnesty International last January, “hundreds of prisoners are crammed into overcrowded cells, with the average available space per prisoner floor being about 1.1 square metres, which is below the minimum recommended by experts, which is 3.4 square metres.”

In April 2020, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed “grave concern about prison overcrowding in Egypt and the risk of the rapid spread of COVID-19 among prisoners,” and called on Egypt to release “convicts of non-violent crimes and those in pretrial detention,” because “often the prisons and detention centres in Egypt are overcrowded, unsanitary and suffer from a lack of resources.

The increase in the number of prisons did not lead to an improvement in the quality of services provided to prisoners. Complaints are still received about the poor and insufficient food provided to prisoners, the dirty the cells, the lack of hygiene tools, and the absence of health care, which led to the death of dozens of prisoners.