12 angry inmates take stage in therapeutic prison drama

February 5th, 2009 - 9:50 am ICT by IANS  

Roumieh (Lebanon), Feb 5 (DPA) Drama therapy is common in jails in Europe, but the technique was first introduced to inmates in Lebanon by a Lebanese director who volunteered to help prisoners express themselves and communicate with others.Zeina Dakkash, a Lebanese comic actress and director, introduced what she described as a “pilot project” to Lebanese prisons and took Roumieh central jail, 20 km north-east of Beirut, as her first location this year.

Dakkash, 30, better known in Lebanon by her stage name Izzo, started her career in theatre in 1997. She also serves as executive director of Catharsis, a Lebanese centre for drama therapy, which was founded in 2007 and is financed by the European Union through a Lebanese government agency.

Dakkash has been working for the last year with 45 prisoners inside Roumieh jail to fulfill her long-standing dream.

“The project was a challenge for me, and I enjoyed every minute of it,” she said. “The challenge was that I saw those inmates enjoying that they were able to express themselves freely.”

With a cast of Roumieh jail inmates, some of whom are serving life sentences, Dakkash is working on the play “Twelve Angry Men” by US film and television writer Reginald Rose.

The play is about 12 jurors who are deliberating the verdict in a murder trial. Having heard the evidence presented in court, 11 jurors vote for conviction, each with his own reasons, but a single holdout juror eventually makes the others rethink their judgements.

Dakkash said that she chose the play because she saw “anger in the eyes of the inmates” when she was first introduced to them a year ago.

“I believe that our prisons lack rehabilitation, and drama therapy is the best way to rehabilitate people,” she said. “We do not want them to leave the jail as criminals, as well.”

Rehearsals for the play are on schedule, and the opening performance will be Saturday, Dakkash said.

“The opening will be only for officials and prison wardens,” she said. “Then we will send out invitations to everybody willing to see our work.”

The venue for the play will be Roumieh jail, which in April was the site of a mutiny by prisoners who protested their poor living conditions.

During the revolt, journalists were allowed inside the prison.

Sticking their heads through the broken glass of their cell windows overlooking the prison courtyard where Lebanese security forces were on alert, some inmates shouted: “We are 10 in a small cell that can only hold two small animals.”

Lebanese officials and legislators have recently criticised what they described as “inhuman conditions of confinement” and “degrading and discriminatory treatment” in most Lebanese prisons.

A former member of the Parliamentary Health Committee, Atef Madalani, said that current conditions inside Lebanese penitentiaries must improve.

“Lebanon is a country that has a human-rights code in its constitution and was a major participant in creating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” he said.

According to an inmate who spent five years in Roumieh jail, speaking on condition of anonymity, the prison cells are “very dark, overcrowded and stinky” because of bad ventilation.

He alleged that medical services were very poor: “While I was in prison, we had to go on hunger strike to obtain the right medical care.”

Through Dakkash’s drama therapy, inmates like Youssef, a convicted killer serving a life sentence in Roumieh prison, will be able to vent their anger and send a message through to the outside world.

“I am enjoying every minute of this, because I was angry when we first started,” he said. “Although we are prisoners, we have rights like the rest of the world. We have done wrong and we are being punished for it, but we still have some rights.”

“The play reflects our situation as prisoners serving death sentences,” said

Youssef was first sentenced to death, but his punishment was commuted for good behavior to life imprisonment.

“We are killing time, and we are learning how to fight our depression and boredom through such therapy,” he said. “I used to spend most of the time in my cell and did not want to get out because of my despair. But Dakkash helped me express myself and brought hope back to my heart.”

She said that her mission was not easy, because working with the inmates was a difficult task at first.

“Today I feel that I managed to make them feel they are humans again,” Dakkash said, “and that life inside their cells is not so bad after all.”

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