After he was sentenced to one year in prison and a fine for smoking cannabis, 26 year-old Mohamed Ali was released from the Mornaguia Prison in Tunis before finishing his term— he benefitted from a presidential amnesty.

“The news was like winning in the lottery,” he said. Ali had been fortunate enough to be released from the largest “hell-like” prison in the country, known for its overcrowding, spread of diseases, violence and even sexual abuse.

From his first day in prison, Mohamed was forced to sleep on the floor on a blanket in the corridor leading to the toilet, as there were not enough beds and mattresses. It took him 15 days to get a bed.

“The rooms were packed with inmates,” Ali remembered. “I only managed to get a bed after I promised to give an inmate a pack of cigarettes every week in exchange for his bed.”

Although the cell in which Mohamed was imprisoned was only 40 square meters, it included 150 inmates. Its damaged walls, due to humidity, were home to spiders and different kinds of insects. He sometimes felt sick from the toilets’ bad odors. “I used to squeeze myself to avoid going to the toilet,” he said.

To take a bath, he waited for hours. “Some prisoners used to spend a long time in the bathroom to masturbate. It was obvious because of the sounds they made.”

Fighting and skirmishes

Many quarrels and skirmishes happen among inmates due to regional sensitivities, sport fanaticism, sharing drugs and sometimes sexual abuse.

Although wardens are appointed by the prisons’ administrations to maintain order, they often distance themselves from conflict to avoid being injured or they keep silent after accepting bribes.

Mohamed recalls one night when he heard an inmate screaming and appealing to others to leave him alone as they attempted to rape him. The wardens did not intervene “until silence fell gradually,” Ali said.

After six months Ali was saved by presidential amnesty. Ironically, Ali still uses cannabis to forget his painful experience.

Deteriorated infrastructure

Ali’s story is backed up by reports of local human rights organizations and international NGOs. Even the Tunisian authorities have admitted to the poor conditions in Tunisia’s penal institutions.

The most prominent problem lies in the prions’ infrastructures. They were not originally intended to be prisons according to applicable standards. They used to be military complexes during the French occupation, factories, old buildings, or stables.

The Tunisian prisons’ overcrowding became the main concern of human rights organisations that stipulate that a prison should not host more than 1,500 prisoners compared to about 6,000 prisoners in the Mornaguia Prison.

Munzer El-Sharni, the General Secretary of the Tunisian Organization Against Torture, says that the prisons’ budget is only 50 million Tunisian Dinar (20 million USD) “which is not enough at all to meet basic needs like health and food.”

“Based on international standards, a prisoner needs 4-6 square meters. However, the Tunisian prisons only provide each prisoner with 2.5 square meters, which causes tensions among prisoners and facilitates the spreading of communicable diseases,” he added.