The Ministry of Interior-organised tour of the newly-constructed Wadi Al-Natroun Correctional and Rehabilitation Centre showcased an institution that the ministry says “meets the highest international standards of human rights” and is “one of the largest rehabilitation and correctional centres in the world”.
The centre marks a major step towards the adoption of a penal system that promotes rehabilitation programmes which will allow inmates to reintegrate into society after serving their sentences, said the ministry.
Wadi Al-Natroun Centre will eventually replace 12 existing prisons — 25 per cent of the total number of prison facilities in Egypt. According to a video released by the Interior Ministry, the new facility will use “comprehensive psychological evaluation of inmates to create an appropriate environment to address the causes of their crimes”.
The new facility is geared towards offering prisoners a second chance by respecting their rights, and providing them with the means to reform their behaviour and re-engage productively in society following their release.
Jail terms should not focus “exclusively on punishment but also furnish opportunities to learn correct behaviour” extolled the video.
Alaa Shalabi, head of the Arab Organisation for Human Rights (AOHR), hailed the centre as a milestone in the development of Egypt’s penal policy. He told Al-Ahram Weekly the trend towards a more enlightened penal system began in 2014 with presidential decrees establishing facilities dedicated to those being held in pre-trial detention, and the development of regulations addressing emergency health problems in police stations. It then expanded to include the release of prisoners, either via presidential pardon or with conditions attached, so as to reduce overcrowding.
National Council of Human Rights (NCHR) member George Ishak, while welcoming the centre, said it was too early to determine its impact.
“We will have to wait and see how it really functions,” Ishak told the Weekly, emphasising that everything will depend on how prisoners are treated.
The veteran human rights and political activist pointed out that prison officers will need to be trained in the new approaches demanded by the system.
The Interior Ministry revealed that the new complex includes six fully ventilated and day-lit hubs, each with recreation rooms where TV screens will show cultural, sports, and light entertainment programmes. Areas will be dedicated for worship, alongside workshops and dining halls, and accommodation adapted for disabled detainees. The facility also incorporates a library, classrooms, sporting facilities, and waiting rooms for visitors.
The centre will also incorporate an industrial zone with metal and wood furniture manufacturing plants.
“The rehabilitation of inmates, preparing them for reintegration into society after serving their sentences, starts by fostering the feeling they are productive individuals,” said the video.
President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi announced in September that Egypt was preparing to inaugurate the largest prison complex in the country, the first of seven or eight American-style complexes Egypt planned to build.
“That the Wadi Al-Natroun centre effectively replaces 12 of Egypt’s 47 prisons facilitates the move towards reform and the adoption of an approach based on rehabilitation and re-integration into society,” says Shalabi.
The new facility also includes eight court rooms so inmates will no longer need to be transported to courts elsewhere to face trail. The presence of court rooms on site will also facilitate appeal procedures.
Wadi Al-Natroun Correctional and Rehabilitation Centre includes a fully equipped central hospital with well-trained medical staff, a central pharmacy, laboratories, a dialysis unit, specialised clinics, and a counselling centre, supervised by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, for inmates with AIDS and addiction issues.
A month ago, President Al-Sisi launched the National Strategy for Human Rights. The strategy will run until 2026 and addresses civil and political rights; economic, social, and cultural rights; the rights of marginalised groups, such as women, children, and disabled people, and includes human rights education and capacity building.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 November, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly