In an exclusive interview with EDAC

A former prisoner talks about life in Al-Wathba prison

9 Nov 2021
A former prisoner talks about life in Al-Wathba prison

The voices complaining about the poor conditions in which male and female prisoners live in the notorious Al-Wathba prison are not ceasing. The latest of these voices were those of detainees of conscience Amina Al-Abdouli and Maryam Al-Balushi, who were heard by the human rights community after exposing the suffering in UAE prisons.

Despite the large number of reports that observed the inhumane conditions inside the prison and exposed the many and varied violations committed by prison guards and officers against male and female prisoners in Al-Wathba Prison, the most recent was the Emirates Detainees Advocacy Centre (EDAC) report titled: "Al-Wathba Prison: This is How Detainees Live in The Country of Tolerance & Prosperity". However, despite their accuracy and objectivity, these reports remain only a drop in the ocean of life in prison, which human rights reports describe as "a life in hell".

Perhaps a prisoner who has spent his sentence within the walls of the prison and suffered as much as other prisoners can best describe to the reader what life is like inside Al-Wathba prison, from the moment he enters it to the moment he leaves.

Nada - a pseudonym - is an Italian prisoner who has spent more than two years in Al-Wathba prison. She met the detainees of conscience in Al-Wathba Prison, Amina Al-Abdouli and Maryam Al-Balushi, and describes their suffering in prison and the violations they face, as well as the fact that they are not even allowed to buy clothes like others.

EDAC conducted an interview with her and she spoke about the prison from the moment she entered it and the degrading inspection methods used against female prisoners. She described the most precise details of life there and the components of the meals prisoners receive. Given the accuracy Nada enjoys in her description and the amount of information she mentioned about the prison, we found that publishing this interview in full will document the conditions in Emirati prisons, and here is the text of the interview:

First of all, tell us about yourself , what is your name , and where are you from?

Assalamu Aleykum,

The fact that I've been in prison has been hidden from most of my family so I rather keep private my identity.  My name is Nada. I'm 42 years old I am an Italian

1. when did you come to Al Wathba prison? How long have you been in prison? any approximate date?

I was transferred from Al Awir to Al Wathba on July 2017. I was released on August 2019.  I've been 2 years in prison.

2.Is it true that prisoners are subjected to humiliating searches when they enter the prison? Can you explain what the search looks like?

Actually, it's true, but depends on the police that is on duty. It seems like there is no criteria of search routine.

In order to enter inside woman's prison, no matter if you come for first time, from Courts, from hospital, they will check our body. There are 2 rooms for this purpose.  One big empty room and one toilet used as storage area. It will be done by either a police woman or a security guard (Nepalese). The security guard sometimes will just touch with her hands (using gloves) all our body without taking out the uniform but most of the times we will be asked to take out the upper part first (getting fully exposed) and secondly to pull down the bottom part. They also check our head and down parts. Sometimes they will request to remove all the cloths out, so they can check also the uniform. Sometimes they also request to remove all the underwear.  If we are using a cotton pad, they will request to remove it and sometimes they will give us a new one. If they don't have, you need to wait until you are in your room to use the ones we own.

Whenever the search is conducted by a police, it will be done in the same way but they might ask you as well to pull down your underwear and do few squats.

I have to mention that I have heard many ladies complaining about police doing ‘deeper’ search, checking even their intimate body parts.

3. can you describe the inside of the dungeon? How many prisoners are in the cell... and how many people can live in such a room?

There are 15 rooms in each building (there are two), different sizes but all of them got 4 bunk beds, however as none of them got a stair to go up, only the down bed is occupied.

All rooms are organized by nationalities.

 When a group of inmates comes for first time, they will be allocated in a room. They will be provided with just blankets (there are no pillows no bedsheets) until next day (unless is weekend) when they will be taken for medical check. Then they will be reallocated to the room that they belong to. They will be given a mattress, bar soap, 5 cotton pads and small box of washing powder.

As all the bunk beds are taken for long term inmates, they will sleep on the floor.  It might be one year until you get a bed.

Each room has 1 WC and 1 shower, cement walls, all of them with mold.

As the rooms are organized by nationalities, you can find 20 Philippines nationals in one room that is designed for 8 people. Sleep and rest are quite difficult unless you get sleeping pills.

4.How did the prison guards treat the prisoners? (Good / Bad / Harsh), Are female inmates subjected to sexual harassment and beatings, can you give us a case?

The security guards normally treat the inmates with respect and in a nice way. Cannot say the same about police.  Some of them are really nice, but others really bad. I have seen some of them slapping inmates.  However whenever there was an issue in between inmates, the ones that are coming inside to put order are the police males. Those are much more aggressive, hitting women with no mercy.

There was that time that there was a fight in between African ladies. Those involved were taken to another building that they use for punishments. They will be handcuffed and they sleep on the floor without even a blanket. They stayed there for several days without even a bar soap. They returned back with bruises and bandages as they were hit, punched and kicked by police males.

5. What are the main violations in Al Wathba prison?

Human rights generally speaking.

We have no voice over there; we have no rights. Complaining is pointless.  What I could complain about? 

  • Abut 2 years not breathing fresh air? Not feeling the sun? There was a small area for drying clothes, that was the only place you could go and feel the warm of the sun.
  • Abut not being able to talk to my family for one week because someone from other building had a fight and all of us are punished?
  • Abut not being able to read the newspapers that I was paying for anymore because they found out that 2 ladies one of each building were sending each other 'love' letters and again we are all punished?
  • Abut not receiving lunch as we arrived late from courts?
  • Abut my trashed complaints about the male security guard that was coming inside the room while without knocking the door during the period I was in hospital?  Even I asked him t knock the door as sometimes my gown was removed while doctors and nurses were checking on me, he didn't care.

6, Have you seen the detainees of conscience Amina Al Abdouli, Maryam Al Balushi and Alia Abdel Nour? And what is their status? Were they beaten, humiliated or mistreated?

I personally spent quite a lot of time with Maryam and Amina. I met once Alia as she was in other building.

The last thing I hear about Maryam and Amina is that they were transferred to an unknown prison.

It took time until both of them felt confident enough to talk about their experience when they were both arrested.  In both cases they were beaten and humiliated. In fact both of them suffered the consequences of that. For instance, Maryam suffered from a kidney inflammation, really painful. I was there when she finally was taken to hospital. While doing the scanner, they told her that the size of the kidney was not normal, and that she needed a more deep study in order to give her the right treatment.  However when she was called days after at the prison' clinic, the doctor told her everything was fine. Maryam started complaining staying that they were not telling the truth so she won't receive treatment despite the pain she was suffering.

I was also witness of the Eid time when they were selling dresses for Local ladies at the sewing workshop.  All of them could buy except Maryam and Amina. Why? Just because, no reason.

Also for no reason they will suddenly request them to change their room, they will stop their phone card accounts, their supermarket accounts. They will conduct inspections only inside their room. They will punish the people who help them to get in touch with their family.

7. who is the worst officer you have ever seen in Al Wathba prison and why?

She is a Moroccan police woman, her name is Ruqaiya. She was the person in charge. She got a twisted mind. Instead taking care of the inmates, their needs, their requirements, she will spend more time gossiping with other inmates or making up stories so some of them get a punishment.

I been witnessed several times of the frustration of the officer who works at the library as she organised activities like zumba or schedules for borrowing books, sending the security guard to the main building asking a group of inmates to come over to the library and the security guard returned alone as Ruqaiya said that she was not allowing anyone to come just because she didn't want to, for no reason.

She also likes to show how differently she treats inmates, offering new cloths, slippers, etc to few people even if they have a room ( I have seen it) full of boxes of new clothes,  shoes, shampoo. I believe all are donations but they don't give to the people who has no money to buy.

8. can you tell us about the situation in the prison in terms of medical care, air conditioning, water, toilets, hygiene and food?

Medical care is quite poor. It's funny how they make you a medical test when you enter for first time, but myself I got a pulmonary infection while being there. It's supposed everyone is checked properly but seems that's not the case.

It was also the time that I complained to the nurse as I had chest pain for several days. It took almost one week until I got to the hospital and as result, I was taken to emergency and finally had 2 surgeries on my lung.

I have seen an inmate with a severe dental infection until the point that her face was that much swollen that you couldn't see her eyes. She didn't receive any medical attention.  One night she fainted in front of the police gate, and they just laughed about the lady while lying down in floor.  It was quite frustrating.

Air conditioning is also an issue, it fails very often, sometimes for several days. So many times, people cannot sleep or stay inside the room, sneaking out of the room in order to rest for few hours.

Not always there is hot water, just whenever is really really hot outside.

The flush of the WC doesn't work in any toilet so we need to use the only bucket we have in a room, the same that we use to wash our clothes. So, we cannot soak the cloths for more than 10 minutes.

The hygienic conditions are zero, as we need to clean the room and toilet with the washing powder that we buy at the supermarket.  Sometimes they might give us 1 whenever they request us to do a general cleaning. Once in a while we need to get everything outside the room and wash beds and walls.

Food variety is quite poor. It doesn't change, Sunday to Saturday the same.

Breakfast will be for instance Sunday bread with butter and marmalade, Monday bread with beans, other day sweet paste, cannot remember, never woke up 5am to get it as normally the African ladies will go several times to the queue and many people that didn't want to get into any fight won't get breakfast as there was no police to put order.

As for launch it will be fried chicken three times per week, rice with sauce chicken three times per week,  fish with rice once in a week. One piece of fruit every day (banana, orange or apple) and 3 dates 4 days per week. Twice per week (Labnah).

Dinners will be fried chicken with bread, bread with vegs, bread with beans, bread with chickpeas.

The portions are small in general.  Sometimes there is no food for everyone even if we told the police they do nothing so sometimes we had to eat the biscuits we buy at the supermarket.

9. what is the worst situation you have experienced in prison?

Those times when are fights it's really scary. The police doesn't get involved which give a feeling of no protection at all. They will wait until it's over and just then they will enter inside. You don't have to get involved in a fight in order to get injured.

One time one lady made kind of knife with metal. For no reason she run after other inmates, there was chaos. You could hear people screaming. It was really scary. Finally she cut her wrists, you could smell the blood.She was taken to hospital.

10. it is assumed that the prison is a correctional facility. Did you feel that Al Wathba prison is a correctional facility or was a punitive retaliatory facility? Is the prisoners' life better or worse after they leave the prison?

That's a good question. It's supposed to be a correctional facility but it's far away from that term. They just care about keeping you there until you finish your sentence. Food and bed, that's it. They don't offer any activity to occupy your mind, do exercise (no option to walk), to make you more valuable person by offering you the option of getting a degree. There is no life inside Al Wathba.

All these conditions make people stressed, angry, causing fights on a daily basis.  I doubt anyone comes out being a better person.

11. if the officers could hear you now, what would you tell them?

And never think that Allah is unaware of what the wrongdoers/unjust do. He only delays them for a Day when eyes will stare [in horror]. Quran 14:42

12. please add any other information or details about the prison facilities that you would like to mention?

I believe I have said all I wanted to say.