Prison and detention center conditions were below international standards, principally due to overcrowding and poor infrastructure.
Physical Conditions: Prisons were understaffed and lacked adequate equipment to deal with the number of inmates. Despite periodic amnesties since the 2011 revolution, overcrowding persisted, due at least in part to the transfer of a large number of prisoners from 14 prisons damaged during prisoner uprisings in 2011. Most of the prisons that were damaged were either completely or partially renovated.
According to the DGPR, the rate of prison overcrowding dropped from 155 percent in 2016 to 114 percent as of September. The highest rates of overcrowding were found in five prisons: Morneg (225 percent), Kairouan (196 percent), Messadine Prison of Sousse (196 percent), Sfax prison (174 percent), and Monastir (163 percent). As noted in the country’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR), the Ministry of Justice and the Directorate General for Prisons and Rehabilitation refurbished many prisons and added a new health-care center to one, increasing their capacity to accommodate additional inmates in new wings of the prisons in Sfax, Mahdia, Monastir, Messadine Sousse, and Borj el Roumi.
Following his visit on January 30 to February 3, Ben Emmerson, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism, expressed concern about prison conditions he witnessed in Mornaguia Prison, which he said fell well below international minimum standards. He noted the prison was approximately 150 percent over capacity, with more than 90 prisoners held in dormitories with inadequate space, natural light, and sleeping and sanitary facilities. He noted unacceptable conditions disproportionately affected those charged with terrorism because they were less likely to be granted provisional release, their cases sometimes took years to come to trial, and they received the longest sentences.
In its 2016 report, the Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH) criticized prison overcrowding and unsanitary conditions. It claimed space allotted for inmates averaged 22.6 square feet per person, well below the 43 square feet recommended by international norms. The report also noted that many detention centers were well over capacity.
The law requires pretrial detainees to be held separately from convicted prisoners, but the Ministry of Justice reported that overcrowding forced it to hold pretrial detainees together with convicts. As of October there were 20,755 prisoners and detainees, of whom 52 percent were in pretrial detention. The high percentage of pretrial detainees stemmed largely from delays in the judicial system. The prison system lacked sufficient resources to transport detainees to court hearings securely, although the Ministry of Justice during the year received international assistance for additional transport vehicles and training for transport staff.
Most prisons were originally constructed for industrial use and then converted into detention facilities and suffered from poor infrastructure, including substandard lighting, ventilation, and heating.
Of the country’s 27 prisons, one was designated solely for women, and eight prisons contained separate wings for women. According to the UNCAT addendum, as of December 2016, minor convicts comprised a small number of prisoners and were strictly separated from adults; the majority of minors were detained in separate correctional facilities.
Health services available to inmates were inadequate. Very few prisons had an ambulance or medically equipped vehicle. Officials mentioned they lacked equipment necessary for the security of guards, other personnel, and inmates.
To reduce the number of persons held in prison for drug-related offenses (28 percent of the prison population, according government statistics in June), the government amended the law in May to permit judges discretion to hand down reduced or suspended sentences for drug use, including decriminalizing first-time marijuana consumption, an offense that previously received up to a one-year prison term.
As part of the Ministry of Justice’s rehabilitation program for countering violent extremism (CVE), the DGPR had a memorandum of understanding with the Ministry of Religious Affairs to permit vetted and trained imams to lead religious sessions with prisoners who were classified as extremist, in an effort to deradicalize their religious beliefs. As part of CVE measures in place in the prison system, organized, communal prayers are prohibited, but prisons permitted individual detainees to have religious materials and to pray in their cells.
Administration: According to prison officials, other problems included lengthy criminal prosecution procedures that led to extended periods of pretrial detention, understaffing at prisons and detention centers, difficult work conditions, and low pay.
Authorities allowed prisoners to receive one family visit per week. A minority of adult prisoners reportedly had access to educational and vocational training programs, due to limited capacity.
The government established the Independent National Authority for the Prevention of Torture (INPT) in 2013 to respond to allegations of torture and mistreatment an administratively independent body. Its members have the authority to visit any prison or detention center without prior notice and at any time to document torture and mistreatment, to request criminal and administrative investigations, and to issue recommendations for measures to eradicate torture and mistreatment. Since its establishment, INPT members reported the body faced material and logistical difficulties that prevented it from conducting its work effectively. A year after being elected, chairman of the board Hamida Dridi resigned on June 30, citing administrative and procedural pressures as well as bureaucratic obstacles that prevented the function of the body.
Independent Monitoring: The government granted access to prisons for independent nongovernmental observers, including local and international human rights groups, NGOs, local media, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the OCTT. The LTDH may conduct unannounced prison visits and issue reports about conditions inside prisons. Other organizations are issued a permit after a case-by-case examination of their requests. The new Directorate General of Human Rights within the Ministry of Interior coordinated with international governmental and NGOs working on human rights.
UN Special Rapporteur Emmerson noted concerns about prolonged periods and conditions of detention, the use of executive orders to restrict freedom of movement and to impose house arrest without proper judicial review, and allegations of mistreatment and torture.
Improvements: The Ministry of Social Affairs and the Danish Institute against Torture opened a new rehabilitation center, Nebras, to assist and support victims of torture as they rehabilitate and reintegrate into society. Other NGOs reported that they referred victims to this center.
Director General (DG) of Prisons and Rehabilitation Elyes Zalleg initiated several steps to strengthen anticorruption efforts and to improve DGPR operations. On April 27, DG Zalleg removed former chief of prison security Imed Dridi on suspicion of corruption. Dridi subsequently was arrested on June 22, and his case was undergoing court proceedings. In early July the DG replaced 75 percent of senior leadership at the DGPR, including 14 prison wardens and three juvenile facility wardens, due to poor performance and possible corruption, according to a DGPR press statement.
In an effort to reduce the potential for violence and mistreatment of detainees by prison staff, early in the year the DGPR established an Emergency Response Unit composed of 200 law enforcement officers who were to be trained to intervene peacefully in security events within the prison system.