The Tunisian women locked up for smoking a joint

By Rana Jawad
BBC News, Tunis

Media caption,
Fatima talks about learning to bake cakes in prison

It is no surprise that Tunisia's prisons are overcrowded as it's relatively easy to end up there. In one prison I met two women who were locked up for smoking a joint.

The dreary reception hall of Menouba prison lies between the gates of freedom and captivity.

From one corner, the squeal of a young woman being embraced by her visiting family echoes through the room.

From another, a muffled sob interrupts the tapping rain.

The tearful woman paces, then sits, and puts her head in her hands. She appears broken and lost.

She tells me her name is Arouseya Mezouzi and she misses her three children who are now staying in an orphanage.

It is her third week in detention on charges of smoking marijuana - locally dubbed "zatla". Her husband is also in jail for drugs.

Tunisia's longstanding anti-drug law slaps offenders with a minimum, automatic one-year jail term.

"In most countries, they don't have these cases against drugs - it's just us," Arouseya says.

"It's destroyed so many people. A whole family has been destroyed for something like this? Children are in orphanages, schooling is disrupted, and their future is lost," she says.

Jailed baby

A short walk away, there's a new facility that could be mistaken for any nursery.

Image caption,
Some babies take their first steps behind bars

It is seen as one example of improvements being made here.

In the living room there's a TV, some toys scattered around and children taking their first steps.

The youngest amongst them is a one-month-old girl wrapped in a blanket, lying wide-eyed in a crib.

This house provides a safer space for incarcerated mothers who have their children with them, and for others, like Amel, who are expecting.

She has been detained for five months on accusations of forging a signature, and says she is innocent.

"Cases like forgery should be resolved quickly by experts on the matter.

"The slow judicial process affects us. Why should my child be born here? They call this place a solution, but it's still prison," she says.

Secret prisoner

Another prisoner, Amira - not her real name - seemed more fearful of her neighbourhood finding out that she was in prison and pregnant, than she was of the state that jailed her for "smoking half a joint".

She tells me her family has told everyone that she had moved to a different city.

She says she was so shocked by her incarceration she took medication for it.

Tunisia's prisoners

Image source, Getty Images
  • Drug law has incarcerated nearly a third of Tunisia's prison population
  • Some prisons run at 150% over-capacity
  • 55% of prisoners are aged 18-29

Sources: UN and Human Rights Watch

"I'm not an addict, but even for those who are, I wish the state would rehabilitate them rather than sentence them for a year.

"You don't leave prison feeling like you were taught a lesson - I'm going to be harder on myself and on society."

Many of the women I met would be walking around freely in most countries.

There is anger here towards a justice system that appears to be failing them.

Softer cell

Menouba prison is reputed to be bigger, better, and more comfortable than most.

Prison director Jamila Smida tells me: "It's not like before, where you just lock up the prisoners and leave them indoors."

On the day we visited, she was overseeing the end of a three-day event to expose the inmates to arts and theatre.

She tells me reforms have been successful here because it's not overcrowded like other jails.

She is quick to dismiss any suggestions that they are running over their 420 capacity.

This jail houses first-time drug offenders, pre-trial detainees and others serving long-term convictions for crimes like theft, murder, and terrorism.

We were only allowed inside one cell, in Bloc B of the main prison.

The inmates' laundry hung to dry across a small, wet courtyard that swept a cold wind across the four halls surrounding it.

Image caption,
We were only allowed into Bloc B of the prison

The room houses the so-called "working women" of the prison; the cooks, the bakers, and the tailors. There were 35 prisoners in it.

"We get out more, but it's not like that for the ones in the other rooms, it's completely different," Samira explains.

Image caption,
The room boss told me she has no choice but to get along with women in jail on terrorism charges

She's the room boss - a privileged prisoner who takes care of her cell mates.

It's a stuffy and slightly damp room with two long rows of bunk beds draped in colourful bedding.

Trinkets of personal belongings occupy the narrow space between each bed. Some are gossiping, having their lunch, or smoking.

Image caption,
Samira considers herself lucky to be in this room instead of other parts of the prison

"In this room we don't have women convicted of terrorism, but the others do.

"They don't get along, they think in a certain way and we think differently.

"But in prison you have to deal with them. We don't have a choice," Samira says.

Critics see that lack of choice as a potent combination that could turn cannabis smokers into hardened criminals.

The prison director says that fixing the prison system is not just in their hands.

"It's in the sentencing, and in the judiciary," Ms Smida insists.

Tunisia's government is under pressure to jail fewer people and provide more rehabilitation opportunities.

There is a serious, albeit slow, ongoing debate amongst lawmakers to amend some criminal laws and reform the judiciary.

Until that happens, the changes seen in Menouba prison will make little difference.