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Strong, independent, and behind bars

Two young Palestinian female ex-prisoners describe living conditions in Israeli prison

“A grey, scratchy surface looking down at you. That is the first thing you see when you open your eyes in the morning. It’s the bottom of the bed of the prisoner right above you”. This is how 28 year-old Salam Abu Sharar describes the first moments of a day at the Damon prison, the controversial detention facility where the Israeli occupation locks-up detained Palestinian women. “You don’t actually wake up. It’s rather the voices of the jailers, yelling in the corridors every day at 6 am that wake you up”, explains Salam Abu Sharar, “they come walking down the sections, opening the cells one by one and calling us out for counting. We have to be up and ready before they reach us, or we might get punished with solitary confinement”.

During 2019, the Israeli occupation has arrested 128 Palestinian women of all ages. In the first eight months of 2020, the occupation has arrested 90 women already. Since 2018, All Palestinian women who are imprisoned by the occupation are held in the Damon prison, near Haifa. The prison has been the center of controversy for years, because of its old and inadequate infrastructure. Human rights groups claim that female prisoners inside Damon face inhumane detention conditions, ill-treatment, and invasion of their privacy. Currently, the occupation holds 41 Palestinian women at the Damon.

Ex-prisoner Salam Abu Sharar (28 years old).

“When we are called out for counting, jailers enter the cells and search it. They go through our clothes and personal things” narrates Salam Abu Sharar; “when they’re done, we have to go back in and the cells are closed. The cell is a room of 6x3m with up to 8 prisoners living inside. There is just enough space for 2 or 3 people to stand out of their beds at the same time. This is our world, most of the time”.

The horse stable that became a prison

In the latest mass-hunger strike of Palestinian prisoners, in 2018, the improvement of living conditions at the Damon was among the first demands of the hunger-strikers. The occupation authorities made many commitments to end the strike but honored none of them. Ehteram Ghazawneh, the head of the documentation unit at Addameer, explains that “Living conditions at the Damon prison haven’t changed for the past two years. The building itself is a problem. It is old, moist, and cold, lacking hygiene facilities, enough space, and privacy, which is simply inexistent. Palestinian women are transferred there after interrogation, which follows arrest”.

Palestinian 25-year-old student Samah Jaradat recalls the first days of her own arrest, in September 2019; “The occupation army broke into our house before dawn, woke my family up, and took me away to a military base. I spent there several hours, moved from one room to another before they finally took me to an interrogation center in Jerusalem”.

Samah spent 22 days in the occupation’s interrogation center in Jerusalem, then she was transferred to the Damon; “I was transferred in the ‘Bosta’, the steel-box vehicle in which they move prisoners around. It’s almost completely closed, with a small opening near the top, where one can get a glimpse of the landscape outside, it was getting greener and greener, which meant we were heading towards the North. Then it felt like the road went up a mountain. We were climbing Mount Carmel, near Haifa”.

Ex-prisoner Samah Jradat (25 years old).

It is on the top of the Carmel that the Damon was built in the 1930s under the British rule, but it wasn’t meant to be a prison. It was initially used as a stable for horses and it later housed a tobacco factory. In 1953, the Zionist authorities opened it as a detention center. Then in the year 2000 it was briefly shut down, then reopened during the 2nd Intifada.

“No privacy at all”

Samah Jaradat describes the Damon’s inside; “It is a striking contrast with the surrounding green nature. Once I crossed the entrance I found myself inside an endless forest of steel. Everything is made of steel, pale blue and grey. Even the courtyard is covered with a steel wire net, through which we get our only one-hour daily glimpse of the sun”.

This one-hour daily recreation is the most precious time of a prisoner’s day at the Damon, as describes Salam Abu Sharar; “the “faura” as we call it, is the time between 8 am and 9 am when we are allowed to come out to the courtyard. There we can look at the sky and get some sun through the steel-wire net above our heads. We use this hour to use the showers, located on the other side of the courtyard, which means that guards are watching us as we cross to the showers and back”.

This violation of privacy has been a major problem for Palestinian female prisoners, even before they were moved to the Damon, as points out Ehteram Ghazawneh; “in 2018, Palestinian women in the Hasharon prison protested against the installation of surveillance cameras inside their cells. They were being watched at all moments during the day. The occupation’s reaction to their protest was to transfer all female prisoners to the Damon, where cameras are installed in all places, although inside the cells they are deactivated”.

Located on the top of the Carmel, the Damon was built in the 1930s under the British rule as a stable for horses.

Samah Jaradat highlights that “when I was introduced to the section where my cell was, it shocked me to see that we were watched all the time by cameras. Most Palestinian female prisoners use the veil, and they can only take it off inside the cells. But they have to keep it near them because the guards can make a surprise search of the cells at any moment. There is simply no privacy at all”, she explains, “it took me several days to get used to it”.

Uncooked food, smelly blankets

“During the hour of the ‘faura’ we take the chance to wash our clothes and hang them to dry in the courtyard, where they are regularly searched by the guards”, explains SalamAbu Sharar. “Then we go back to the sections, or the inside corridors between cells. We have to stay inside the cells, but we can move between cells. Then, at 1 pm they bring lunch. Or better said, what they call lunch”.

The degradation of prisoners’ food quality has been increasingly denounced by human rights groups since 2018, particularly in the Damon prisoners. Ehteram Ghazawneh indicates that “this degradation began to be reported in 2018 when the Israeli prison Administration implemented restrictive measures on all Palestinian prisoners. Food began to come in poor quantity and quality, especially for women”.

Salam Abu Sharar details that “rice is often uncooked, and chicken, the only meat we get, is barely boiled, with no spices or even salt”. Samah Jaradat also recalls that “we often found rests of feathers on the chicken skin. It was uneatable most of the time. We had to buy our own food from the ‘cantine’, or the prison store, with money our families deposit on our names. We mostly bought can food and cooked it again”. Salam Abu Sharar laughs as she remembers; “we invent new recipes from the almost raw food of the prison and the can food we buy. We can get pretty creative at prison cuisine”.

And what goes for food, goes for other things, as says Samah Jaradat; “except one small bottle of soap and one roll of toilet paper every week, we don’t have any hygiene material. We have to buy it from the ‘cantine’. This includes more soap and toilet paper, to have enough, shampoo, toothpaste, napkins, and all kind of female hygiene. We don’t have enough blankets either and the little we have are moist, dirty and smelly”

For mothers, it’s “more a punishment than a privilege”

Another issue facing female prisoners at the Damon is that of family visits. Ehteram Ghazawneh indicates that “ since the Coronavirus outbreak, the occupation authorities reduced visits to the minimum. Now prisoners at the Damon can receive visits only once every two months. Visits are no longer than 45 minutes, from behind thick glass. Mothers of small children can have physical contact with their child for no more than ten minutes”.

For Salam Abu Sharar, “this is more a punishment than a privilege. A mother spends the whole two months thinking of the moment of the visit, and then, after holding her baby for ten minutes, guards take him or her away. It’s like the repetition of the arrest experience every two months, they are heart-broken each time”.

Samah Jaradat gives witness to this; “It struck me each time I saw my cell-fellow, 25-year-old mother and prisoner Inas Asafrah, come back from her visit. Instead of being happy for having seen her child and holding him, she was quiet, unreactive, and sad. She spent hours alone after the visit and talked to no one. Even when we were at the courtyard she stayed in the cell, often crying”.

Muhammad and Abdurrahman Asafrah (5, 3 years old), children of Inas and Qasem Asafrah, who have been both jailed in Israeli prisons since September 2019.

“You still have a part of you in there”

One million Palestinians have gone through the occupation prisons since 1967, more than 16.000 of them have been women. Mothers, students, young girls, and community leaders, Palestinian women experience detention conditions in the occupation prisons every year by the hundreds. “Those who have gone through it leave a part of us behind bars, even after release”, affirms Salam Abu Sharar; “Prisoners create a special bond. We become like sisters, and as long as you still have a sister in there, you still have a part of you in there”. A bond that Samah Jaradat describes, as she recalls her release day; “It felt just like the day of my arrest, because I didn’t want to leave the other girls, my second family, behind. In fact, I wanted to take them all out with me”.

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