Prisoners in Dubai Central Prison describe what life is like inside the emirate's largest correctional facility.
Dubai prisoners cherish outside contact
DUBAI // Telephone calls to the outside world are a lifeline for the inmates of Dubai Central Prison.
While prisoners are each limited to a total of 30 minutes on the phone per week, they say the contact with the outside world is vital to keep their spirits up. They use the time to catch up with family and speak to volunteers helping with their cases.
"Everyone treasures the time and hates to finish it up in one call," says one prisoner, Arun, which is not his real name. "Once your 30 minutes is over, your time is up."
Calls also help to break the monotony of prison life. They are a bright spot amid activities such as learning carpentry skills, watching television and meeting aid workers or lawyers.
Prisoners must enter their inmate number and an assigned code before each call. Phone cards are purchased from the prison store.
"It's more about reaching out to talk to someone outside the prison walls," says one volunteer who asked not to be named. "They always worry about time, so conversations end fast."
Meals are served at fixed times, with breakfast at 6am, lunch at 11am and dinner at 5.30pm. The fare includes khuboos, the Middle Eastern bread, along with vegetables, chicken, meat or fish.
"I thought there would be only vegetables but the menu changes," says Arun. "There is usually something for everyone."
The official time for lights out is 10pm, but many inmates stay up later. Each ward has one television that is generally tuned in to Hindi programmes from 11am to 6pm, and English and Arabic-language channels in the evening. News channels, sports and Arabic programmes are popular.
"The guards sometimes ask us to shut off the television at 10pm but we usually watch with low volume since others may want to sleep," says a second inmate, Yusuf. "By 11pm we shut down."
Prisoners are granted a two-hour exercise period in the morning and another in the evening. Some head outside to an enclosed outdoor area to play volleyball or football. Others stay indoors to read or play board games. Some use the time to pray and all denominations are tolerated.
A store sells noodles, coffee, cigarettes, water and soap, which can be bought with an identity card that doubles as a debit card.
From the outside, it doesn't sound bad. Prison administrators seem to have provided a safe and fair environment in which prisoners can serve their time. But there are inmates who believe they have reason to complain.
A group of more than 200 inmates in prison on narcotic charges began a hunger strike five days ago to protest their sentencing and release dates, an aspect of the jail that prison officials say they have no control over. Sentencing and release papers are handed down by the public prosecutor's office. Senior officials dismissed a third demand for more access to outside hospitalisation as unfounded.
Many prisoners highlighted the importance of personal visits, which are cherished. A glass panel running through 30 compact cubicles separates prisoners from their visitors. Communication is via an intercom.
There are two types of visits. Mondays, between 8am and noon, are for relatives and consular staff. Saturdays are for other visitors such as aid workers, lawyers or friends, and run from 8.30am to 11am for male visitors and 2.30pm to 4.30pm for women. Visits last up to 30 minutes.
Any materials brought in by visitors, such as letters, are examined and kept for at least two days by security officers before being distributed.
For prisoners, phone calls and visits are precious links to the outside world. For many like Yusuf, having someone to talk to means they have not been forgotten. "When you are inside, all you think about is the outside," he said.
Daily prison schedule
5.30am Wake-up call
8.30-10.30am Exercise period
8.30am-11am Trade skills classes
10pm Lights out