x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

New prison aims at rehabilitation

The police unveil plans to build the country's largest prison to cope with the increasing number of prisoners.

The Al Mafraq Juvenile Centre is designed to rehabilitate inmates first and foremost.
The Al Mafraq Juvenile Centre is designed to rehabilitate inmates first and foremost.

ABU DHABI // The police have unveiled plans for the country's largest prison, to be built on the outskirts of the city to cope with the increasing number of prisoners as the population expands. The new jail, next to the existing Al Wathba prison and due for completion by the end of 2010, will house up to 5,500 inmates. It represents the UAE's ambition of becoming a regional example in modern criminal correction and rehabilitation. The current prison was designed to hold 1,000 inmates but, after a series of extensions, accommodates 1,800. When the new complex is complete, it will be used as a processing centre for deporting foreign criminals and illegal immigrants.

Brig Yousef Abdul Karem al Ahmed, the director general of Al Wathba prison, said the design of the new facility was almost complete and he expected the construction contract to be put out to tender early next year. "The UAE wants to be the leader in this field," said Salah Salha, a project director for Dorsch Group, a German company that has been consulting with the Government on the project. "Maybe when this happens, Kuwait will start with that, Qatar will start with that. The UAE wants to be a symbol."

Plans to replace the old prison reflected what the designers described as heightened sensitivity to the treatment of prisoners. The new jail, said Brig Ahmed, would "be built according to the highest standards". The interest in prisoner welfare and effective rehabilitation, said Mr Salha, was part of a strengthening government commitment to improving general human rights. "The UAE is interested in showing that they are taking care of everyone, even of prisoners," he said. "Things have been changed - it's not like before. How these people are treating prisoners has changed also."

The project would cost an estimated Dh1.059 billion (US$288 million), said Mr Salha and William Clarke, the managing director of Carter Goble Emirates, the American company designing the new prison. It will take inmates from older detention facilities throughout the emirate of Abu Dhabi and handle overspill from prisons in other emirates, under a sharing system that already operates throughout the UAE.

Al Wathba prison, built in 1983, is now overcrowded, said Mr Clarke. His firm has also been working to improve and renovate the older structure, which had been fitted with air conditioning only as recently as 2000. "The conditions really are not satisfactory to current acceptable conditions," he said. "It stands as a facility that is well-maintained for the physical building that it is. It's an older-style facility from current methodology.

"Not that it's unlike different facilities built today. It's just that what we're going to provide them is a relatively current, state-of-the-art facility, not just in the physical plant but also in the methodology and operational theory." Among the most important improvements, he said, was that the new detention centre would be operated by a private contractor, which would take responsibility for everything from food and laundry to education, medical services and recreational programmes. The Government was in the process of selecting the contractor, said Mr Clarke, who declined to say which firms had been shortlisted.

The physical layout of the new prison would also reflect the latest thinking, he said. The current Al Wathba prison is laid out with a "linear supervision" design that requires prison guards to walk up and down corridors on regular patrols observe inmates in their cells. "The sight lines are not optimal and even for lower classifications, you want officers and the staff to be able to see the inmates' movements without difficulty. You want to minimise movement as much as possible, too," said Mr Clarke.

The "direct supervision" design of the new building will position the guards in central "pods", allowing them direct, nearly unobstructed views of inmates without the need to patrol corridors. The new prison will also be less centralised and will include separate areas, including a 500-bed women's jail. Prisoners will be divided into individual "management clusters" that function as a "prison within a prison". Each of the clusters will comprise as many as 600 inmates, who will share classrooms as well as eating, medical and security facilities.

By splitting up the inmate population, said Mr Clarke, the new penitentiary would reduce the need for potentially dangerous inmate movements. "Right now, the services for the prisoner are centralised. Prisoners have to move from their housing units or from their cells to whatever function it is that they're going to do. Any kind of education programme, they have to get up to go do it," said Mr Clarke.

"We're going to decentralise all the services to the inmates and minimise the movement of the inmate, therefore making the facility much more safe and secure to operate." The prison will also house worship facilities for Christians and Hindus, as well as for Muslims. Education designed to cut the number of released inmates who reoffend will be directed specifically at juvenile offenders, Emiratis and those prisoners who will not be deported after completing their sentences.

"If they're illegal immigrants, once they serve their term, they would be deported," said Mr Clarke. "Those illegal immigrants would be classified in a way that would give them fewer educational privileges than other inmates. The idea would be to give priority to those inmates who would be returning to society within the UAE." Mr Salha said his engineering firm, Dorsch Group, also had plans to develop the Al Wathba area with residential and commercial buildings.

The presence of a 5,500-inmate prison, he insisted, would pose little risk to a surrounding community. "You cannot have this philosophy to isolate the prison," said Mr Salha. "This is an old philosophy. You can now control the prison without any problem." @Email:mbradley@thenational.ae