x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

'What you learn inside you can never learn in any school'

Finding religion, writing a book and learning embroidery are just some of the ways the inmates in Dubai Female Prison find to fill their time.

DUBAI // Writing a book, learning embroidery and finding religion are just some of the ways the inmates in Dubai Female Prison find to fill their time – and save them from being consumed by guilt.

There are 347 women in the Dubai Female Prison in Al Aweer serving sentences ranging from less than a year to life. A further 120 women are awaiting verdicts. Most of the cases involve consensual sex, pregnancy outside of wedlock, bounced cheques and drug trafficking.

One prisoner has jotted down her observations on prison life and plans to turn it into a book when she is freed. Others busy

themselves in the handicraft workshop where they can earn money to save funds for home. Others find peace in learning the Quran.

"I have been a junkie since I was 11 years old and I can't blame my family. I should blame myself because I had a choice and I made the wrong choice and ended up here," said a prisoner from the Philippines serving 25 years for drug trafficking.

"I am safe in here. My mother tells me I'm safer in here than outside. I have changed as a person. Jail has become my training

ground for my character. I have really seen the damage that drugs can do."

The prisoner's two young children are being looked after by her mother in her home country. "I have given my mother a lot of heartache. Now I feel I'm here for a reason so I have time to change."

Major Soad Saeed, the head of the prison, said prison was a particularly tough experience for women. "Some prisoners, especially those serving long prison terms, go through mood swings and many go through depression so what we try to do is to create an environment which guarantee them a human life and provide them with assistance to make it through prison life but most importantly to help them not go back to crime," she said.

"Despite all the services and facilities provided it is still a deprivation of freedom and a penalty," she added.

The is a palpable sense of anticipation when Ramadan, Eid and National Day come around, as the Rulers often issue pardons on these occasions. Many of the inmates write dozens of letters addressed variously to the Rulers, prison authorities and their consulates to convince them of their eligibility for release.

"They all look forward to the time of clemency," said DM, a volunteer who visits prisoners. "When they don't get it, they look desperate."

The pardons are granted for humanitarian reasons and take into consideration the crime, the length of the sentence, how much time has been served and the prisoner's behaviour.

Prison authorities say faith and nationality are not usually taken into account – but some women change their religion while inside and many believe devoting their life to prayer will help lessen their sentence.

Last year 14 prisoners converted to Islam. So far this year 16 prisoners have embraced the religion.

A Christian prisoner who did not want to disclose her nationality said she began learning the Quran for selfish reasons. "I heard that if you join the Quran class, your sentence would be lessened," said the woman, who was convicted for drug smuggling.

However, the class has since changed her view.

"I joined for the sake of getting out [of prison], but now I do respect it (Quran). I will try to live by it even when I get out. I have learnt more inside here than in my whole life outside. What you learn inside you can never learn in any school or from any books."

Many women were the breadwinners at home and so they worry about their family relying on relatives or friends back home. Those convicted for prostitution and drug trafficking rarely tell their family the truth, instead blaming their jail terms on accidents or bounced cheques.

A woman serving 15 years for human trafficking said she was afraid for her three teenage children in India. She spends her time writing letters seeking a pardon from the rulers.

"In all my letters I say, 'Please forgive me, take pity on me. I have served seven years and now my children need me'," she said.

"My family's money has run out. There is no money for my children to go to school. When my children cry on the phone, I don't know what to do."