An inside job: Dubai inmates pick up skills for life

Time served at Dubai Central Prison can be time well spent for inmates employed in the jail's furniture manufacturing warehouse, handicraft workshop or garage. The aim is to send them back into society not just as better people, but also with useful skills.

Inmates making furniture in the craft section in Al Aweer in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National
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He is a traditional boatbuilder, and proud of it.

"This is what I want to do," says the 43-year-old Emirati. "Here I build boats and I do very well. They are the traditional boats of the UAE and I want to teach other people how to build them."

Near by lie some of the tools of his trade - hacksaws, screws, hammers and chisels.

Nothing unusual in any of this, you might think. Except that this particular boatbuilder was sentenced to life imprisonment for taking, smuggling and selling drugs, and the workshop is in Dubai Central Prison where he has spent the past 12 years.

Staff at the country's largest penitentiary pride themselves on offering rehabilitation and learning to some of its 4,000 inmates from 91 countries.

For a lucky, impeccably behaved few, the prison offers an opportunity to learn new skills and earn a regular salary in a computer class, furniture warehouse, handicraft workshop or a garage.

"It's not about making a profit, it's about rehabilitation, and we want them to think about something other than life outside and escaping," explains Maj Adel Al Hallawi, director of supplies and services at the General Department of Correctional Institutions, which runs the prison.

"Our role is to correct and to punish. The punishment is being in prison, the correcting is the workshop and the computer classes. We want to send them back into society in a better way."

The prison, just outside the city in Al Aweer, is surrounded by a thick concrete wall seven metres high, with a large protruding curved top that is impossible to hold on to for anyone trying to escape. The grounds are split into five areas - men's prison, women's prison, juvenile section, misdemeanours prison and the administrative section.

For a few hundred well behaved inmates, the monotony of prison life is broken up by various jobs, with the largest employer the furniture warehouse in the men's complex.

The workshop is open five days a week, from 8am until 1pm, with a half-time tea break. Large and with multiple rooms opening out from a central wide corridor, the building has powerful air filters and air conditioning, making it much cooler than the desert outside.

Inside, the prisoners craft large wooden benches, oud smokers, chests, framed mirrors, children's play equipment and outdoor animal runs (which can be made-to-measure). They sell for anything from Dh40 up to Dh3,500. The men earn Dh200 credit a month which they are free to spend as they like. Some send it to their families, others buy items such as chocolate bars or shampoo at the prison supermarket.

No more than 140 inmates are allowed in at one time, and security cameras cover every inch of the building.

The atmosphere inside the warehouse seems relaxed. Some of the officers are dressed in plain clothes and the prisoners have freedom to wander within their section and chat to each other. The tools lie around on the dozens of work tables.

Nevertheless, Maj Al Hallawi says, security is the number one priority.

"We try to get them involved in as much as is safe in the prison," he says. "They clean and work in the laundry and the workshop.

"But we do not let them work with the food, for safety reasons. If there was poison or something, this would affect 3,500 people, we would have a very big problem.

"We have to give them some freedom but in the end they are prisoners."

Each man is searched before entering or leaving the workshop, and all the tools are collected and locked away before the workshop closes.

There's also a garage area inside the warehouse where the men can take training courses in car mechanics. The prison has an agreement with a car company that finds jobs for newly released offenders, although most expatriates are deported after serving their sentences.

All the prisoners are eligible to take part in the scheme, regardless of the crimes that landed them in prison. They are not separated by anything other than a single colourful band across their white cotton prison uniform T-shirts, or down the seam of their trousers.

Those with a red stripe are serving 10 years and more. Yellow indicates three to nine years, blue is for seven months to three years, and green is anything less than six months.

One inmate, wearing a red band, is a 57-year-old man from Cheshire, England, who pleaded guilty to drug trafficking in 2010 and was sentenced to 10 years.

He now spends five mornings a week building dhow models.

"It's really a good break because obviously for everyone in jail, it's a long tedious monotonous time. This is more than half the day. After this, we change and have lunch, so by the time you finish, it's most of the day gone.

"Of course it's hard in here, but I'm lucky, because everybody speaks English. The Arabs speak English, the Filipinos speak English, the Indians speak English, this makes me lucky. But no, I don't have any visitors."

The former logistics manager and father of one has already served three years of his sentence, and hopes to be released after another two.

"You can leave after serving 50 per cent of your sentence, and if you're lucky, you have a chance to be released on Eid after Ramadan. I'm hoping to leave then. This is obviously not somewhere I want to be."

The majority of prisoners serving longer sentences were jailed for drug related crimes, something the UAE punishes heavily.

Another prisoner, an Iranian, 50, is 18 months into his seven-year sentence for drug trafficking. He sits in the corner of the workshop, bent over a table covered with a number of small circuit boards. There are television sets sitting on a bench near by.

"I was an electrician before I was jailed, so I do electrics in here. I fix things like radios. It helps pass the time, it's good for me."

According to Maj Al Hallawi, an Emirati, segregation in the prison isn't a problem to the extent it is in other parts of the world. In a lot of prisons in the US and Europe, men and women convicted of crimes against children, for example, are often kept away from other prisoners for their own safety.

"It's not on their conscience here," Maj Al Hallawi says. "The inmates believe that when someone is in prison, justice has been served and they think, 'Why would I get involved and take another six or 10 years on my sentence?' They lose many privileges for bad behaviour. If they do anything in the workshop they are suspended, maybe for ever. It is not worth it."

It's clear the prison also benefits from running the vocational courses and offering ways for the inmates to keep busy. The complex also has a library, prayer rooms, classrooms, exercise classes and children's play areas. The less time prisoners have doing nothing, Maj Al Hallawi says, the less likely they will be to cause trouble.

This theory is also applied to the women's wing, where more than 40 prisoners knit, crochet, stitch or sew soft goods to be sold, in exchange for a Dh200 monthly salary.

"For me, it kills time in this place," says one Ukranian prisoner, who began a life sentence more than 16 years ago and doesn't know when she'll be released. "Secondly, I get money for my needs. I can buy shampoo, napkins and toothpaste. Anything I need from the shop. I have been doing it for 16 years, I am very good at it."

Maj Nawal Abdulla, head of the women's workshop section, said the workshops were rightly seen as a privilege for the inmates. "They know working is better than sitting inside their cells thinking about their problems. It is not just for the salary.

"There was one Australian lady who was in here for about three years for drugs, she made dolls in the workshop. When she went back to Australia she opened a doll shop and sent us a photo. I know in this job I am helping people, it makes me happy."

Maj Al Hallawi is a member of the American Correctional Association, an organisation involved in professional development and accreditation, and has visited a number of prisons in the UK and the United States.

They are, he acknowledges, very different from the Dubai Central Prison.

"When I went to a prison in London people were banging and swearing and shouting. It is not like this here.

"Bad behaviour takes away many privileges. I think people here are scared of the prisons, and this is not a bad thing. It meets the minimum international standards 100 per cent, but it is not a bad thing that people are scared of being here if it stops them from committing the crimes."

As an incentive to remain out of prison, the office of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, offers former inmates grants to set up small businesses using the skills they learn in the workshops. The Emirati boatbuilder jailed for drugs offences hopes to be given early release in 2016 for good behaviour. As a UAE national with a family book, he will be allowed to remain in the UAE once he's released.

"I regret my crime 100 per cent and I have a chance to leave after 15 years," he says. "I don't want to come back."