New kind of brush with the law

Inmates at Ras Al Khaimah Central Prison are encouraged to paint, carve and unleash their creative sides.

Ras Al Khaimah - November 16 2011 - A dining area of the Ras Al Khaimah Central Prison is painted with an iconic mural of Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid on a horse. The murals are part of the rehabilitation and reform program for prisoners. Colonel Sultan Al Jarwan, head of the Rehabilitation and Reform section oversees several learning and arts-based workshops on a day-to-day basis. (Razan Alzayani/ The National)
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RAS AL KHAIMAH // When you are doing time in prison you have a lot of time on your hands.

However, under encouragement from the authorities, the inmates of Ras Al Khaimah Central Prison have been putting that time to good use by revealing hidden artistic talents.

The results are immediately obvious. Murals adorn every wall. One features a man and woman sitting below a palm tree and gazing into the distance; others are of sunsets and different scenes from nature.

A Syrian baker, in jail on finance-related charges, is among the artists who have been decorating the glum walls with bright paintings.

His works, mostly portraits of the rulers of the emirates, always feature a signature red brick frame. He is about to begin work on a traditional market scene featuring a bakery stall.

"Baking is what I know best," says the Syrian, who is in his 50s. "I always liked to draw but I never had the time before. We want to turn this prison into one of the world's more colourful ones."

He can usually be found walking the corridors with a basket of brushes, pencils, oil paints and watercolours. He says he is "quite happy" in the place that has been his home for two years.

"This is heaven compared to a Syrian jail," he says, claiming inmates there are tortured.

"We don't pay rent, get free food, get to watch international channels on our television set and can ask for anything we want, like books or DVDs," he says. "I feel at peace here."

The baker is one of dozens of inmates who have been encouraged to paint their own cells and corridors. And brightening the prison is only one of many projects taking place within these walls, which hold more than 500 inmates - 100 of them women.

"Prisons have moved away from this general perception of a place of punishment and are now more focused on rehabilitation and reconnecting inmates with the outside world, so that when they get out they can lead normal lives," says Col Sultan Al Jarwan, the head of rehabilitation and reform at RAK Prison.

Since Col Al Jarwan took over eight months ago, he has taken a keen interest in the quality of products from the carpentry workshop.

"I want them to feel proud of their final products, so we are helping them learn how to make quality furniture objects that have a touch of traditional design," says Col Al Jarwan.

Chairs, tables, mirrors, traditional wooden mandoos (or trousseaus) and even model ships are made inside the workshop.

Supervised by an Egyptian prisoner who was an interior decorator before he was jailed for a financial crime, inmates can come and go as they please.

"First they come here all depressed and anxious, but soon they cheer up and calm down, enjoying working here," he says. "I found inner peace working here as well. It helps pass the time."

The workshop can accommodate up to 20 inmates at a time, and each receives a monthly salary of between Dh300 and Dh400, depending on the hours spent working.

"None of these prisoners were carpenters but now they are really good ones," says Col Al Jarwan.

And there are plenty of other programmes for the less creatively inclined.

Prisoners can join in sports, such as football in a side that sometimes plays matches against outside teams, or take educational courses in subjects such as languages and IT.

They can also take a Quran-memorisation course.

"It is hard enough on them when they get out to live with the stigma of being a former prisoner, so we try our best to help them as much as we can by preparing them to pick up where they left off," says Col Al Jarwan.

Most prisoners are serving time for financial crimes or illegal residency. There are also cases of drugs and human trafficking, particularly among the women.

"The biggest issues prisoners suffer from are actually psychological," says Dr Yasser Shouman, the prison doctor.

"Having these activities and workshops is good for their overall health and mental state."

And the activities have another benefit.

"A prisoner that shows an improvement in behaviour, who is sincere in their regret and has been reformed, has a better chance of being pardoned," says Col Al Jarwan.

"In the end that is the wish of every prisoner: to become a better person and be released."