How drama is helping prisoners to change Lebanon’s penal code

Drama therapist Zeina Deccache is helping male and female prisoners to put on performances that serve to help them psychologically as well as to campaign for greater rights inside bars, writes India Stoughton in Beirut

'Johar ... Up in the Air' being performed at Roumieh prison in Lebanon. Courtesy Patrick Baz / Catharsis

BEIRUT // While drama therapy has long been recognised as a tool for working with convicted criminals, one woman has found success in using theatre to fight for the rights of prisoners and bring change to Lebanon’s penal code.

Drama therapist Zeina Deccache holds drama therapy workshops for inmates of Lebanon’s prisons, including Roumieh – the country’s largest and most notorious high-security men’s prison.

“It’s a rehearsal for life,” she says. “They make meaning of what happened. They learn to take responsibility.”

Simultaneously, she employs theatre as a tool of public policy, using it to petition for changes to the penal code.

Zeina, a Lebanese actress and director, studied drama therapy at Kansas State University. Upon returning to Lebanon in 2007, she founded the non-profit organisation Catharsis, which she describes as the first drama therapy centre in the Arab world. Since 2008, she has held regular workshops at Roumieh and at Baabda Central Women’s Prison, east of Beirut.

The workshops have led to three performances by inmates, all petitioning to implement, alter or update Lebanon’s penal code. Part of a European-funded project seeking to tell the stories of “those forgotten behind bars”, the plays were performed to influential local figures, including MPs, judges, lawyers and journalists.

Zeina works with prisoners for up to 15 months, encouraging them to perform scenes based on their own lives, rehearse scenarios that might come up in the future and role-play as family members, promoting empathy.

“The play is like the cherry on top … The prisoners have already gained, but the play is therapy for the whole society, because you’re making people aware of what it means to commit a crime, and why we become criminals, and that these people deserve a second chance.”

The first play that Zeina adapted and directed in Roumieh, performed by 45 inmates convicted of crimes including murder, rape and drug dealing, was an adaptation of American playwright Reginald Rose's Twelve Angry Men, retitled Twelve Angry Lebanese.

Through the play, she campaigned for the implementation of a law that allows prisoners with good behaviour to serve reduced sentences.

“It was the inmates who brought me the penal code and said, ‘Zeina, we’ve had a law for the reduction of sentences since 2002, but it’s never been applied’,” she recalls.

Zeina approached several members of parliament, who were unaware of the law’s existence. Two months after the play was performed, in the summer of 2009, the law came into effect for the first time.

In 2012, she directed Scheherazade at the women's prison in Baabda. A series of moving monologues, the play explored the lives of the 25 prisoners – nine of whom had experienced long-term spousal abuse that eventually drove them to kill their husbands. The play – and resulting documentary, both written and directed by Zeina – played a key role in the widespread civil society campaign for a bill protecting women and children from domestic violence, which was eventually passed by parliament in April 2014.

Zeina's most recent play, Johar … Up in the Air was the most ambitious yet. The drama therapist, who wrote and directed the play, set out to work on two fronts, campaigning for the rights of mentally ill prisoners and seeking to create fairer laws governing the release of prisoners serving life sentences and those sentenced to death.

The play was performed at Roumieh in the summer of 2016 by prisoners serving life sentences. They reflected on their crimes, describing their guilt and remorse and the horror of living with no hope of release. They also told the stories of the mentally ill prisoners locked away in a small on-site structure known as the Blue Building.

Lebanon’s laws relating to mentally ill prisoners have not been updated since 1943. Article 232 of the penal code states that “insane” people who have committed a crime should be locked up in a special psychiatric unit “until cured”.

Zeina explains that most of the inmates suffer from conditions that cannot be cured, only managed, meaning that the law essentially condemns mentally ill inmates to life in prison.

“There were these two old men who had been there for 37 years, totally forgotten,” she says. “One of them is 64, the other 68 or 69 years old. They were diagnosed with a kind of schizophrenia, but now they also have Alzheimer’s. They’ve become two human beings who just breathe.”

In June 2016, she convinced judges to release the two men, who were certified harmless. They are now living in a community for the elderly in a small village in the Lebanese mountains.

Longer term, Catharsis has worked with two MPs, as well as a team of local and international lawyers, to draft two amendments to Lebanon’s penal code. One would abolish the provision that prisoners suffering from mental illness be locked up “until cured”, while the second draft law seeks to aid prisoners with life sentences and those on death row.

Although these inmates are supposed to be able to apply for release after 20 to 35 years, they must either secure a pardon from the victim’s family, or pay indemnities that can total more than $200,000 US — conditions that are effectively impossible to fulfil.

“You’ve been an inmate for 20 years, of course you don’t have the money to pay the indemnities,” Zeina says. “And of course no one would give you a pardon. You’ve killed someone from their family. [In] other countries, no one asks you for a pardon or to pay the indemnities.”

The new draft law proposes a system like that used in Italy and Egypt, whereby the families of victims can pursue the money in a civil tribunal once inmates are released.

Documentaries about Zeina’s first two plays have toured 74 countries and won multiple awards. A third documentary based on about Johar … Up in the Air is due out this summer. But she insists she considers her work to be the prisoners’ achievements, not her own.

“Through the play, their voices are conveyed to society,” she says. “Through the play, the laws are being lobbied for. And through the play, they are being recognised as people who can be productive.”