BY Nana Abuelsoud
19 EGP = 1 USD
30 EGP = 1 USD
Since March 2022, the Egyptian Pound has lost more than half its value to the crisp, green banknotes of the US dollar. And I lost a day or two glued to the currency converter, while spiraling in rage. The floating of the Egyptian Pound was one of the prerequisites for Egypt to seal its latest deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in December 2022.
I reached out to fierce lawyer and activist Mahinour El Masry, who had experienced the Egyptian prisons herself multiple times, to get a sense of what the recent currency devaluation meant for families of prisoners, and the prisoners themselves.
Towards the end of 2021, Egypt announced the opening of a new prison on the outskirts of Cairo, called ‘Badr’. And on 28 October 2022, the Ministry of Interior announced the official closure of 12 prisons across the country, and the inauguration of the massive ‘Wadi Natrun’ prison. All prisoners were moved to the two new prisons in waves, while celebratory propaganda accompanied by English subtitles of the “American Style” prisons, took over our screens. Many of us are now familiar with social media updates from prisoners’ families asking for support and prayers, sharing selfies while waiting for visits under a godless sun, or making the atrocities they face with prison guards and authorities public. In this ongoing financial crisis, with prices increasing exponentially, the International Monetary Fund’s recent deal promises nothing but financial beasting and malnutrition to families and their loved ones behind bars.
Mahinour says the new prisons ‘Badr’ and ‘Wadi Natrun’ are in the middle of nowhere. A key issue is the lack of reliable transportation. Previously, families could take the metro to commute to visitations. Those who don’t have a car, which is the case for most families, either group and rent a shuttle to travel together, or reduce the number of times they go to see a loved one. Transport costs have gone through the roof with the recent spike in prices as fuel prices swing with the US Dollar exchange rates.
“It is especially hard for mothers, who can’t take their children with them on this hellish day trip because they may wander off or can’t go through the commute and waiting time. They have to look for someone to keep an eye on their children till the mother comes back,” says Mahinour. Doubled costs, Mahinour explains, are especially hard for families who have their main provider imprisoned and are left to figure out ways of generating income.
Mahinour further explains that as the rationed food is inedible and unfilling, most of the families bring food and other necessities like medicine and soaps if they can afford it. Basic hygiene products, according to Mahinour, are not sureties for those imprisoned during a global pandemic. Sometimes they distribute an all-purpose soap, but prisoners have to buy cleaning supplies and detergents. These decisions depend on those in charge and temperamental decisions are not uncommon. Mahinour recalled a time when her ward struggled with scabies during the pandemic because of a supervisory intransigence.
While COVID-19 regulations put all prison visitations on hold, they were later resumed with reduced times to see a loved one. Visiting time was reduced from an hour to 20 minutes. Group visits are no longer allowed. And there are no phone booths to get connected to the outside world.
“One of the main problems with the recent relocations is that the new prisons are not surrounded by facilities or pharmacies. Families used to do last-minute shopping from markets and shops surrounding prisons instead of carrying heavy bags in transportation. Now, they have to have everything ready; figure out the commute, and note down prisoner’s requests to bring in the next visitation,” says Mahinour. This means paying a fortune and travelling miles for a brief visit, with a high chance of a loved one not getting their purchased items inside, as this depends on the officer’s temperament for the day.
Similar to the world outside and the disproportionate impact of the currency devaluation, prisons too house similar stratifications in each ward. Class, location and charges are determinants of “comfort” during a major economic hit. Prisoners share soaps, food, cigarettes (prisons’ official currency), and cleaning supplies.
As we wait for another round of currency devaluation by the end of the first quarter of 2023, and price increases in public transportation, I try to imagine what the IMF deal means for prisoners and their families. Travelling across town and losing a day of work waiting for constrained facetime with their imprisoned loved ones or delivering visits to fill in the structural gaps: I wonder if malnutrition, fatigue and total isolation are part of the implicit verdicts for prisoners and their families.
Prisoners and their families are hardly recognized as a vulnerable population, beyond a specific thematic focus. Over the last couple of years, we went through a global health crisis and we are paying the highest price for our systems’ fragility at the moment. International advocacy spaces and national policy-making platforms in the economic and health sectors and across movements should account for prisoners as vulnerable populations too. For us as feminists, part of social movements and engaged in policy-making, we should reflect on and question industries like prisons, that are sites for atrocious practices, and economic deprivation of millions of families. As we helplessly watch the Egyptian Pound float, we should not ignore those behind bars.