Between prison and the outside world: The messengers of last resort
A note from a prisoner written on an empty cigarette carton.

“Mohsen* wants to check in on you and remind you not to forget to bring a photograph of Ahmed and his mother together. Bring ointment for his face because the pills are giving him black spots. Blessings to you all. Bring my father with you because I really want to see him and if he doesn’t come it means he doesn’t love me. Also, bring some medication for miliaria.”

This written note was secretly handed to Laila* last month by her brother when she visited him in prison in Upper Egypt. It was from one of her brother’s cellmates in the hopes that she could pass it along to his family.

Laila receives dozens of letters in this way, as do many others like her who find themselves working as messengers of last resort between Egypt’s detainees and the outside world. The letters from prison often contain simple, heartfelt requests from detainees who have been completely cut off from their families and loved ones.

Even though communication from prison is a right established by Egypt’s Criminal Procedure Code and is enshrined in the constitution, correspondence from detainees are often heavily restricted by prison authorities. Much of the treatment of prisoners of Egypt appears to be based on the misconception by security agencies that detainees do not have any rights in the first place and fits into a longstanding tendency to mistreat prisoners in any way possible.

Laila recalled that one of the messages she passed along was sent by a prisoner who hadn’t had a visit by his family in over a year. “Every month I go visit my brother in prison and he hands me written messages from other detainees to pass along,” Laila tells Mada Masr. “He has to hide them because the prison authorities don’t allow it. He’s even been searched several times to try and prevent him coming to the visitation carrying messages from other detainees.” 

Both prisoners held in remand detention and those serving jail sentences resort to smuggling messages to the outside world, even though Article 38 of the Prisons Regulation Law stipulates that “every convict and defendant has the right to correspond with and receive visits from their relatives in accordance with the rules of procedure. Persons in pretrial detention have this right without prejudice to the part of the Code of Criminal Procedure that concerns them in this regard.” 

Amendments to this law through a presidential decree in October 2015 changed the article to state that “every convicted person has the right to correspond and make phone calls for a fee and receive visits from their family twice a month under the surveillance and supervision of the prison administration.” 

Yet detainees are often cut off from all communication with the outside world. And according to the accounts of people who act as intermediaries in getting messages in and out of places of detention, the authorities often try to intercept the messages to stop them getting out. Security forces even go so far as to physically assault those who try to receive messages to pass along to the relatives of detainees — either by listening to the pleas shouted out of police trucks or by scooping up handwritten notes thrown from the caged windows.

The first time she received such a message, Laila says she was standing outside the Old Cairo police station where a prisoner transport truck was parked. “Someone called me over and gave me a number to call his family to let them know he’d been arrested. I took a pen, wrote down the number and notified his family,” Laila says.

“The second time, I was buying something next to Appeals prison when someone called me over, gave me a phone number and asked me to pass a message to his mother that said, ‘Why aren’t you all visiting me?’,” she says. “I called the man’s mother right there from in front of the station and relayed a conversation between them.”

Nazly Hussein, a member of the “No to Military Trials for Civilians” group, says that the first time she relayed a message, it was from a prisoner in a transport vehicle and that she was deeply confused. 

“Someone kept calling and calling and threw out a slip of paper. I took the paper but I was quite scared at the time. I couldn’t even see the person, but at the same time I wanted to reassure him,” Hussein says. “I was scared of the many people that were near the vehicle. Security personnel were always trying to prevent people from picking up the notes, but this time I picked it up anyway.”

One message relayed by Hussein said: “Hassan* wants to let you know that he’s been transported to Abu Zaabal Prison, you must try to visit him there. And thank you to the messenger.” Another message came from a detainee who handed a note to a cellmate who had a family visitation. It asked them to contact his brother and said, “I’m in the maximum-security Tora Liman prison. Come visit me on Monday and bring pictures of yourselves.”

A number of messages received by Hussein and Laila — especially those passed by detainees from inside prisoner transport vehicles or police stations — were simply to inform relatives of the basic fact that they had been arrested.

At Cairo’s Appeals prison, most of the messages Laila received were to notify the families of the prisoners of where they were being held. “The messages can be written on notebook paper, but are more often they are written on cigarette packs and tea boxes. Prisoners in the transport vehicles would often write several copies of the same message because they were unsure if their messages would ever arrive,” she says.

Human rights lawyer Mokhtar Monier says that detainees have the right to notify their families of where they are being held, according to both the Egyptian constitution and the Criminal Procedure Code.

According to Article 54 of the Egyptian Constitution, “Personal freedom is a natural and inviolable right. No one can be arrested, searched, imprisoned or be deprived of their freedom without a judicial warrant when it is necessary in an investigation, other than in cases of flagrante delicto. Everyone who is deprived of their freedom must be immediately informed of the reasons, be notified of his rights in writing, be allowed to contact their relatives and a lawyer and be presented to the investigating authority within 24 hours of having their freedom restricted.”

Meanwhile, Article 139 of the Egyptian Criminal Procedure Code states that “remand detainees must be immediately notified of the reasons for their arrest or detention,” and that they “have the right to contact any person they seem necessary to inform what happened and have access to a lawyer.” They must also “be informed of the charges levied against them as quickly as possible.”

There is no article that specifically covers cases where detainees are transferred from one place of detention to another, Monier says, but the same rules in the law should apply. Therefore, if prisoners have the right to inform relatives of their arrest, they should also be able to notify them if they are transferred to another place of detention. Lawyers should also be notified of any court sessions or prosecution investigation sessions.

Often basic information about detainees can also be kept in the dark, such as release orders. 

For example, one message relayed by Hussein requested that a detainee’s family complete the necessary paperwork to finalize his release. “Ahmed says to have the lawyer go to the Prison Authority tomorrow with the order number so he can check on Ahmed’s release and sign the documents in any way possible. Please pay attention to this because his release is set for 17/7/2015 and we don’t want it to be delayed. If the lawyer if busy, Uncle Hassan should go and you can go with him with LE500 at most in order to finish the procedures,” the message said. 

The note also called on the family to send their response through the radio — another clandestine technique of communication where relatives would call into a friendly radio program broadcast at a certain hour of the day and send coded messages to detainees listening from inside their prison cells.

A majority of the messages relayed by Laila and Hussein contained requests by detainees from their families on their next prison visit, such as photos of their children, groceries, towels, sheets, pots, medicine, money, letters to mothers asking to see them, or to their children telling them to go to school. 

However, most of the messages arrive late, according to Hussein. The detainee must wait at least a week for the message to be transmitted, then they must wait another two weeks after their family receives the message until their next prison visit.

“Getting word that there was a message for me would really excite me,” Mahmoud*, a former prisoner, tells Mada Masr about his eight-month incarceration in a political case in 2018. “Even though at times, between those four walls, I would find nothing to say, I would write anything just for the feeling of happiness I would get from waiting for a response that would eventually come after a week or two,” he says. “The responses from my friends, whom I missed dearly, kept me updated on their lives and work.”

During visitations, Mahmoud would conceal the messages and would ask his family to do the same, so the guards at the prison or police station could not read them and go on to poke fun at the details of his personal life. The handling of messages differed from one place of detention to another, as well as from prisoner to prisoner, he says. He points out that political prisoners were almost always more fortunate than criminal convicts when it came to being able to communicate with the outside world.

When his family visited, Mahmoud would hand his mother a large number of messages from cellmates convicted in criminal cases. She would go on to reach out to each of their families. On one occasion, prison guards discovered the letters and tore them up. 

Hussein first began receiving messages from prisoners back in 2011. 

“Hundreds were arrested, during the protests in Abbaseya in May 2011. This was the first time we began providing support (such as packages of food and clean clothes) to prisoners, as arrests before then were relatively low,” Hussein says. “I was a member of the No to Military Trials for Civilians group. We began working as a medium between the families and the lawyers. At the time, I began receiving messages from the prisoner transport trucks in front of these detention centers, but mostly I was receiving them during visitations, whether directly or when I was waiting for one of the family members outside of the prison. Their son would give them a message and they would hand it to me. There were many families delivering messages through the number written on the letter.”

She continued working as a volunteer helping prisoners between 2011 and 2016, and even had her own assigned place in some police stations, such as Qasr al-Nil police station, where all of the police officers knew her well, as well as the courts she visited frequently for hours at a time, especially between 2011 and 2013.

Laila regularly went to Appeals prison to relay messages until it was completely banned. 

“There was a kiosk next to the prison that sold cell phone refill cards. Prisoners would have the kiosk owner call their families, who would pay the kiosk operator in order to credit their phone,” Laila says. 

Monier believes that the restrictions on correspondence — including the common practice of banning books and newspapers to detainees — are part of a wider pattern of mistreatment of prisoners that prevents them from having any contact with the outside world.

“Another aim is to prevent people whose freedom is restricted from relaying what’s happening inside of the prison to the outside world, so they cannot talk about what they are being subjected to in detention,” he says.

* Pseudonyms

Hadeer El-Mahdawy 

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