An Amman police patrol vehicle. Photo: Wikipedia

Jordan’s prisons are bursting at the seams amid a dearth of beds, a surge in crime, and legal codes that favor incarceration. With more than 19,000 inmates in 18 institutions designed to hold no more than 13,300, it’s a bad time to be in a Jordanian jail.

Overcrowding has resulted in several problems, for inmates and for the government. For starters, it’s expensive; each inmate costs the government an estimated US$1,000 a month in food, health care and security

It’s also inhumane. Prisoners report inadequate health services, poor ventilation, and insufficient sanitation, as well as improper placement that puts low-level criminals alongside serious offenders.

“It was humiliating because there is no segregation of prisoners,” one political activist told me recently. After being arrested in January for protesting against high fuel prices, “I was … incarcerated with drug dealers and other criminals.”

Cramped prisons aren’t new to Jordan. What is new is the government’s sense of urgency to address the issue. In January, Interior Minister Mazin al-Farrayeh announced plans to build a new prison in Azraq, east of Amman, at a cost of 70 million dinars (about $100 million). Once completed, the jail will accommodate an additional 3,000 inmates

Expansion projects for two other prisons are also in the works, and authorities have begun to implement non-punitive measures such as community service to reduce the total prison population.

Wide-ranging solutions needed

But while these moves are commendable, without a multifaceted solution that addresses the root causes of overcrowding, Jordan’s jails are unlikely to get any less congested.

In 2021, petty theft accounted for nearly half of all crimes in the country, while less than half a percent of crimes were murders, according to police data. But despite an overall decline in the crime rate between 2012 and 2021, the country’s prison population continues to swell.

Last year, a spate of violent crimes within families shocked the public – and sent many to jail. One involved a man killing his two young daughters and burying them in his back yard.

Dire economic conditions, a rise in drug abuse, and mental-health issues are fueling crime and social unrest. Public discontent and frustration over the country’s trajectory is widespread, especially among young people.

But there are also bureaucratic reasons for the country’s prison problem: Many in jail are low-level offenders who shouldn’t be there at all.

Consider, for example, the crime of debt. In 2019, roughly 2,630 people – about 16% of Jordan’s prison population – were locked up for failing to repay loans or bouncing checks. Last year, at least 148,000 people were wanted for unpaid debts, crimes that carry jail time. 

And yet rather than raise the threshold for incarceration, officials are doing the opposite. In January, the government announced that defaulting on loans of 20,000 dinars or more was punishable by lockup. Previously, the amount was 100,000 dinars.

Another problem is vague laws that allow authorities to detain and imprison citizens critical of the government and the political regime. Human-rights activists cite suppression of dissent as one of the main reasons for prison overcrowding.

The 2006 anti-terrorism law, for example, includes a broad definition of terrorism: “Committing an act that endangers the safety and security of the society and violates public order and disturbing relations with a foreign state.”

Despite laws criminalizing the detention of any person for more than 24 hours without a prosecutor’s authorization, governors continue to issue thousands of administrative detention orders under a law allowing pretrial detention for up to a year without charge or trial, according to the US State Department’s 2022 report on human rights in Jordan. Nearly 1,800 citizens are currently under pretrial detention.

A multifaceted strategy is needed to address these concerns. Criminal codes that favor incarceration should be evaluated and reconsidered. Rehabilitation programs also need to be improved. Hussein al-Khozahe, a sociologist at the University of Jordan, told me that repeat offenders make up 39% of the country’s prison population, a staggering percentage that suggests rehabilitation efforts are failing.

To address recidivism and facilitate reintegration after release, the government should allocate funds for effective rehabilitation programs that consider the social, psychological, and economic conditions of inmates. 

Post-prison success is possible. With proper support, former inmates can achieve success in their careers, said Abdullah al-Nasser, founder and managing director of Aftercare Center for Released Inmates (Edmaj). Nasser works with private-sector companies to make it easier for people arrested for minor crimes to find work after release.

Simply put, to address overcrowding in Jordan’s jails, the government must collaborate closely with human-rights organizations and civil-society institutions to balance the need for security and justice with the protection of individual rights and civil liberties.

To pre-empt crimes, the government should also prioritize spending on social welfare; attend to the needs of the underprivileged; invest in health, education, and development programs; and fight unemployment and poverty.

Building new cells won’t solve Jordan’s overcrowding problem. If officials in Amman really want to reduce the burden on the state, they need to address the reasons people are being sent to jail, and not only focus on what happens once they get there.

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Suha Ma’ayeh

Suha Ma’ayeh is a journalist based in Amman, Jordan. Her work has been published in Foreign Policy and CTC Sentinel. She also reports for The Wall Street Journal and other publications on Jordan and southern Syria.