An initiative by

UMAM Documentation & Research


© 2018 UMAM D&R | by A.G.                        

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Documenting, facilitating exchanges, generating and disseminating information.

MENA region self-documents its prison-related issues and offers a rich artistic production.

This Virtual Platform will ensure that the prison debate remains active.

The MPF Human Platform will develop into on open, multidisciplinary channel for its affiliated members.

The MENA Prison Forum will help foster transformation on two levels relative to prison-related issues.

The MENA PRISON FORUM (MPF) was conceived to institute a sustainable, multilayered and interdisciplinary platform that deals with prison issues—chiefly political imprisonment—from several different perspectives. In addition, it will address as many of the important aspects of the topic as possible. MPF builds upon an approach developed and utilized by UMAM Documentation & Research (UMAM D&R) to deal with issues that, while anchored in the past, remain especially challenging today.


The project will proceed along three unique axes:
• Documenting and examining past and present prison culture and practices in MENA;
• Facilitating exchanges (between academics, former detainees, human rights advocates, artists and local and international organizations involved with matters related to detention, prison, torture and trauma) we believe capable of sparking reciprocal interaction between those stakeholders and governmental representatives; and
• Generating and disseminating information about the above activities using a variety of media to foster debate, and as much as possible, to sensitize the public to the nature and implications of those activities.



UMAM D&R proposes a two-pronged approach to accomplish these aims:

1. Virtual

As mentioned, beyond the interest expressed by the news media and international human rights and advocacy groups about this topic, the MENA region has a long history of self-documenting issues related to its prisons.

Following the Arab Spring, for instance, numerous artistic projects focused on topics such as detention, prison, torture and trauma emerged in the MENA region. Films, theater plays, choreographies, performances and literature gave voice to the survivors, were inspired by their testimonies or were derived from related historical and human rights reports.

For many people in the MENA region, the deep-seated fear of incarceration has often been coupled with an overriding desire to understand, offer testimony about and/or denounce the prison experience. Considering this, one of the approaches to be used in this project will consist of a Virtual Platform.

Conveyed in Arabic and other languages (primarily English and French), it will function as a resource center for MPF-related materials, such as scholarly publications, newspaper articles, open-source reports and written or audiovisual testimonies.

This platform will also include sections that deal with MENA-oriented artistic productions (literary, musical and filmographic) that center on the topic of prison.

Aside from its utility as a material repository for interested visitors, we see the Virtual Platform becoming a virtual meeting space that facilitates exchange and debate. Notably, the creation of this platform indicates a unique form of advocacy, as both the planned actions and finished product will highlight the centrality of the many guises of political imprisonment and detention in the MENA region—to say nothing of the soul-searching process that today involves so many individuals and groups in the region.

That platform, itself and through its social media extensions, will emerge as an instrument that can help reach out to ever-greater numbers of stakeholders. While focused on political imprisonment and detention in the MENA region, this resource center will also seek to introduce discussion related to similar experiences and challenges in other countries and regions worldwide. The information collected via the documentation work associated with this effort, and the ideas and other intellectual and artistic products created through the exchanges mentioned above, will ensure that the prison debate remains open.

2. Interpersonal

The other approach to be used during this project involves establishing a notional Interpersonal Platform or network of individuals and organizations with either direct or indirect experience with the topic. This platform will not be restricted to individuals and entities from the MENA region, but will instead solicit global participation from people able to add unique, prison-related experiences, such as through scholarly input. In this approach, a body of affiliated network members (a core group we look forward to broadening) will meet regularly to discuss specific topics, including applicable country cases.

The output from these discussions will help generate some of the original content to be added to the Virtual Platform (mentioned above). The activities conducted via this Interpersonal Platform (including formal meetings and ad hoc interactions) will inform people involved with aspects of political imprisonment and detention (such as human rights or security sector reform) about related efforts being made by artists and scholars, as well as local and international actors.

Concurrently, this Interpersonal Platform could enable artists and scholars to commence and/or advance research and production endeavors. It may also help organize, produce or otherwise assist with artistic events intended eventually to tour the MENA region and beyond. Fundamentally, this Interpersonal Platform could develop into a force majeure that would publicly adopt positions favorable to mitigating prison-oriented issues and practices that occur in, and influence the MENA region.

Rather than replicate any similar work done by other organizations, we believe that this comprehensive approach to the topic of prison will document, integrate with and critically assess the work conducted on this topic in recent years while considering the region's revised realities since the Arab Spring. Successfully employing this two-pronged approach demands improvements in the social awareness of, and collective responsibility for prison-related issues. In keeping with its philosophy about the development of such social responsibility, the process UMAM D&R employs to "sensitize" each society or country cannot ignore previous instances wherein prison played a central role but society remained indifferent.

Such episodes must be linked to the present by assessing the net change and evaluating the factors that appear relatively constant. Ultimately, UMAM D&R hopes its efforts to compile historical instances of MENA-wide denunciations and advocacy actions related to prison issues can be used to feed ongoing (or planned) advocacy efforts.

We believe that in the medium to long term, MPF has the potential to initiate transformation on two levels associated with prison-related issues. First, it could motivate nongovernmental actors (former detainees, activists, scholars, journalists and artists) to revise their approaches and discourses to ensure that, aside from human rights alone, they consider (a) the historical dimensions of the prison issue in the MENA region; (b) the need to instill awareness of, and a sense of responsibility among societies and communities for the lasting effects of prison-related human rights violations; and (c) the new challenges, particularly those related to countering violent extremism by relying exclusively on security measures. Second, the initiative may encourage governmental actors to pursue exchanges on prison-related issues with nongovernmental actors.

This would enable them to (a) determine and assess the potential side effects of prison policies that fail to consider historical dimensions; and (b) accept the notion that human rights-oriented criticism is an acceptable means of expressing social concern—and that communicating such criticism extends well beyond the domain claimed by human rights activists.