Between walls – Mohamed Ramsis Ayari “The real bête noir in prison is overcrowding”


Mohamed Ramsis Ayari – Sfax Association of Jurists – “Reforming the penal and penitentiary system in Tunisia”.

Within the “Alternative” project, funded by the European Union and implemented by ASF and ATL MST SIDA, the Sfax Association of Jurists seeks to reform the penal and prison system in Tunisia. Through various advocacy and awareness-raising activities carried out with magistrates and prison staff in Sfax, the association is working towards reducing prison overcrowding in Tunisia, in particular through the development of alternatives to imprisonment.

Could you introduce yourself and the work done by the Sfax Association of Jurists?  

I am Mohamed Ramsis Ayari, lawyer at the Cour de Cassation, teacher in Human Rights and Civil liberties at the University of Sfax, local coordinator of the elections since 2011 and member of the Sfax Independent Higher Election Authority since 2014. I am also a member of the Sfax Association of Jurists since 2003, its secretary general since 2015 and coordinator of the project “Reforming the penal and penitentiary system in Tunisia”.

The Sfax Association of Jurists was created in 1988 and has experience in all areas of law, including human rights and public liberties. Its members are lawyers, judges, law professors and researchers. Our action consists essentially in promoting the revision of legal texts to the legislator, in view of the deficient character of the current legal and jurisdictional system. Our advocacy work extends to all actors in the criminal justice system.

Tell us about the project you are carrying out. What led you to start it?

Tunisian criminal legislation is repressive and not rehabilitative. It is marked by its cumbersome procedures, unequal access to a fair trial within a reasonable time, an embryonic probation system and very little use of alternatives to imprisonment. The consequence of all these dysfunctions is systemic prison overcrowding. This is why the project was mainly designed to fight prison overcrowding and to contribute to the establishment of a probation office in Sfax, which has finally opened in March 2021.

The project, which started in April 2019, aims to reform the penal and penitentiary system, especially regarding alternative sentences. We want to push the legislator to enshrine these sentences. It is true that some of them are already in place (electronic bracelet, community service, etc.), but the panel we are aiming to adopt extends to 18 measures in total. The objective is twofold: both the legislative consecration of these alternative sentences (by law or decree) and their practical implementation.

What activities have you implemented so far?

The project includes several types of activities. First of all, we have organised awareness-raising sessions for criminal judges to encourage them to impose alternative sentences that are already enshrined in the law – in other words, to exploit what already exists. We are also working, together with legal experts, on recommendations for the revision of the Penal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure. The idea is not to replace existing work [two revision commissions have already made proposals for reform of the two Codes] but to propose specific recommendations linked to the general objective of reducing the prison population. In other words, by reducing the use of pre-trial detention [62% of detainees in Tunisia in 2020] and developing alternatives to imprisonment. The book resulting from the committee’s work will be presented to the deputies of the Assembly of People’s Representatives.

In addition to these advocacy efforts, we organised awareness-raising/training sessions for about sixty managers and prison officers in the Sfax prison. They were all delighted with the content of these sessions, but initially it was difficult to initiate the process. The prison staff really tried to make us understand, from the start, that the situation was not Manichean. Prison overcrowding is a problem for everyone, and affects the working conditions of staff as well as their rights and those of the prisoners. This enabled us to see things differently, to adapt the sessions and to take into account the difficulties of all parties (prisoners and prison staff). Many ideas came from these exchanges and our ability to listen to their problems and the reality of their work (very high levels of stress) ultimately led to a high level of attendance by officers and managers at all our training sessions.

We also provided legal support to a number of detainees in pre-trial detention. This action was also a great success since 70% of the prisoners we assisted were released. We noted that the profile of these defendants is particularly homogeneous: the overwhelming majority are young people between 20 and 30 years old and are in very fragile socio-economic situations.

What are the future actions planned for the last year of the project?

We plan to carry out training sessions, specifically for the probation officers of Sfax, 7 people in total. We are also going to develop a practical guide on community service for host structures, in order to raise awareness on probation among public enterprises and other local public authorities. It is important to know that most of the structures that would be likely to welcome community service workers refuse to do so out of mistrust. So we need to raise awareness, but also, in my opinion, to impose by regulation an obligation for these public entities to receive them.

The main challenge is to spread the culture of probation. Mentalities and the penal system are still very repressive. Both the penal actors and the public opinion are reluctant, so we will also develop awareness-raising spots about community service and probation which will be broadcasted by the media and social networks. This is a good way to change mentalities.

Finally, we are going to provide legal information sessions to the detainees in Sfax in order to provide them with knowledge of their rights so that they can also take decisions accordingly. In order to be more relevant, we will divide these sessions between prisoners who have already been tried and those who are awaiting trial, whose needs for legal information are significantly different.

What was the feedback from the actors who participated?

What encouraged us a lot was the fact that the Ministry of Justice itself supported our awareness-raising activities among criminal judges. It required the presence of all prosecutors, presidents of courts and criminal judges in Sfax. This good relationship also facilitated the opening of the probation office, as the Ministry of Justice committed itself to its opening in 2020. Moreover, thanks to our awareness-raising activities, the first electronic bracelet sentence in Tunisia was handed down in Sfax in June 2021.

As for the General Committee of Prisons and Rehabilitation, the partnership agreement we managed to conclude with them has helped a lot and our relations with the prison administration, including in Sfax, are now very good. The success of the awareness-raising/training sessions has also contributed to the quality of this relationship. Our ability to take into account the needs of prison officers and managers has convinced them of the sincerity of our commitment to improving conditions in prison – both for those imprisoned there and for those who work there.

What is your feedback from your experience with the Sfax Association of Jurists? 

The main added value has been the strengthening of our expertise, especially in working with prison officers and managers. The project has also enabled us to broaden our partnerships and to establish a relationship of great trust with criminal judges and the prison administration.

Although your work is not directly implemented in detention, what is your assessment of the situation in Sfax prison today (prison population, detention conditions, working conditions of prison staff, etc.)?

Everything is linked to prison overcrowding. It is the real bête noire. It influences everything: working conditions, detention conditions… How can we talk about rights, and human rights, when three prisoners have to sleep on the same bed? How can we demand any respect for human rights standards? There is a real causal link between overcrowding and deteriorating working and detention conditions. Officers sometimes find themselves supervising thirty inmates, which is absolutely enormous. On average, the prison holds around a thousand prisoners, but depending on the time of year, it can be as high as 1,500 or 1,600. And more than half of them are remand prisoners, and are therefore deprived of their freedom without trial.

Moreover, it was very interesting to learn from our discussions with the prison managers and staff the difference between working with remand prisoners and convicted prisoners. The latter have a clear idea of their future, a release date, or are in the process of appealing their sentence. But in some ways they are more serene than the defendants, who are very agitated because of the uncertainty of their situation.

What change(s) would you like to contribute to through your action? What reforms do you think are necessary in penal and prison matters? Specifically in the field of probation?

Last year, during the first phase of the Covid-19 crisis, we managed for a while, especially through advocacy actions carried out with the other members of the Alternative, to reduce the prison population of the Sfax prison to a normal occupancy level of 1000 prisoners. But this decrease was only temporary, since by the second half of 2020, we were back to “normal”, i.e. an occupation of 130 to 160%. So for us, one of the desirable changes would be for this overcrowding to disappear for good. And the experience of 2020 showed us that this was possible.

What we also want is to succeed in instilling a culture of probation and to make it accepted, by the general public as well as by all actors in the penal chain.

As for necessary reforms, I think that the priority now is to create a law that regulates probation and clarifies its functioning. This should be done from an organisational point of view – the probation office should be under the authority of the Ministry of Justice and be chaired by a judge in charge of the execution of sentences – as well as from a budgetary, logistical and functional point of view.

It is also necessary to amend the Penal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure in their entirety, especially those provisions that are responsible for prison overcrowding – especially the thorny issue of pre-trial detention.

What is the role of civil society organisations in prisons and penal reform? How do you think this civil society/prison dynamic can be made sustainable?

Civil Society have multiple roles to play. In prisons, CSOs can provide psychological or legal assistance to prisoners, organise cultural activities, etc. Outside the prison walls, our role is to provide support to prisoners. Outside the prison walls, our role is to constantly advocate to push the actors of the penal chain and political decision-makers to commit to simplifying, clarifying and humanising Tunisian penal policy towards more rehabilitation and less repression.

The main action to make this presence of civil society in the penal and prison debate sustainable, and also concretely on the ground, is to seek to conclude partnership agreements, in particular with the prison administrations and the General Committee of prisons and rehabilitation. From there, everything becomes easier. As for the Sfax Association of Jurists, we have in mind to leave all the content of the training sessions to the Sfax prison so that they can continue with the new staff who arrive and that our action, even without us, can continue.

The L’Alternative project is funded by the European Union