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Lebanon: Drama therapist helps inmates with mental illnesses while pushing for reform

Zeina Daccache conducts drama therapy in Lebanon’s jails to help inmates and fight for reform of the unjust penal code that can effectively sentence the mentally ill to a lifetime in prison
Zeina Daccache uses drama therapy to help inmates while fighting for reform (Catharsis LCDT/courtesy of Zeina Daccache)
Zeina Daccache's non-profit organisation Catharsis is the first drama therapy centre in the Arab region (Catharsis LCDT/courtesy of Zeina Daccache)
By Meera Santhanam in Beirut, Lebanon

For many of those suffering from mental illness behind bars in Lebanon, uncertainty is the only certainty. 

Itani, a former calculus and Arabic teacher, spent 37 years incarcerated in Roumieh, Lebanon’s largest and most notorious male prison. He received a sentence of “one year and until cured”, a common sentence in Roumieh’s Blue Building, which houses inmates suffering from mental illness.

'They need to call them "people suffering from mental illness", not "insane", "mad" or "possessed"'

- Zeina Daccache, actor, therapist, director

Itani is just one of the many mentally ill prisoners who we meet in The Blue Inmates, actress and drama therapist Zeina Daccache’s latest documentary. The documentary, which aired in 2021, explores her drama therapy work with inmates.

 The “until cured” sentence Itani received is effectively a sentence for life. Article 232 of the Lebanese Penal Code states that any “insane”, “mad” or “possessed” offender shall be incarcerated “until cured”, relegating thousands to a lifetime in prison. 

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Roger, an inmate at Roumieh, explains in the documentary that this wording is a major issue. “The penal code stipulates that they’ll be sentenced to a psychiatry unit ‘until cured’. First, they won’t be cured. Second, no one is checking if they’re cured… it means they are serving a life sentence,” he explains.

Drama therapy in prisons 

Zeina Daccache, 44, an actor-turned-psychologist-turned filmmaker, pioneered the concept of drama therapy in Lebanese prisons in 2007, when she began holding drama therapy sessions with inmates in Roumieh prison.

She not only provided therapy to the inmates, but also choreographed an entire play within the prison, titled 12 Angry Lebanese, with the cast made up entirely of inmates. 

drama therapy lebanon
Drama therapy helps inmates who suffer from mental illnesses (Catharsis LCDT, courtesy of Zeina Daccache)

By using the technique of self-revelatory performance and theatre as a form of therapy for the inmates, she was also able to raise awareness on the issue.

Drama therapy allows prisoners to tell their stories and express their feelings in a safe space.  Daccache says the performance element helps build bridges between those incarcerated in Roumieh and the outside world and raises awareness of the many issues that inmates at Roumieh face. 

Daccache established an NGO called Catharsis in 2007, based in Lebanon. The organisation has been working for over 15 years to  provide drama therapy services to all members of Lebanese society, including prisoners, refugees, domestic violence survivors, students, at-risk youth, and individuals with mental illness.

The organisation believes that incorporating drama into therapy not only grants individuals an active role in their own healing, but also serves as an empowering method for solving problems and promoting growth and wellbeing.

However,  Daccache didn’t always plan to work within prisons. She pivoted towards prisons because of her boredom with the conventional theatre world. 
“I was bored of theatre in Beirut… bored of the vicious and incestuous cycle of theatre: your colleagues attend your shows, you go to their shows, together we go to another artist’s shows,” she wrote in an essay. “We all applauded but nothing changed.”
“I just don’t like it,” Daccache told Middle East Eye, describing art when done just for the sake of art. “Why are we performing only in front of the ‘educated’ while losing sight of the larger portion of society?” she adds. 

She started conducting drama therapy workshops for inmates, migrant workers and psychiatric patients, rethinking whom theatre should be for.

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Women act in 'Scheherazade in Baabda'. Baabda Women’s Prison does not have a separate space for women suffering from mental illness. (Catharsis LCDT, courtesy of Zeina Daccache)

In 2011, Daccache went on to introduce drama therapy into Baabda Prison, a women’s prison in Lebanon, where she choreographed a performance, Scheherazade in Baabda, in 2012 and made an accompanying documentary, Scheherazade’s Diary. 

Since the inmates from the Roumieh prison's Blue Building are not allowed to act in a play because of the prison’s restrictions, she enlisted inmates from Unit A, which houses Roumieh’s other convicts, to portray the inmates from the Blue Building and tell their stories.

Mental health crisis in Lebanese prisons 

Of the 25 prisons in Lebanon, only one facility exists for inmates suffering from mental illness, the Blue Building, and it is only for men. 

Men suffering from mental illness in other prisons are not transferred to the facility, and are instead imprisoned with “regular” inmates according to Daccache. No similar facility for women suffering from mental illness exists. 

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According to research conducted on the matter,  prisoners have a higher rate of mental illness compared to the general population, especially in low to middle income countries. The study also shows that mental illness is usually managed, not cured.

The issue also seems to have worsened,  according to Daccache’s NGO Catharsis’ prevalence study of mental illness in Roumieh and Baabda prisons in 2015. The NGO, founded in 2007, which provides drama therapy to all disadvantaged communities, found that Lebanese prisons do not routinely conduct any kind of mental health screening upon intake or during incarceration. 

In-house psychiatrists, trained psychiatric nurses, and psychotherapists are also largely absent from the Blue Building, and to date, the “until cured” sentencing contingency for mentally ill inmates remains unchanged.  

Within Lebanon’s prisons, mental illnesses largely go undiagnosed and untreated, due to a lack of formal diagnosis. 

With some inmates going undiagnosed, this typically affects not only sentence length, but one’s competency to stand trial. 

Catharsis also found that many inmates develop mental illness while in prison, compounding the lack of care.

With Lebanon’s penal code which governs inmates with mental illnesses being around 80 years old, Daccache says prisoners face a "dead end" situation.

Lobbying for change through theatre 

For Daccache, theatre transcends therapy alone. It is inherently political too.  

The idea of using theatre to campaign for penal reform first came from the inmates themselves. During rehearsals for the play, 12 Angry Lebanese, the inmates would ask Daccache “Have you read the penal code?” “Do you know that we don’t have this law?”

documentary prison lebanon
'The Blue Inmates' tells the story of those incarcerated in Roumieh’s Blue Building, which houses those suffering from mental illness (Catharsis LCDT, courtesy of Zeina Daccache)

This prompted Daccache to sit down and read the penal code with them, when she realised the power her work could have in challenging the unjust laws that inmates in Lebanon face.  

Daccache went on to invite prominent officials to each of her plays within prison in an effort to raise awareness of the injustice in Lebanese prisons and spur lawmakers to change the penal code. These efforts were not in vain. 

A month after the performance of 12 Angry Lebanese, the Lebanese Ministry of Justice, in collaboration with the Ministry of the Interior, implemented Law 463, known as the early release law, which allows for inmates to be released early on the condition of good behaviour.  While the law had originally been issued in 2002, Daccache’s efforts ultimately triggered its implementation.

blue building prison lebanon
Inmates from Unit A tell the stories of those suffering from mental illness in the Blue Building (Catharsis LCDT, courtesy of Zeina Daccache)

Scheherazade’s Diary, and the discussion surrounding it, contributed to the passing of a bill for the protection of women and members of the family in the Lebanese parliament in April 2014.

The Blue Inmates has inspired legal reform as well. In 2016, Catharsis authored two draft laws advocating for suitable legislation for mentally ill inmates and inmates sentenced to life, respectively, which it submitted to the Lebanese parliament. The draft laws have yet to be passed.

One of Daccache’s missions was also to change the wording of the penal code - and put an end to the  “until cured” sentences. 

"They need to call them ‘people suffering from mental illness’, not 'insane', 'mad' or 'possessed'," Daccache told Middle East Eye. She has also proposed that the Ministry of Health bring in psychiatrists to Roumieh on a weekly basis and bolster mental health support services in the Blue Building and beyond.

Overcoming opposition 

Daccache’s work has not been without opposition. She states that  many government officials saw theatre as a luxury that was not necessary or useful in prisons.

It took Daccache a year and a half to obtain clearance to enter prison for her first project, 12 Angry Lebanese. Prison officials initially tried to dissuade her by stating that there was no room inside Roumieh to conduct drama therapy sessions.
“They tried everything not to put me inside [prison]. And every time, I found an excuse,” Daccache explained. 

zeina daccache drama therapy lebanon prisons
Zeina Daccache, an actress, therapist and filmmaker, introduced drama therapy into Lebanese prisons and had to overcome much opposition (Meera Santhanam/supplied)

As well as working as a psychologist and drama therapist, Daccache is also working on a stand-up comedy show on everything from the crisis in Lebanon to life in your forties.

'She [Daccache] humanised the prisoners. They have names, they have words, they have history, and they have identity' - Ibrahim Khalil, outreach cooordinator, Laban

Over the years, Daccache’s work has helped inspire other drama therapy initiatives in Lebanon.

“Zeina Daccache is, I think, a school,” says Ibrahim Khalil, the outreach coordinator at Laban, a nonprofit that brings theatre to marginalised communities in Lebanon.
“She humanised the prisoners,” he says. “They have names, they have words, they have history, and they have identity. They are human, at the end of the day.”

Reporting for this article was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.


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