Screenshot from the video below showing an inmate in a Saudi prison hanging upside down from the ceiling.
A video recently published online shows a prisoner hanging from the ceiling of a cell, being beaten by other prisoners. This video was shot in Braiman prison, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. This type of incident reveals the power structure that determines interactions among prisoners, according to our Observer, a former Saudi prisoner.
In the above video, edited by FRANCE 24, the prisoner’s feet are tied up, and he is then hung upside down in a cell that he appears to share with several other prisoners. The incident lasts several minutes, but none of the prison staff intervened.
According to Al Watan, a Saudi newspaper, another prisoner filmed the incident and then sent it to the brother of the victim.The recipient claims that his jailed brother had been found in possession of medication. On a video that appears to have been filmed only moments earlier, other prisoners accuse the man of having smuggled “103 tabs of Lexus”, a psychotropic medication similar to Valium.
The victim’s brother has filed several complaints. The Saudi authority in charge of prisons has launched an investigation to establish what happened during the attack.
This isn’t the first time that footage appearing to show human rights violations in Braiman prison has made the rounds online. In February 2012, videos showing the extent of prison overcrowding had shocked humanitarian organisations.

“The system is set up in such a way that there are always some prisoners that dominate others”

Hussain [not his real name] is a Saudi activist who was imprisoned several times after participating in various anti-government protests .
This video does not surprise me in the least. Such treatment is part of daily life in a Saudi prison. I witnessed similar incidents during my multiple incarcerations. The reasons for such abuse can vary. It can be revenge following an altercation with a more powerful or better-connected prisoner, or if someone just thinks you looked at them funny.
As this footage shows, there are always some prisoners who dominate others. Daily life in these “barracks” [editor’s note: a grouping made up of several rooms] is managed by the prisoners themselves [as is the case in most prisons in the Arab world]. The prison chief nominates a “Chawich,” who is the head of the barrack. This nomination is typically motivated by tribal affiliations.
This nomination allows the “Chawich” to act with impunity, and very few prisoners would dare to question his authority. Any complaint that an inmate might make against him could lead to reprisals such as harassment or physical violence.
From the prison administration’s point of view, such a system leads to better management of the prison population and limits the tensions between the prison staff and the inmates. This may appear to work on the surface, but it also increases inequalities between prisoners. In most countries, this archaic management method is generally a result of insufficient resources, which we cannot use as an excuse here in Saudi Arabia.
Inside prisons, smuggling abounds. It chiefly centres around psychotropic medication, hashish, cigarettes -- even beds are rented out at a price to new arrivals. Those who lack the funds -- in particular, foreigners -- are forced to work as “khadams” (servants) in the cells of those that are better off, who ensure they get food, protection, and a place to sleep. Those who benefit from the system are not only the Chawich -- in the end, all this is meant to serve the interests of the prison staff.
The law of survival of the fittest rules the daily life of the prisoners. The prisoners are literally left to their own devices, and interventions from humanitarian organisations remain few and far between, and are in any case fairly ineffective.

“Some prison directors have an archaic vision of prisons and the role they play in society”

Alia al-Farid is an activist and researcher at the National Society for Human Rights.
The Saudi prison administration is really behind on the times. Our prisons, where the number of inmates is ceaselessly increasing, need the constant support of social workers, teachers, trainers, psychiatrists, psychologists, etc. Such professionals do exist in Saudi Arabia, but Saudi authorities still espouse a framework of repression, even though prisons should facilitate rehabilitation above all. Some “traditional” practices such as physical violence, humiliation, and psychological pressure remain difficult to eradicate.
We need to introduce a system where prisoners could submit complaints to an independent body. We have been trying to do this for several years in partnership with the justice ministry, which, like in all developed countries, should be in charge of the penal system. [Currently, the interior ministry manages Saudi prisons].
Despite the difficulties we have faced, I believe we are on the right path when it comes to coordinating with Saudi authorities. Most of the reluctance comes from some directors that still have an archaic vision of prisons and the role they play in society.
According to the latest statistics from the Saudi directorate for correctional facilities, there are 44,000 prisoners in the kingdom, more than half of whom are in temporary detention. Men make up more than 90% of prisoners and Saudi nationals constitute about half.
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Wassim Nasr (@SimNasr).