Life in an Egyptian prison

In a letter obtained by Al Jazeera, 23-year-old Esraa el-Taweel describes the grim conditions in prison.

Activists have denounced Taweel's detention, which has been renewed numerous times [Courtesy of Esraa el-Taweel's family]

Esraa el-Taweel was leaving a restaurant in Cairo when she was grabbed, bundled into a mini-van and taken to a holding facility by Egyptian security forces.

Her arrest on June 1 marked the beginning of a long stretch of court hearings and renewed detentions, during which she was accused of espionage, spreading false information and insulting the judiciary. But Taweel, who maintains her innocence, says no evidence has been presented in her case. Activists and human rights groups have denounced her detention, citing Egypt’s increasingly repressive judicial system.

Taweel, 23, who is being held at al-Qanater women’s prison, began writing letters to her family to describe the conditions. Al Jazeera has been given permission to reprint an English translation of her latest letter, which is excerpted below.

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Although two months have passed since I was kidnapped, I still cannot absorb what is happening. Even to this day, I still wake up panicking, asking, “Where am I?” I cry and say, “I just want to go back home.”

When I was locked up for interrogations at the state security premises [before arriving at al-Qanater], I had the feeling I was already dead. I felt that time had stopped. For 15 days I was kept blindfolded; I felt I was inside a tomb and hoped that God would revive me once again like He resurrects the dead from their graves.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to pray during those 15 days, since I had the last day of my period on the day I was kidnapped. I first needed to bathe before I could resume my prayers, but wasn’t able to until the 17th day, once my family knew I was at al-Qanater prison and got clothes to me at the Supreme State Security Prosecution (SSSP) building.

One day, I will speak about everything that happened to me at the state security premises.

On July 27, I had a showing at the SSSP and, for the fourth time, my custody was extended for another 15 days. I asked my lawyer to tell my sister, who was waiting outside, that I wanted to have a McDonald’s meal, but the officer in commission refused.

Days pass here as if they are mere copies of each other – they are all similar. Sometimes I think, ‘Why do I eat? Why should I still survive; for what cause?’


They are transporting me in a large deportation vehicle with two security vans, one driving in front of us and the other behind us. I swear to God, they are wasting their time and our time, tiring themselves for no reason.

I hate prison. I used to think earlier that I feared nothing more than prison. But I am not afraid any more. 

Today, they took me to the prison doctor to check on me for the leg injury I have; the diagnosis was that I suffer from permanent disability. I explained to [the doctor] the whole story of my injury and that I was getting better with the help of continuous physiotherapy.

Yet, he insisted that his diagnosis was correct and he told me, “Don’t argue with me. Go back to your ward.”

Now I cannot walk on my own, and I need someone to take me to the toilet all the time.

I am staying in a cell sized five by three metres, full of cockroaches and insects. This is the only place we’re allowed to keep our food and hang our clothes. It’s as if I am living in a kitchen inside a bathroom with a bed.

Days pass here as if they are mere copies of each other – they are all similar. Sometimes I think, “Why do I eat? Why should I still survive; for what cause?” I am starting to feel that life is dying within me, despite the fact that my biggest hope when I was held at the state security premises was to see my mother and my family once again.

There, every day I was told I would be going home, and that they knew I was innocent and would be set free right away. Each coming day would reveal these all to be lies, as we were never sent home.

Prison is very vapid. Books are prohibited, radio is prohibited – even “Mickey” comic books are not allowed in. The detective chief inspector didn’t even allow me to take the photos my sister printed for me.

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The strip search and body inspections we repeatedly go through are very humiliating and invasive.

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The only time I feel I’m alive is when my family visits me. I am only allowed half an hour per week to see my family. Last visit, I couldn’t get ahold of myself. I cried to mama and asked her not to leave me.

I didn’t mean to hurt her or break her heart, but I couldn’t help it and I was very upset. I really wish I could see my friends. I wish I could see my cat, Woody. I know she’s pregnant and is due soon.

Two of my inmates here are Asmaa , known as “Dimples”, born in 1995, and Safaa, “Safy”, born in 1996; they are both serving three-year sentences. They have spent one and a half years inside prison. Another fellow inmate is Asmaa, “Mokh”, born in 1994 and serving two years.

And then there is the beautiful Mrs Rasha, whom I really love. She is young at heart and always playing with us, looking after the younger inmates and making sure none of us are sad or depressed.  

You might have heard about her in the media. She’s the one whose young husband died while waiting in the registration line to visit her in prison; he was carrying their two little girls. They prohibited her from attending his funeral or even seeing him after his sudden death, only a short distance away from her.


Now, even her mother-in-law is banning her daughters from visiting her. How on earth can Egypt’s judiciary give such a beautiful mother like Mrs Rasha a 25-year sentence, with a load of ridiculous nonsensical charges?

Mrs Rasha pampers us here and takes us up to her “garden” – the third level of the bunk bed where she sleeps – where we drink chocolate Nesquik drinks, and eat potato chips and chocolate, and sing.

We keep waiting for angels to come and save us, but they never come. Prison is a wicked thing; life is losing its meaning, or more accurately, there is no life here. We are like the living dead. Each one of us is allowed a short visit and that’s it.

Water here in prison is very unhygienic. It causes skin infections and smells like sewage, so we are forced to use mineral water. Each one of us needs at least six large bottles a day to drink and use for washing.

Water here in prison is very unhygienic. It causes skin infections and smells like sewage.


They don’t allow our families to bring us water from outside, so we are forced to buy sealed water bottles from the prison canteen. A box of bottled water here costs $6, and we’re only allowed one bottle a day each.

Here, they are segregating the political prisoners from the criminal prisoners, and the political ones are discriminated against.

For example, they forbid me from sending or receiving any letters during a visit, and they spread informers among us who overhear everything while we are talking to our families; a 24/7 surveillance. I hate prison. I need to go back to my life – it’s as simple as that.

In this summer heat, we go through daily power cuts that last for three to four hours at a time. The whole prison has installed electric generators except for our cell, so we don’t have any.

We almost die here from the heat, and there’s no draft or breeze of air, especially when the fans don’t work. Insects, cockroaches, ants and even worms spread quickly in our cell because we’re forced to keep our food inside. We have no refrigerator.

Families of inmates here have bought us three refrigerators, but the prison administration has suspended their installation for months despite the fact that the paper procedures are completed.

In this filthy prison, we also suffer from the impolite behaviour of the criminal prisoners. Those women physically harass us, they do bad things and sometimes some of them appear suddenly in the bathroom and uncover themselves in front of us. And the prison administration, as usual, is turning a blind eye to all of this.

I demand my immediate release with the continuation of the prosecutors’ investigations; and if this is too much to ask for or too hard to implement, then they can at least put me under house arrest until the investigations into these false accusations are done.

Source: Al Jazeera