This report examines the prison system in Libya. With the permission of the Libyan Ministry of Justice and Judicial Police, United States Institute of Peace (USIP) research teams conducted two assessments of the Libyan prison system, visiting detention facilities throughout the country in 2012 and again in 2015–16 to evaluate organizational function, security, infrastructure, and prisoner well-being. This report combines and compares the findings of the two assessments, discussing the broader context of detention issues in Libya, with analysis centering on prisons under the authority of the Ministry of Justice and operated by the Judicial Police. 

This report is also available in Arabic.

Summary

  • Libya’s prisons and detention system is in chaos, and earlier hopes for reform have faltered.
  • The turmoil of the 2011 revolution and the subsequent emergence of two governments have created a splintered system struggling to cope with structural, security, and budgetary challenges.
  • Prisons are run not only by different branches of the rival governments but also by politically aligned armed groups outside the state’s purview.
  • State-run facilities often rely on armed groups to help guard against attacks on prisons and on convoys transporting inmates to and from courts and hospitals.
  • USIP assessment teams visited about twenty facilities in different parts of the country in 2012 and again in 2015–16, interviewing prison officials, government officials, human rights activists, and other national and international actors.
  • The teams found prison directors trying to improve the well-being of both staff and inmates but struggling with scant resources, dilapidated facilities, and multiple security threats.
  • Staff must contend with unreliable salary payment, uncertain chains of command, and little training. The integration of members of revolutionary armed groups into the Judicial Police has been slow and complex.
  • Most prisoners are detained without being prosecuted or sentenced—mired within a stalled judicial process.
  • In Libya’s postconflict environment, guards may see prisoners not just as detainees but as “enemies,” and vice versa, exacerbating problems of prison management. Moreover, many inmates are not “ordinary” criminals but conflict-related or political detainees.
  • Inmates typically live in overcrowded facilities, a number of them not originally designed as prisons and consequently unable to provide adequate sanitation, exercise facilities, and medical services.
  • Older inmates (including officials of the former regime), juveniles, female prisoners, and foreign prisoners face additional challenges.
  • A variety of reforms to the prisons and detention system are urgently needed, ranging from major legislative reforms—such as rewriting the law that governs the system—to bureaucratic measures—such as improving reporting procedures to facilitate strategic data-driven prison system management.
  • In spite of challenges posed by ongoing conflict, prison directors must take responsibility for improvements to prisoner care within their reach. Nonetheless, prospects for deeper institutional reform depend on local and international actors helping prison officials holding the system together until political stability can be restored and detention regularized.

About the Report

This report examines the prison system in Libya. With the permission of the Libyan Ministry of Justice and Judicial Police, United States Institute of Peace (USIP) research teams conducted two assessments of the Libyan prison system, visiting detention facilities throughout the country in 2012 and again in 2015–16 to evaluate organizational function, security, infrastructure, and prisoner well-being. This report combines and compares the findings of the two assessments, discussing the broader context of detention issues in Libya, with analysis centering on prisons under the authority of the Ministry of Justice and operated by the Judicial Police. The 2012 assessment team consisted of Fiona Mangan, a USIP senior program officer, and Dr. Mark Shaw, an expert consultant. The 2015–16 assessment team consisted of Rebecca Murray, a researcher and journalist; Rami Musa, a journalist; and Fiona Mangan. Mohamed Abouharous provided invaluable translation and logistical support during both visits. The assessments, part of a multiyear portfolio of rule of law programming and analysis conducted after the 2011 revolution, were supported by the International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Bureau of the U.S. Department of State.

About the Authors

Fiona Mangan is a senior program officer with the USIP Center for Applied Conflict Transformation and Middle East and Africa Center. Her work focuses on prison reform, organized crime, justice, and security issues. She holds degrees from Columbia University, King’s College London, and University College Dublin. Rebecca Murray is a field researcher and freelance journalist who reports extensively from the Middle East and Africa for publications such as McClatchy, Vice News, and Al Jazeera English. Rebecca lived and reported from Libya throughout 2015, returning after basing herself there for a year after the 2011 revolution. She is a contributing author to The Libyan Revolution and Its Aftermath, published by Hurst and Oxford University Press in 2015.

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