Al-Ha’ir Prison and The Prince Mohammed bin Nayef Center are two of Saudi Arabia’s five facilities holding its more than 5,000 inmates charged with terrorism-related offenses.
They are part of a reform program staffed by psychologists and religious officials who try to deradicalize inmates by teaching them what Nasser al-Ajmi, a psychologist with the center, called “correct Shariah thought.”
The prisons include many comforts and freedoms, including an on-site hotel. The hotel is designed to give jihadists who behave well a respite from inmate life and help them reconnect with their wives and children, and perhaps even conceive new ones.
This positive reinforcement is emblematic of the Saudi approach to its homegrown jihadists, which would not translate well to the West.
A classroom for members of the jail is lined with desks on May 11, 2016 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Even though the desks are new the participants have scratched their names, dates, hearts, and slogans into the wood. The black seats with wooden desks reminded me of line of black clad IS members carrying kalashnikovs. At Al-Ha'ir prison I had to use the prison's camera and wasn't allowed to take photos of any of the staff or inmates, which left me to photograph the evidence left behind by the inmates. I photographed some of the etchings in the wood, but the prison censored these photos.
A cell block in Al-Ha'ir prison on May 11, 2016 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Most rooms have 5 inmates though there are some for individuals. While the prison is advertised as for reforming terrorists our guide also said that high level drug dealers and financial criminals get to stay in the comfortable conditions.
RIYADH, SAUDIA ARABIA - MAY 11: The cells for individual prisoners come with the normal basic amenities and a prayer rug and a Quran May 11, 2016 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The prison doesn't try to change all parts of their belief system but focuses on ensuring loyalty to the ruler and non-violence. (Photo by David Degner/Getty Images).
There are whiteboards and motivational posters in many of the classrooms at the Prince Mohammed bin Nayef Center May 11, 2016 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. On arrival inmates are assessed by a psychologist to identify social factors that may have led them astray, like drugs, alcohol, or family troubles. They are coached on how to react and cope with family, friends, and co-workers who might see them as terrorists.
Inmates can recieve visits from their wives in these simple rooms with a bed, bathroom, and mini-bar May 11, 2016 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. There are also rooms for meeting larger family groups. The positive reinforcement and reintegration steps are emblematic of the Saudi approach to its homegrown jihadists, which would not be politically acceptible in the West. Inmates are administered viagra before their visits.
The Family House is designed like a boutique hotel with all the amenities for a family visit May 11, 2016 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The suites allow inmates to live with their family for short periods of time while incarcerated. The families and inmates arrive in chauffeured cars with the hotel logo, guests are given a key for their rooms and the all female staff cares for them during their stay.
Inmates have a small area with astro-turf to enjoy the sun at the end of each cell block May 11, 2016 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The Ha'ir prison is primarily for terrorists, we are told. When talking to human rights activists, however, gives the impression that there are different departments with different standards. Political prisoners sometimes come after Ha'ir, but hardly in the comfortable cells of jihadists have. While the writers were interviewing another inmate under supervision I was able to talk with some inmates alone. They saw many new inmates arrive after the bombing of Shia mosques in the eastern provinces in May 2015 and felt they were arrested randomly. As one inmate said there is always the official story and then the unofficial story which they won't let us see. But he said he couldn't go into details.
RIYADH, SAUDIA ARABIA - MAY 11: The Family House hotel has all the details of a normal hotel including the innocuous abstract art on the walls May 11, 2016 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. There is even a room for banquets, where some of the inmates have gotten married while incarcerated. Inmates are allowed one visit per wife per month, incentivizing more wives.
In the 5 person cells each inmates gets a small area for their belongings May 11, 2016 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Many inmates have books, and clocks, one inmate had a shelf devoted to different perfumes and scents. This inmate has a novel called "With Winter" on his shelf, which is described as a book about the internal conflict of faith of muslims and a variety of problems that they face living in the west. According to reports from human rights groups many other jails in Saudi Arabia are overcrowded and lacking basic services.
Inmates play in an indoor soccer field, but the ball sometimes hits the ceiling causing tiles to fall May 11, 2016 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The tour we were given had a few oddities. First we were followed by a video crew the whole time, they said it was just for internal use, but I felt it was to monitor our guides as much as to monitor us. The story of these rehabilitation prisons is one that Saudi Arabia really wants to spread so they make it easy for journalists to see the official story but didn't let the writers interview many inmates.