Egypt has a prison problem.

In a single court ruling this past March, in the rural town of Minya, 683 people were sentenced to death while 492 were given life sentences after only two hearings—which the defendants were barred from attending.

As alarming as this bulk-sentencing was, it should not be viewed as a momentary aberration in Egypt’s justice and penitentiary systems, but rather as part of a wave of mass trials targeting dissidents, and even those who are perceived to be dissidents.

These trials are occurring against the backdrop of an increasingly draconian state, expanding its security apparatus and acting with full-blown impunity.

More than 40,000 people in Egypt have been jailed since the military ouster of Mohamed Morsi on July 3 last year, according to a report released this May by Wiki Thawra, an independent revolutionary platform that documents state abuses in the wake of the January 25 uprising.

Because many of these arrests are arbitrary and undocumented, and rights groups are operating under severe scrutiny and stifling restrictions, Wiki Thawra presumes the numbers of the jailed are likely even higher. (And, as expected, the figures offered by the government are much lower, somewhere around 16,000.)

Regardless, the magnitude of these arrests exceeds even the most repressive era in Egypt’s modern history. (In 1955, Gamal Abdel Nasser Hussein jailed thousands of people, and resorted to building concentration camps once the prisons were overflowing.)

Arrested for Wearing a Button?

The imprisonment of 40,000 Egyptians in less than a year seems staggering, but daily headlines of arrests have become normalized.

Today, many actions in Egypt are fair game for arrest. Even the terribly mundane—such as walking too close to a protest, or wearing a pin, as was the case with an Alexandria activist arrested for wearing the distinguishable “No to Military Trials for Civilians” button.

Among the more outrageous arrests is the case of 17-year-old tech prodigy Abdallah Assem, who was invited to compete in a prestigious Intel fair in California, but was picked up on the street a week before the event by Egyptian police, who accused him of illegally protesting and inciting violence against police.

Similarly, veteran blogger and prominent activist Alaa Abdelfattah, as well as twenty-four other activists, were sentenced to fifteen years for allegedly organizing protests.

Egypt made the top-ten list for the worst journalist jailers in 2013. It routinely arrests local and foreign journalists on charges of “spreading chaos,” “false information,” and being part of or supporting “terrorist organizations” (that is, the Muslim Brotherhood). One popular case is that of Abdallah Elshamy, Al Jazeera’s West Africa correspondent who was released just this week after being imprisoned for ten months without charge. Elshamy spent four months of that time hunger striking.

Caption: Detention sites in Egypt

Growing Pains

Egypt is still experiencing a “coup high,” which has largely pacified the public to the massive rise in arrests. But while Egypt is notorious for having prisons with terrible conditions, it has not been historically known for having a particularly large number of prisons or prisoners, so this surge in arrests is particularly worrisome.

One result of this increased reliance on the country’s prison system is the inevitable worsening of conditions caused by overcrowded jail cells, where it is customary to squeeze 38 people into a 3×10 meter room.

But perhaps what is most troubling about Egypt’s prisons is how little we know about them. While there are personal testimonials from those arrested and later released, few comprehensive, verified, and publicly accessible reports are available.

That’s mainly because local and international agencies and independent observers are barred from monitoring prisons or meeting with prison inmates, staff members, doctors, and officers, even if their observations are strictly humanitarian and their reports are confidential. Even neighboring countries in the region known for similar patterns in prisoner abuse, torture, and poor jail conditions do not thwart prison visits in this way.

The horrible conditions in Egyptian prisons have not been left entirely to the imagination, however. Leaked footage from inside several facilities has provided a snapshot of what they are like.

Notorious prisons, such as the Al-A’qrab or “Scorpion” prison (which some believe to have been the inspiration for Guantanamo), are sites of unspeakable torture, and though they are meant for convicted terrorists, they have also housed civilians and journalists—such as Elshamy—without charge.

Similarly infamous is the Azouli military prison (which houses civilian inmates), referred to as “the slaughterhouse” of the port city of Ismailia, known for practicing systematic torture where inmates are subject to “suspension in contorted positions, electrocution in sensitive parts (and) sexual assault.”

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) also provides a groundbreaking look into health conditions in Egyptian prison and police detention facilities.

Their recent report reveals damning information about how broken Egypt’s prison system is: the politicizing and punishing of prison physicians; the lack of beds provided to inmates, which facilitates overcrowdedness; personal space allocated by the centimeter through measurements like “the span of a hand and two fingers” for every inmate; and the unhygienic and poor nutrition provided to inmates by authorities who joke that the mites found in the beans serve as a formidable “source of protein.”

Guantánamo Bay: The Hunger Strikes – video animation

A Profit Motive?

With Egypt’s military and security forces controlling so much of the economy, it is likely this prison buildup is partially based on financial incentives. Prisons, especially private ones, can be sites for lucrative business.

Some inmates interviewed by EIPR said conditions were purposely made poor so inmates would be forced to buy things from the prisons to survive, and in doing so, those with connections to the suppliers profit. “Prison authorities invest…they tell you, you have to buy from them,” one inmate relayed to EIPR. Namely, inmates are pushed to buy food and other items from the canteen as opposed to taking what is offered to them.

The Need for Reform

With problems bombarding Egypt from every corner on every issue, public pressure for prison reform at the moment seems unlikely.

But there is some glimmer of hope for change, as evidenced by displays of resistance by the political prisoners themselves. Though largely underreported, last month thousands of inmates, in ninety prisons across the country, began protesting their unlawful detentions and harsh conditions through various acts of civil disobedience—from refusing to attend predetermined trials to staging hunger strikes.

Egypt at the moment is in political free-fall. Creating and investing in an American-style prison industrial complex will do little to prevent further unrest. What Egypt needs now is to seek justice, reconciliation, and rehabilitation, not more vengeance and punishment through the gratuitous arrest of its civilians.

Photo credits: Abdullah Elshamy, Facebook; Detention sites, Global Detention Project; Video animation, The Guardian