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Life behind bars becomes theatre

Lebanese prisoners are staging a version of "12 Angry Men," some to draw attention to unjust treatment and harsh conditions, others as therapy.

BEIRUT — Convicted murderer Youssef Chankar has been an inmate in Lebanon’s high security Roumieh prison for 18 years. By 2008, he says, he had lost touch with most people outside the prison, save for his mother and brothers. As the years dragged on, his life looked increasingly bleak.

“The last few years, my psychological status was very bad. I was really tired. I used to work at the workshop, then I stopped going. I just stayed in my room for 17 days,” he said.

Roumieh prison is not a nice place. Upon first approach, the drab concrete-walled facility looks like a medieval fortress dropped into a "Mad Max" film. Built in the 1960s to house 1,000 prisoners, it now holds more than 3,000 male inmates. Nearly half of them are awaiting trial and have not been convicted of any crime, according to the U.S. State Department. Riots by prisoners calling for better conditions are a regular occurrence, as are fights between different religious groups.

So when Chankar heard that a Lebanese non-governmental organization was going to stage a play using inmates as the actors, he was skeptical.

“I thought we were going to fight because everyone’s from a different religion,” he said. “Someone is going to say something, and another is going to attack him.”

But the play, called “12 Angry Lebanese,” did just the opposite. Chankar says he and other inmates in the production became “one unit” and began looking after one another. He says it also helped him emotionally.

“During the play I had a chance to express a lot of things that have happened to me and I had buried inside of me, and never said to anyone,” he said in an interview filmed for a documentary on the play. “This project made me feel like I could connect with the people outside.”

Chankar was cast as the Master of Ceremonies for “Twelve Angry Lebanese.” He’s one of 40 prisoners who took part in the production of the play, which marked the first-known use of drama therapy in a prison in the Arab world. The play is based on the 1954 television drama “12 Angry Men,” which was later turned into a movie of the same name starring Henry Fonda.

The play revolves around a 12-man jury that must decide the fate of a 19-year-old man accused of murdering his father. The boy already has a criminal record, and, if convicted, will be executed by hanging. The jury’s verdict must be unanimous and, at the beginning, 11 jurors agree that the boy is guilty and that the case is cut and dried ... leaving one dissenter. Juror number eight, as he is  known, is the play’s protagonist and the voice of reason and justice.

Though  jurors argue, shout and deliberate angrily throughout the play, one by one they come to believe the boy has been wrongly accused, and in the end unanimously find him not guilty.

The choice of the play was fitting for inmates as it deals with class and cultural differences, as well as inequities of justice and perceptions of fairness in society. But the Lebanese production was about much more than just learning lines and stage directions.