Detainees at the State Security Prison in Riyadh put their painting skills to good use. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: It is unimaginable to see extremists and members of fanatic militant groups gathering and living under one roof, in particular because they are mired in the delusion of conflicting ideologies.

Whether they are fundamentalists, Sunnis or Shiites, they have always been observed as blaspheming individuals who have opposing views.

This was what I had in mind while travelling to Riyadh to visit the State Security Prison in “Al Haeer” to closely look at how they are dealing with the rehabilitation programme, called “Time Management Programme” in Saudi Arabia.

No one can deny the extent of conflict or military operations taking place in the region, and the kingdom has been no exception. It has suffered greatly for decades from terrorist attacks, which claimed the lives of hundreds of innocent people due to extreme ideologies.

Detainees at the State Security Prison in Riyadh try their hand at painting and sculpting. Image Credit: Supplied

During my visit, I heard a lot of stories that one may consider dismal, and I was particularly concerned about the effects on myself. The weirdest part, however, was seeing “musical performance” by members of Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and others serving different jail terms. Their families were behind me, applauding their performance, and were overwhelmed with emotion.

I observed that those in jail were filled with the love of life and the desire to be freed from prison. I kept looking around for the prisoners, but was astonished to see that they were right there surrounding me. They were dressed in attire resembling the uniforms of a private business they had been contracted with to organise the festival.

To my surprise, it turned out that inmates had established their own business, complete with contracts and a transparent management structure, through which they showcase their creativity and sell their products, including lovely paintings that I saw many people rushing to purchase.

I also passed by a retail store, a pottery shop, and a farm nursery that was home to a variety of decorative trees, fruits, and vegetables that are exported to stores abroad. I couldn’t help but ask who created the perfume that I smelled and who had taught the manufacturer this line of work. I was surprised to discover that a prisoner manufactured such amazing perfume as he had experience combining ingredients to make explosives.

I spoke to many prisoners in the open courtyard and hallways without anyone watching me. Some of them even came to welcome me and introduce their families, paving the way for trust. I was surprised to see this kind of reaction from people who were supposed to be introverted and isolated, and wondered how female inmates spoke with confidence and humility, although they once arrogantly carried guns and bombs in various parts of the world.

The Saudi rehabilitation programmes have been specifically designed to turn the dormant anger of the detainees into positive energy that fuels their optimism. Image Credit: Supplied

While in the prison, one of the detainees seemed to be preoccupied while I was speaking with the others. He had served as Al Qaeda’s spokesman for 14 years, and after his incarceration revealed a ton of crucial information that was useful for a documentary aired on a reputed TV network.

This man was writing a book in which he challenges the methods used by terrorist organisations to entice victims. He was looking for guidance on how he could publish the book.

After concluding my visit, I did not want to leave without picking up a souvenir. So I bought a painting of a stunning woman full of colour and life. When it was time to pay, I saw how organised the place was. The painting itself was expertly prepared for shipping by plane as if I were in a global store that offers integrated marketing services. All this was created and executed entirely by inmates.

The striking intellectual shift I noticed in the eyes of inmates who are spending their prime years in prison was astonishing. I could see the joy of living and optimism in their eyes. Despite their comfort, they lacked freedom. This made me wonder how that woman played the guitar so confidently in front of the audience. To my astonishment, I learnt that most of the inmates acquired their skills while incarcerated in state-security prisons.

My curiosity pushed me to go the extra mile and meet the jail administrators. I was taken aback the moment I learned that they were walking among inmates and their families and interacting with them. I heard them mentioning their names rather than their titles or pseudonyms, prompting me to ask them many questions to satisfy my curiosity and build an objective image.

It was not surprising to know that a large number of them are well educated and knowledgeable and by virtue of their nature, unable to keep their knowledge to themselves without attempting to impart it to or impose it upon others. This is what they actually did as soon as they were jailed. They got into tense, protracted, and pointless discussions with those who disagree with their agendas.

Paintings for sale at the Saudi prison. Image Credit: Supplied

This was why so many of them paused for a moment to rethink what they believe, sending them into a tizzy of internal struggle. This is where the risk lies because they eventually change their opinions, either for real or by acting like they have.

Therefore, the General Directorate of Investigation has launched specialised rehabilitation programmes to research the personalities of inmates to calm the latent anger in their minds after being subjected to long periods of brainwashing, which threw them into a state of immoral hostility against others.

The Saudi rehabilitation programmes have been specifically designed to turn their dormant anger into positive energy that fuels their optimism.

Powered by their vast experience, the Saudi General Directorate of Investigation has become well-versed in changing the mindsets of inmates and preventing the spread of false ideologies and beliefs both domestically and internationally. While keeping their families informed of the minute details of their lives and their involvement in business life, the General Directorate of Investigation has done everything it can to foster familial togetherness among inmates of all sects.

Despite all, many of them are still hanging on to false beliefs, but the attitudes and actions of their fellow prisoners are enough to convince them to change their behaviours and mindsets and to join the “Time Management” programme.

- Mustafa Al Zarouni is a senior journalist based in Dubai.