Most Afghan prisoners are drug addicts swept up from the streets

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Most Afghan prisoners are drug addicts swept up from the streets

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – At the edge of Afghanistan’s second-largest city, inside the Kandahar Province Central General Prison, hundreds of men dot the depilated courtyard. Some squat alone outside the heavy cell doors with bloodshot eyes staring into the early morning light, and others cluster around a single water fountain filling plastic buckets to wash away waste in the latrines – their thin bodies writhing. One inmate prays on a large red mat sprawled over a cement slab, and dozens more cluster about.

Ten percent of the approximately 700-person prison population are considered to be convicted or accused criminals – murderers, thieves, drug dealers and traitors. The rest are drug addicts who have been swept from the streets in the weeks since the Taliban came to power in mid-August.

“When they first came in, they were in too much pain, and we were not ready for it,” says Haji Mansour, the 38-year-old Taliban prison commander. “But we have improved it a lot. We have doctors, and some go to the hospital for a few days and return back.”

Without funding for formalized rehabilitation programs, the Taliban has taken to arresting drug addicts from the street and putting them behind bars in a bid to initiate a more orderly rule across the country and eliminate the “haram” – forbidden – practice of drug use.

Mansour also serves as warden of the prison.
Mansour also serves as the warden of the prison.
Jake Simkin
An inside look at one of the prison cells.
An inside look at one of the prison cells.
Jake Simkin

Mansour explains that the Taliban intends to keep the addicts behind bars between 40 days and six months, or however long it takes to establish courts and for a judge to rule on their case. However, the onus will then be on their families to ensure they don’t backslide.

An entrance leads to cell blocks at the Kandahar Prison in Afghanistan.
An entrance leads to cell blocks at the Kandahar Prison in Afghanistan.
Jake Simkin

“The family must accept the guarantee that they won’t touch the narcotics anymore, and in a month (after their release), we will get to check,” he continues. “In the previous government, people still came to the jails and were providing for the inmates.”

He didn’t respond to questions on whether families would be subsequently punished for re-offending but stressed that relatives are sometimes the ones who hand addicts over to the authorities “for their safety.” But more commonly, users are arrested by the Taliban patrolling the streets.

At first glance, it is impossible to tell the difference between the many Taliban prison guards and the inmates, given all are relegated to dressing in traditional Afghan attire. But as you move in a little deeper, the distinction is obvious – the inmates are almost all subservient and say little, with only one older man – newly brought in from the “detox” area in an adjacent block, shrieking strangely at the sight of unfamiliar faces.

The dependence cycle often proliferates throughout families – husbands getting wives addicted, and the circuit carrying through the extended family members and even children.

Flower prints are displayed outside of the entrance to the Kandahar Prison in Afghanistan.
Flower prints are displayed outside of the entrance to the Kandahar Prison in Afghanistan.
Jake Simkin

Inside the Kandahar prison, the youngest addict is just 14. His name is Khairullah, and he is kept isolated from the hundreds of adults. The Helmand native appears even younger than his years, with a gaunt childlike face and stunted frame. He has been incarcerated for about 20 days, having been busted using drugs at a checkpoint, and is waiting for the Taliban commander to decide when he can be freed.

“I started using four or five years ago because my dad would make me go and bring the (opium) for him,” Khairullah, who only went to school through to the fourth grade, tells me softly. “Every day I was using, I couldn’t even stand up.”

The UN has raised the alarm repeatedly in recent years with concern to the rising number of child addicts, some 10 percent of the minor population who typically fall victim to opiate use. Women have also fallen prey in ascending numbers, although the Taliban authorities in Kandahar – likely due to their very limited interaction with the females given their stringent Islamic rules – tell me that they have not arrested any women addicts, just one woman they discovered “dealing from behind a burka.”

At 14 years old, Hidullah is the youngest person at the Kandahar prison.
At 14 years old, Hidullah is the youngest person at the Kandahar prison.
Jake Simkin
Abdullah, a former school teacher, believes Afghan lives would improve if there were proper schooling.
Abdullah, a former school teacher, believes Afghan lives would improve if there were proper schooling.
Jake Simkin

Indeed, poverty and crushing conflict in recent years has steadily morphed Afghanistan – responsible for more than 90 percent of the world’s heroin, derived from poppy exports – into something of a narco-superpower, reflected back by its own growing grapple with rising addiction.

According to the United Nations, more than 11 percent – some 375,000 – of the estimated 34 million population battle drug addiction. This marks a sharp rise from the approximated 200,000 opium and heroin abusers reported in 2005.

A Taliban member, who is also a farmer, looks over an opium plantation.
A Taliban member, who is also a farmer, looks over an opium plantation.
Jake Simkin

One inmate, who says that his name is Abdullah and identifies himself as a “political prisoner” who was living in Iran before being arrested by the distrustful Taliban 40 days prior to my visit, rushes over to insist that he is something of a leader to all the addicts and criminals.

“For drug arrests, we have a program to get them ready to go back into the society, and we train them on Islamic studies. We do the same, but in a separate program, for the criminals. We provide food and education, get them all into good health.”

Abdullah – a former high school agriculture teacher – quietly tells me that the “biggest issue” the new government has to contend with is the “lack of education” in rural society and that if Afghans had proper schooling, their “lives would go better and they would be easier to rehabilitate.”

Despite the almost $9 billion spent by the US in counter-narcotics endeavors, Afghanistan is still the world’s largest opium producer. Yet that is not the only extent of the illicit drug use – the beleaguered country now struggles with growing levels of crystal meth – derived from the ephedra plants growing wild – use, as well as the compound-drug tabletka, used by students, soldiers and workers alike to stay awake.

Ahmad, 28 from the Kandahar district of Panjway, claims he was caught using with a friend 32 days earlier. He says he “didn’t have anything else to do” and thus started smoking heroin three years ago.

“Initially, it was difficult (in prison), but I am fully fit now and waiting for my orders (to leave),” he asserts.

Ahmad claims his heroin use is a result of not having “anything else to do.”
Ahmad claims his heroin use is a result of not having “anything else to do.”
Jake Simkin

“Positive changes have occurred in the city. There are no thefts, drug dealing or any other illegal activities,” vows Mawlawi Noor Ahmad Sayeed, 42, the Kandahar Director for Information and Culture. “We now we have zero drug addicts. And for such a short time, it has been a big change.”

The proclamation doesn’t quite fit the reality.

In the southern province of Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban movement, addicts can still be seen cloistered together on the grassy median strips, in and around the family picnics. And in the capital Kabul, addicts linger and sleep below a bridge among heaping stacks of trash and sewage, waiting in desperation for their next fix. They also converge on dusty street corners, oblivious to the white-and-black flags flapping above the Emirate’s newly acquired armored vehicles.

Prison inmates collect water from the well and tend to a garden.
Prison inmates collect water from the well and tend to a garden.
Jake Simkin
Addicts sit outside of their cell block at Kandahar Prison.
Addicts sit outside of their cell block at Kandahar Prison.
Jake Simkin

Drug use was reported to have soared during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, with the US-backed government opening 2,000 additional rehab centers nationwide, as per the Ministry of Health. But locals contend that those who needed help never received it.

Haji Abdul Haq Akhond Hamkar serves as the Deputy Director of Counter Narcotics.
Haji Abdul Haq Akhond Hamkar serves as the Deputy Director of Counter Narcotics.
Jake Simkin

Mansour notes that the goal is to entirely “eliminate the production side and dealers.” Yet, there is still no strategy in place by the Ministry of Counter Narcotics in Kabul. Despite sweeping verbal proclamations from the newly installed government that they will eradicate all poppy cultivation and drug use, such efforts are yet to be undertaken.

“We will work on a strategic plan for eradication, and we will help farmers find jobs so they can stop,” contends Haji Abdul Haq Akhond Hamkar, the new Deputy Director for Counter Narcotics under the Ministry of the Interior, adding that his first priority is rehabilitating addicts.

He is yet to curate a clear vision on either goal. Hamkar appealed to the international community to help fund their counter-narcotics efforts, stressing that the monies poured in over the last two decades mainly were swindled by corruption and “did not reach the people.”

Ironically, the Taliban relied on the illicit trade to fund its burgeoning insurgency, and according to one fighter who continues to cultivate in his hometown of Sangin, Helmand, their focus is only on going after those who spread drugs domestically.

The damage it does on an international scale is seemingly not their problem.

“We only arrest Afghans dealing to Afghans,” one official adds breezily.

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