A lucrative, illicit trade thrives in Morocco’s prisons MF

Drugs and alcohol are banned in Moroccan prisons, but that doesn’t mean they are difficult to get. For the right price, a prisoner can buy a carton of cigarettes, a bottle of liquor, or even phones and outside food from well-connected inmates who pay guards to look the other way.


I spent 10 months in Morocco’s Zaki prison, about 13 kilometers from Rabat, on trumped-up charges related to my reporting. One of the most crowded prisons in the country, Zaki houses those convicted of “ordinary” crimes and terrorism offenses as well as political prisoners. Its cells are packed – I shared one 24-person cell with 40 other inmates – and I was moved repeatedly around the prison. In that way, I met all types of inmates and I witnessed a large underground economy. Through interviews with guards and other prisoners I began to map the flow of illicit goods into the prison. The sheer size of the business – nearly every prisoner is either a buyer or a seller – along with interviews I conducted with inmates and guards, suggest that this black market is protected not only by the prison administration but also by police and the judiciary.


It is also highly profitable – judging from the markup on smuggled goods and the unaccountably luxurious lifestyles of some guards – which gives those who profit this trade an incentive to keep the prisons full.


Corruption in Morocco and the entire North African region is widely acknowledged, although reporting on it carries risks. But for obvious reasons, it is graft in public services that gets attention. The issue of bribe-taking and smuggling in prisons has gone uncovered. I have been in a unique position to research this issue and am hoping for a chance to bring it into the light.


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