Bahrain's Prisons at Their Breaking Point

03/20/2015 02:26 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2015

Something's wrong at Bahrain's main jail, Jaw Prison. It's hard to get full details, but the authorities and the families of prisoners agree that serious disturbances happened there on March 10.

The authorities say there was damage to prison property "as a result of riotous activity last week." Families of the prisoners tell a different story: that disturbances were sparked when a visitor was refused permission to see her brother and was hit by a guard.

They report that inmates then barricaded the prison's main exit in protest, dozens of prisoners were tear-gassed and beaten, and some of them were even hospitalized. Others report that a group of about 10 prisoners, including prominent human rights activist Naji Fateel, were removed from Block 4 and taken to another building.

The authorities admit receiving over 100 information requests from the families and Jaw inmates since the disturbances and say that "the basic needs of the inmates at the facility are being met and have not been disrupted and that telephone and visitation services are ongoing in accordance the set schedule, rules, and regulations of the facility."

But the family of prisoner Ali Al Ghanmi (usually held in Block 4), the former policeman who defied the authorities and joined the protests in 2011, tell me his scheduled visit this Sunday has been canceled. They have heard that he has been hurt but aren't able to contact him to find out more.

It's no surprise that relatives of Jaw prisoners are worried. Last November 36-year-old prisoner Hasan Alshaikh was beaten to death there by officials. In September 2013 the Bahraini authorities conceded that overcrowding was a problem, recording the number of prisoners as 1,608, well above official maximum capacity of 1,201. The authorities also noted, "Deficiencies in the documentation of the use of force and its levels in the personal record of the prisoner in the event of his involvement in or being subjected to acts that lead to the use of force." That year dozens of prisoners were injured when security forces used batons and tear gas against inmates protesting about poor prison conditions.

Bahrain's jails are increasingly likely to become major flashpoints in Bahrain's ongoing political unrest -- Bahrain's Robben Island or its H-Blocks. They contain hundreds of young men serving very long sentences after unfair trials, men who might not think they have much to lose by breaking the rules. Conditions in the jails are reportedly awful, with what looked like an outbreak of scabies in Jaw late last year.

One of Bahrain's most famous prisoners, leading human rights defender Abdulhadi al Khawaja, is currently on hunger strike in protest of the lack of medical care and other poor conditions.

The most sensible solution to the prison overcrowding problem is to release all those who shouldn't have been sentenced to serve time there in the first place. That would empty much of Jaw overnight. Human rights defenders like Dr. Ali Alekri shouldn't be in Jaw; he and other civil society figures should be out helping Bahrain find a way out of its political crisis.

If Jaw becomes a hotbed of political activism -- a "university" for agitators -- it will only increase the Baharaini government's problems in the long run. Bahraini authorities would do better to free the peaceful political leaders and others who shouldn't be in there at all, and start the sort of political dialogue Bahrain desperately needs.