Prisoners of "love"
Evin, Part 4: Female inmates’ abysmal living conditions
March 5, 2007
Part (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6)
Women prisoners were treated brutally and their abysmal living conditions were in violation of their Human Rights. If one prisoner committed an offence such as starting a fight inside a ward, the prison guards would punish all prisoners of that ward by depriving them of something significant such as telephone calls or visitations - the social workers simply turning a blind eye to this practice. Excessive amount of camphor was poured into prisoners’ meals and drinks – breakfast and lunch and supper, even into their bread and tea – in order to supposedly suppress their sexual drives. Too much camphor was causing side-effects such as swollen eyelids and faces, hoarse and choked voices, appearance of spots on hands and arms in women. During interviews, prisoners’ voices were hoarse and choked, and they spoke with great difficulty. Some of the inmates believed that adding camphor to their meals was good for them because it soothed them and made them numb and lethargic, helping them not to think of anything. However, we could hear from behind the wards’ doors the sound of brawls and exchange of obscene curses among inmates. Scuffling was a normal occurrence and prisoners witnessed several brawls breaking out everyday.
Inmates' nerves and emotions were played with by the staff. In fact, they were often mentally and sometimes physically tortured. For instance, every time a prisoner received a flogging with iron wire (Aatashi) in the prison office, they put loud-speakers in the four communal wards and the prisoners had no choice but to hear the woman’s screams and wailing, which made them all cry and prevented them from being able to have appetite for lunch or supper. The whippings happened in the morning or before supper. It was possible to buy the flogging in the prison. Ordinary flogging (Ta’ziri) cost 500 toumans per stroke; and severe flogging with iron wire (Aatashi) could be bought with 1000 toumans per stroke. However, most inmates were poor and could not afford buying their torture. Zahra, a 43 year-old illiterate woman from Kermanshah and mother of 6 children, who had moved to Bandar-Abbas with her second husband to sell two of her small children to a Dubai sheik, claimed that she was tortured in Evin: she was hung upside-down, her nails were pulled, and all her teeth were broken.
The bad quality of food and water routinely served had caused many prisoners to suffer from digestive disorders. The tap water was coming from a village well and had not gone through the purification process as the water of Greater Tehran. Monotony and lack of nutritional value of food had caused mal-nourishment among babies and children; and the unsanitary conditions were responsible for their many types of infections. Women prisoners did not have fruit as part of their meals, unless they worked for it or were rich. Mothers’ ration consisted of one can of dry milk per week for babies; but it was not enough. Rich mothers were able to buy more milk to compensate. Moreover, there was no nursery in the wards.
Prison officials were negligent about the inmates’ health. There was a lack of sufficient medicine in prison, and it was difficult for the prisoners to succeed in getting permission to go to the infirmary. The medicine had to be taken in front of the officials because in some cases it had been sold to other inmates. Rouhi, a 23 year-old prisoner carrying a huge goitre had spent one year in solitary confinement for fighting with other inmates, which was the result of her illness. She had been taken to a hospital for operation and while waiting, the Evin Pasdars in charge of her guard forced her to return to Evin because, they said, there was not enough staff!
Women prisoners had only an hour of airing time in the prison backyard. Inmates from each ward were taken out separately every hour. Apparently there were volleyball teams in Wards #1 and 4. In the Ward #2, inmates were told that there was no ball for them. So the staff had taken 500 toumans from each inmate in order to buy a ball; but that was six months earlier and there was no sign of a ball. Prisoners had begun asking for the return of their money. An inmate had bought a ball for herself; all the women wanted to play with it and there were quarrels over it. There was no exercise program for women prisoners. They were taken out every morning for a short period of airing, but no one was willing to exercise by themselves, except for the political prisoners.
Qur’an and literacy classes were set up, but the inmates did not show any interest in participating in them because of chronic fatigue and nervousness. On the other hand, many months earlier the women’s prison had established an English class and received from interested women of all the wards 100 toumans each for books, but the class has not yet started because of the lack of a teacher.
Surrounding and subsequent to our interviewing 80 women, I asked the women’s prison Warden about the absence of Reform and Education program in prison. She fixed her gaze straight into my eyes:
"Prisoners are lying. We are doing the prisoners’ reform and education in two ways: one is the social workers’ counsel, guidance and advice; and the other, the reform and education classes."
We interviewed 25 more women inmates and heard the same denial as before:
"There is no Reform and Education class, nor social workers’ counsel, guidance and advice. We only have a course in Qur’an. If the course in Qur’an means reform and education, then, yes we have it; otherwise, no we don’t have any."
We concluded that the prison Warden was blatantly lying to us. There was a Reform and Education centre for men, but not for women. In fact, besides hearing the prisoners’ testimonies, we also observed them roaming aimlessly along the wards’ corridors. They seemed to be without any project, having had no goal but to kill time in prison. The teenage prisoners of the Ward #1 could do knitting, embroidery, handicraft, flower-making and doll-making. Some adult women from other wards, volunteered to peel eggplants, clean rice and do cooking in that ward, and some other women prepared food for fellow inmates in the prison’s kitchen.
If women prisoners worked in a collective workshop inside the prison, for instance as seamstresses, they took one part of the money for themselves and left another part to the Prisons Organization. Those prisoners who had received monetary fines (mostly those convicted of drug charges and adultery) or those who needed money for the expenses inside the prison, did carpet-weaving or worked in the kitchen and apparently 10,000 toumans ($12.00) were taken off their fines every month. The carpet-weaving was calculated according to the number of rows woven and the salary was so low that many prisoners found it not worth doing. Inmates were deprived of any general and professional education that would help them find a job once released from the prison. Carpet-weaving was certainly not an appropriate profession that could bring money for the women and their families outside of prison. It was also dangerous to work in prison workshops. Inmates told us that above the carpet-weaving workshop, there was a very small room where Mr. Amjad, a Prisons Organization official, used to take young women and rape them.
There was clear-cut class discrimination in the prison. The inmates were divided into two groups based on their socio-economic and psychological conditions: the rich, the ones who had visitors, and the sycophants were one group; the poor, the ones without visitors and those who didn’t flatter, another group. The inmates without visitors had no money and remained half-hungry. Some of these women did other inmates’ chores such as shining their shoes and doing their laundry for money. They also earned some by carpet weaving. Poor inmates and those who had no one to visit them stayed inside the prison for much longer periods of time.
The rich female inmates that consisted of swindlers, smugglers and relatively big heroin dealers, were of a polished and well-off appearance and quite satisfied with the prison condition. Rich women and those who had visitors lived their lives in Evin in such a way as if living in a hotel. They boasted that in the Evin market they had everything; "milk and coffee included." They did not eat prison meals that contained camphor, but ordered meals from outside. Everyday, regularly, from the Evin market they bought sandwiches and kebobs, rice and chicken. Some of them paid for the sleeping places of two. Some rich women hired five or six other inmates for varieties of services: one for doing their laundry, one for manicure and pedicure, one for giving them body massages, one for waxing their shoes or doing their hair and make-up, and finally one for sex. For married inmates whose husbands wanted to visit, there was the possibility of both verbal meetings and "religiously approved" intimate ones.
The Warden of women’s prison, the guards and social workers had a deferential attitude towards the swindlers and the rich, and instead of being indifferent to the flattering inmates, they favoured them more than others – even more than the rich. So much so that if a rich inmate had a disrespectful attitude towards the employees, i.e. if she didn’t flatter them, they did not pay attention to her needs. But generally, convicted or accused inmates who had money were the subject of staff’s attention, attachment and special friendships. They had privileges that others were deprived of; privileges such as better nutrition, better hygienic services and more attention and regard by prison’s officials towards them. Among the privileged inmates, there were three 17-18 year-old girls recently jailed for possession of heroin. One of them was the daughter of the local president of a major airline company.They had been shaving off the hair on their heads right down to the scalp, wearing men’s clothing and riding motorcycles on highways for the last three years. They were simply waiting for their rich parents to bail them out. Also a certain Ms. Robabeh Aminian, "notorious three-billion-touman swindler" was called for a so-called investigation every morning and sent home for nursing her baby; and she returned to prison only at night for sleeping. The way one of the social workers treated Ms. Aminian, who wore a thin, delicate chador over her shoulders, was as if this female swindler had achieved a masterpiece. The social worker would have reproached any other woman who did not observe her hijab in such a way, but not that wealthy inmate. Ashraf, a woman convicted of adultery and pimping, who had spent one year in Ghasr Prison in 1988, compared the two prisons:
"Generally, the Ghasr Prison was much better than here in Evin. At ten o’clock in the evening when it was silence time in Ghasr, a female night guard would come and remain till midnight so that no one would make noise or commit an offence. But here in Evin, there is no night guard and all the prisoners talk until morning and don’t let us sleep. In Ghasr, a lady used to come for guidance: she would read the Qur’an and give advice. Moreover, all the women and girls had to do exercise everyday. Here in Evin, there is no physical exercise or sport."
Women section of Evin was a place of recruitment of future sex workers by female procurers. The latter would establish friendly relationships with the guards first – which was not difficult as procurers were supported by Haj-Aghas of the Martyrs Foundation. They would then groom young women and girls during the airing hours. They would buy good meals from outside for their pray and take care of their financial and other needs, luring them into their prostitution ring. When these young women left the prison, they carried the phone numbers of network contacts. Sometimes there were fights among rival procurers over these women. Even inmates who were not targeted by the procurers, were exposed to new ways of making money illegally. An inmate described her experience:
"Prison is a university for learning crimes. I am held here for keeping only 3 grams of opium at home, which belonged to my addicted father. Now, I have learnt all sorts of offences."
A sex-worker was told by a cell-mate that she shouldn’t sell herself while she could go for theft and smuggling. "With theft you get 100,000 toumans in gold," she was told, "while by selling yourself you earn only 5000 toumans."
Sima, a woman whose offence was carrying heroin and who had spent five days in solitary confinement before being transferred to the Ward #2, hated her life in the ward:
"We were three women in the solitary cells. One of us screamed all the time because she was driven crazy. To tell you the truth, the conditions of the solitary confinement is better than those of the wards. It is because the prison guards’ attitude is very offensive and prisoners use foul language and behave in despicable and repulsive ways."
Another drug dealer, Noushin, preferred the loud profanities of the ward to the dead silence of the solitary confinement that made her hallucinate for a week. Bahar, an 18 year-old girl who had previously shaved her head and appeared in public in men’s clothing disclosed that she was incarcerated for dealing heroin. The prison staff had taken her to the coroner’s office and found out that she was not a virgin. Simply based on this fact, the prison staff had judged it necessary to keep her in "protective solitary confinement" for a longtime until her hair grew longer so that, they reasoned, the prison’s lesbians wouldn’t bother her. Zahra, an inmate accused of adultery-as-a-married-woman was terribly unhappy with her condition:
"Prison is the worst environment in the world. Druggies make fun of me all the time; they are terrible. I’m getting crazy here; they should not mix drug dealers with people like me who are here only for having had illegal relationships."
What terrorized most women was the imposition of sex on them by lesbian inmates who were mostly into drugs. The frequency of sexual relations among women prisoners was very high; but these "relations" often – not always – were imposed and took the form of rape. According to many inmates, the prison guards favoured lesbians by placing them in bigger rooms while mothers with small children were placed in very small cells.
When it was time for a prisoner’s release, all other women would celebrate, "greet God and kiss her." An inmate, Zari, told me that when one of her cellmates was about to be released, she gave her the phone number of her family that had no news of her. The prison guard found out about this at the time of the body search and kept her friend inside for another 24 hours as punishment. Taraneh, a Primary school teacher convicted of theft, saw no light at the end of the tunnel:
"When we leave the prison, we’ll have a bad record. How could we then find a legal job? Especially that Evin prison has a very bad reputation."
Negin, a woman whose crime was to have escaped with the man she loved and had had a two-year clandestine life with him, was offended by the treatment she received:
"The Prison Warden, social workers and prison guards insult us without knowing our offence and look at all of us with the same judgmental attitude: everyone is bad, everyone is a liar and a cheat, or everyone is a murderer and a drug smuggler."
The women’s prison Warden, who was unable to hide the wretchedness and hypocrisy in her eyes, treated women prisoners who went to her office with aggressivity and contempt. The presence of researchers made her tense and apprehensive. The social workers were high school graduates who had only taken a very short course in social work. Only one of them was studying at university for a bachelor’s degree in social work. Theoretically, the social workers' duties consisted of facilitating the inmates’ telephone contacts with their families and relatives, granting them temporary leave, and sometimes contacting their families. But in practice and based on our observations and interviews, all a social worker did was to make telephone contacts with some prisoners’ families. There was a shortage of social workers: only one for each ward, i.e., one for 250 prisoners. While they had the authority to allow prisoners phone calls, the prison guards did not have such authority.
In the past, until 1986, the prison guards were male and women prisoners had to wear scarves when they went out to the airing backyard. Also, there used to be a cabin for Pasdars on the roof from where they projected light at night. Now, there was a searchlight and no Pasdars; instead, there were female guards working on two shifts. There was no female night guard. The job of prison guards, who were quite uneducated, was to prevent the escalation of quarrels among the prisoners and to chastise them - by throwing them inside solitary cells, beating them, etc. One of the prison guards was Ms. Karimi, a 27 year-old very obese woman who had sexual relations with some of the prisoners. The prison guards were very severe, very offensive and in fact behaved in an utterly cruel and inhumane manner towards prisoners. In fact, beatings and blindfolding of inmates was rampant. They told pregnant women who were in labour and had contraction, "As long as you’re not about to give birth, you should not cry or go to the infirmary; otherwise we’ll beat you up." Fatemeh, an inmate from Nahavand revealed a horrid episode:
"Last year, a woman who was in solitary confinement had a fight with this tall and olive-skinned prison guard who always wears a small scarf (pointing at the guard with her eyes.) This guard repeatedly and savagely kicked the prisoner into her abdomen, which caused her death as a result of gastric bleeding. The women’s prison Warden and other officials kept it quiet, but I was an eyewitness; I was in another solitary cell and witnessed this crime. Nobody pays attention to my testimony."
Of course, not all prison guards were murderers. One of them who had 12 years of service, looked at all the aspects of an issue and was endowed with some humanity and concerned about the inmates:
"For the last three years, the prison guards’ hands have been tied. Even during the time when Evin prison was full of political prisoners, we could do more than now: I was allowed to take prisoners to doctor, to give them medication and to let them make phone calls. When I see that I cannot help prisoners psychologically, I become upset and think of getting retired as soon as possible; and at the moment, I’m coping with this stress by praying to God."
She believed that the Prisons Organization bureaucracy was responsible for the prisoners' bad living conditions:
"The man who is the Head of the Evin prison – Assadollah Lajevardi - is not aware of the inside conditions of the women’s wards. He was an interrogator who has now become the head of prison; while only someone from amongst the prison guards should be the head of prison."
Four years later, in 1997, the "Butcher of Evin" resigned and was replaced by another ruthless man, Judge Morteza Bakhtiari, who is still the head of the country's Prisons Organization. In August 1998, at the age 63, Lajevardi was pierced to death with a submachine gun in his shop in the Tehran's bazaar by unidentified gunmen. Reformist leader Mohammad Khatami, the President of Iran at the time, expressed his "deepest regrets and sorrow" at the assassination of Lajevardi whom he called "valiant son of Islam and the revolution, a servant of the people and the nation." As for the female inmates’ living conditions today, it is undoubtedly more of the same! >>> Part 5
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