In the beginning of our visits to the women’s section of Evin in the summer of 1993, we had a meeting with Mr. Alvandi, the head of Reform and Education for men, who also worked in a certain “Criminology Research Centre” at the Prisons Organization. First he told us that there was an Office of Supervision After Release whose employees were supposed to help released prisoners find a job, but that nothing had been done by them yet. The office existed legally, but had done nothing in practice. Then he engaged in uttering lies:
“We don’t have the previous view of ourselves as a disciplinary force. Now, in the Islamic Iranian society, our purpose at the Prisons Organization is reform. The purpose of incarceration of a convicted individual is to return her back to the society as a reformed person. The use of your research, if it’s accurate, is to affect the judges so that they don’t continue sending people in groups to prison; because each inmate costs the Islamic State between 40,000 and 50,000 toumans per month.”
He warned us:
“You need to be cautious with the prisoners. Don’t have a personal attitude towards them. They’ll try to manipulate you and get your sympathy. They might give you a letter or a phone number, asking you to call their family and say that they are doing ok. You should not accept these demands. They usually lie to you about their offence. Don’t count on the first answers they give you. Probably they feel ashamed to tell you what their offence or crime has been. That’s why there should be a social worker or guard present when you interview them.”
We were quiet; he talked, we listened. He finished the meeting by demanding us to spy for the Prisons Organization.
“We want a copy of your final research, as well as a separate report about what you see and hear from the moment you put foot inside the women’s prison. Sometimes prisoners talk about issues with the researchers that they haven’t told the police or the court; we should know about that.”
The Islamist man obviously had no concept of ethics and professional conduct.
In the next few months, we interviewed inmates from three communal wards almost every day of the week from 9 am to noontime. We listened to jailed women inside small rooms that were in front of a ward or sometimes in the corridor because of the limited space. We were never allowed to enter the wards. The prison staff was uncooperative and inattentive to us. Every single day, we had to ask the prison guards or social workers for chairs or benches in order to do our interviews. The preparatory process of finding and carrying chairs or benches, asking for the names of prisoners who were willing to be interviewed and calling them to present themselves, lasted at least for one hour every day. The interview conditions we endured continued to be physically and mentally painful and exhausting. At any given time, we were five researchers interviewing five prisoners in the presence of a social worker or a guard in a small stuffy room. Voices mingled with each other, making it difficult to listen closely to the interviewees. It was hot and there was no fan to relieve the discomfort. The physical conditions for both researchers and interviewees were harsh, further limiting the effectiveness of the interviews.
We also found the constant presence of the prison staff very disturbing. We noticed that either a social worker or a guard would systematically write down the full names of those who attended our interviews. Sometimes the staff asked the prisoners for their names while we were in the middle of the interview with them. When we questioned this odd behaviour, the guards and social workers responded that as many teams of researchers came to prison, they wanted to ensure that prisoners who had already been interviewed were not disturbed or abused by being sent out again and again for interview. We responded that prisoners were free to choose being interviewed or not – to no avail. The practice of identifying the interviewees continued. Ironically, on one occasion, one of my colleagues mistakenly interviewed a prisoner who had already been interviewed by another one of us. If the purpose of noting down names was to avoid a prisoner receiving a repeat interview why was this mistake not discovered? Was their motivation to eventually attack those poor women and punish them if in our research we criticised, the social workers’ violence and slackness or the generally bad condition of the prison?
Ms. Akbari, Warden of the women’s prison, indicated that there were many programs available to women prisoners: besides the study of Qur’an and carpet weaving and embroidery, there was also a “reform and education” class for them. She explained that the social workers were personally responsible for the prisoners’ reform and education. However, we found out from the prisoners themselves that no “reform and education” classes had been attended by them, nor had there been any attempt on the part of the social workers to provide such a program. Following Mr. Alvandi’s footsteps, a certain Mr. Rahimi, an official of the “Cultural Undersecretary,” was seeking out a report of our observations. A copy of our research paper would be circulating in the Prisons Organization, confronting its officials with the fact that the “reform and education” program was defunct. We were all worried that the prison officials would subject women prisoners who had informed us about these deficiencies to violent treatment. How could scientific research be done in such an atmosphere of repression? We decidedly abstained from ever submitting such a paper.
From the third week of our presence in the Prison’s “interview rooms,” the guards and social workers, especially Ms. Salehi, showed increasing signs of nervousness. Our presence seemed to loosen their tight control over the prisoners who had told us that the prison officials treated them very badly. Prisoners told us that whatever the prison guards and social workers were telling us was a lie and was not to be trusted. In fact, on many occasions, the Women Prison officials either hid some of the facts or provided us with contradictory information. For instance, regarding the use of camphor, a guard for the Communal Ward #1 told us that the prison did not give camphor to prisoners – as if we were blind to prisoners’ physical condition, whilst Ms. Salehi, the social worker of the same ward, admitted that the prisoners were indeed supplied with it. Was their motivation to eventually attack these poor interviewees and punish them if we criticised, in our research, the staff’s lies, violence and slackness or the generally bad condition of the prison?
Women prison staff also tried to prevent our attending for further visits. In the beginning of the third week, when we showed up at the Prisons Organization office, we were told that we didn’t have written permission to conduct further interviews. We found out that the attempt to obstruct our visit had come up from the women’s section of Evin. We insisted that we knew Mr. X and Y and that we had previously spoken with them at the research institute. After an hour, the Prisons Organization officials agreed to another week of interviews. The process of obtaining permissions and being sabotaged by different officials was sapping our psychological strength. Our endurance was being severely tested as it gradually became evident that bad interviewing conditions were not the only problem we were facing. On every weekly visit, we were faced by the same reluctance on the part of the officials to give us permission for the next ten-day visit. Consequently we had to doggedly persist in making continual requests. We also had to listen to the complaints made to us by the Pasdars at the Information Office against the officers of the Inspection Office or the officials of the Prisons Organization, and vice versa. For instance, the Pasdars complained that the officials at the Prisons Organization Office avoided signing a permission for the duration of the interviews and instead told them to call the Warden of the women’s section and coordinate with her, which was against the procedures.
By the end of the 3rd week of our visits, the prison Warden and other employees had become clearly nervous by our presence and could not or did not even want to hide their nervousness. When I asked the social worker to send me an inmate, she left the room with a lot of growling and loud protest:
“Hold on a minute, you. You keep saying send me someone.”
And I couldn’t hear the rest of her grunting words as she turned from the small room into the corridor. When we told the guards that we didn’t have a space to put our papers and questionnaires, that sitting on a bench for 2 to 3 hours caused us backaches and asked for a kelim or a chair, they responded that they neither had a chair nor a kelim. One day while I was interviewing an inmate, a social worker told me,
“if you have a chador with you, wear it because a stranger man wants to pass by here.”
I did what she had asked me; but half an hour later when I lifted my head, my glance fell on one of my colleagues who was sitting without chador and only in scarf, speaking to an inmate. I asked her if she was not notified to wear chador because of a passing-by stranger man. She said that she hadn’t seen any stranger man passing by up to that moment. The social worker herself was sitting without chador and listening to us. The room was hot and I was sweating and feeling uncomfortable in chador. I took it off and put it in my handbag. The social worker’s mischievous lie was quite disheartening.
Bad conditions for our fieldwork were not limited to the Prisons Organization. We were pushed around on the streets as well. Once on our way back to the research institute from Evin, our youngest colleague, Ms. D, was arrested by the Pasdars after she got off the Institute car and jumped into a taxi to go home. The reason for her arrest: she had taken off her chador on the street to be only in her scarf inside the taxi; there was something suspicious about this gesture in the eyes of the Pasdars!
Eventually we interviewed one hundred and six women in Evin from among the undisclosed number of female inmates over a period of three months, in July, August and September of 1993. Based on the number of cells inside the four communal wards and gathered information from the inmates and prison staff, we estimated the number of jailed women to be over a thousand. However, our estimate was probably flawed because of the unreliability of the information. At the Statistics Bureau of the Ministry of Justice, we were told that the number of women prisoners at Evin Prison was confidential. They refused to give us the offenders’ files. Their types of offence, personal characteristics and past records were confidential as well