September 3, 2019
Two hundred inmates in Ward 5 of Gharchak Prison for women in the Iranian city of Varamin have sent an open letter to the head of the State Prisons Organization in Tehran Province protesting the prison’s inhumane living conditions.
“Most of us…cannot afford to meet our basic needs such as food, drinking water, clothes and sanitary products,” said the August 17, 2019, Persian-language letter translated by the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI). “Don’t we prisoners have basic rights?”
The letter noted that the signatories had begun refusing their lunch portions to protest the prison’s lack of accessible drinking water, inedible meals, insufficient sanitation and hygiene services, and unaffordable commissary items.
The State Prisons Organization (SPO) is responsible for the safety and wellbeing of prisoners and reports to the judiciary, but its chief Heshmatollah Hayatolgheyb refused to meet with the prisoners when he “inspected” the facility a month earlier, they noted in their letter.
“Do we not deserve proper treatment, peace and protection by the authorities?” wrote the prisoners. “These problems are invisible pressures that have forced some of our fellow inmates to beat themselves, consume fistfuls of pills to calm their minds, and work for others to make money… Every day we repeat this question: How are we going to afford to stay alive?”
Interviews conducted by CHRI have revealed that Gharchak prisoners are also being denied proper medical services and face violence perpetrated by prison authorities as well as other inmates.
Transsexual and lesbian prisoners are especially vulnerable to violence and discrimination in the prison.
In addition, incarcerated mothers and their children are not provided essential items or sufficient medical treatment, and prisoners do not have access to phones.
Iranian law requires prisoners to be separated based on the nature of their conviction, but political prisoners in Gharchak are being unlawfully held in the same wards as inmates convicted of violent crimes.
CHRI has interviewed several women who served time in Gharchak during the past three years. The following testimonies highlight the prison’s unbearable living conditions that continue to this day.
Lacking Temperature Moderation, Overcrowding
In June 2019, “Marzieh” told CHRI that several prisoners slept on the floor every night because there were never enough beds.
All of the women who provided testimonies for this article did so on the condition of anonymity to protect themselves from reprisals from the authorities for speaking publicly about their experiences.
“The wards inside Gharchak Prison are warehouses divided into several sections, with each section containing about 12 rooms that are approximately 9 sq. meters (97 sq. feet),” she said. “Each room has three, three-story bunk beds for nine prisoners, and usually two additional prisoners also sleep on the floor.”
“Usually, there are also three or four prisoners who sleep on the floor next to each room,” she noted.
These conditions fall far below the UN’s minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners, which state:
“Where sleeping accommodation is in individual cells or rooms, each prisoner shall occupy by night a cell or room by himself. If for special reasons, such as temporary overcrowding, it becomes necessary for the central prison administration to make an exception to this rule, it is not desirable to have two prisoners in a cell or room.”
Political prisoners are also unlawfully held in wards with prisoners convicted of violent crimes, added Marzieh.
In July 2015, the judiciary’s official news agency, Mizan, reported that the government had implemented a plan to separate prisoners who had been convicted of “light” crimes from those with “serious” convictions.
However, in a February 2019 interview with the Majzooban Noor website, attorney Mohammad Moghimi said the authorities in Gharchak were not only ignoring this regulation, but also holding “suspects and convicts” together in shared spaces, thus increasing the threat of physical violence.
In January 2019, five imprisoned members of the Sufi Gonabadi Order, a persecuted religious minority in Iran, signed an open letter urging the prison’s director to separate them from inmates with contagious diseases and histories of violence, but their call was ignored.
Several former inmates also told CHRI that the prison’s large warehouse structure lacks sufficient heating, ventilation and air conditioning technology that could regulate the extreme temperatures inside the building during the winter and summer months.
“We got pneumonia during the winters and severe heatstroke in the summers,” former Gharchak prisoner Ghoncheh Ghavami recalled in April 2018.
The building’s air quality is also poorly ventilated and stuffy due to unregulated smoking and a consistent, putrid smell from the failing and unsanitary sewer system.
Women’s rights activist and former Gharchak inmate Jila Baniyaghoob tweeted in June 2018 that a guard had told her, “we won’t fix it because we don’t have a budget, so don’t bother us” after she had complained.
The testimonies indicate violations of standards set by the United Nations for all member states. The UN’s Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners state that all prison wards “shall meet all requirements of health, with due regard being paid to climatic conditions and particularly to cubic content of air, minimum floor space, lighting, heating and ventilation.”
It continues, “In all places where prisoners are required to live or work, (a) The windows shall be large enough to enable the prisoners to read or work by natural light, and shall be so constructed that they can allow the entrance of fresh air whether or not there is artificial ventilation; (b) Article light shall be provided sufficient for the prisoners to read or work without injury to eyesight.” It adds, “All parts of an institution regularly used by prisoners shall be properly maintained and kept scrupulously clean at all times.”
Unsafe Drinking Water and Poor Food Quality
“The water in Gharchak is so salty that prisoners have to buy bottled water from the store at triple the normal price,” said former Gharchak prisoner Shohreh Ebrahimi in an interview with the Majzooban Noor website in February 2019.
The water is salty due to the prison’s poor filtration system. The lack of accessible drinking water causes friction among the prisoners who can afford to buy expensive bottled water from the commissary and those who cannot.
Impoverished and lower-income prisoners are forced to work low-paying jobs from inside the prison to make enough money to buy essential goods from the store.
“We weren’t given anything; we had to buy everything,” said Maryam. “If your family didn’t give you money, you had to work.”
“Some prisoners’ families would extend help for the first couple of years but then they would not be able to afford it,” she added.
According to former Gharchak inmates who spoke to CHRI, prison meals meanwhile lack essential vitamins and nutrients, and are so poorly prepared that they’re usually inedible.
“You can’t imagine how bad it was. It made you vomit,” said “Maryam,” who was released from Gharchak in April 2019, in an interview with CHRI. “They made meat stew with soy instead of meat and didn’t add tomato paste. It made you sick just by smelling it.”
“We mostly ate bread with cheese or tuna,” she added.
“It was a horrible disaster. I’m not exaggerating,” said Marzieh.
“Lunch consisted of rice and lentils, soy with rice and tomatoes, macaroni or green stew without red meat, sometimes with a bit of chicken,” she added. “These meals were always repeated, sometimes three days in a row. For dinner, we had soup, beans or lentils.”
As these testimonies demonstrate, the nutritional standards at Gharchak are well below the requirements of both Iranian and international law.
The regulations contained in Iran’s State Prison Procedures are explicit. Article 93 states that prisoners are to be given “foods that have sufficient calories and vitamins,” and Article 95 stipulates that the “minimum menu includes: Bread, cheese, and tea for breakfast, lunch or dinner, fresh or dried vegetables, rice, potatoes, onions, legumes, various dairy products, eggs, and seasonal fruits each week, [and] the convicts will be served meat with their lunch or dinner at least three times per week.”
Additionally, Article 98 of the Procedures state that in all prisons “stores will be established and…their prices will be based on the fair going rate.
In the UN’s Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, it states “Every prisoner shall be provided by the administration at the usual hours with food of nutritional value adequate for health and strength, of wholesome quality and well prepared and served.”
Unsanitary Living Conditions
Several former prisoners said they were denied the right to maintain basic hygiene due to insufficient toilet and bathing facilities.
Maryam,” who spent seven years in Gharchak, told CHRI, “For every 100 to 150 prisoners in each ward, there were 10 toilets but only three or four of them worked.”
She continued: “There were also only a few shower stalls that were used by turn. Sometimes we didn’t have enough hot water and it was rationed among all the prisoners. Suddenly you were told that your turn to shower is at five in the morning. Sometimes the situation was so deplorable that 100 inmates were waiting to take a shower in the same hour. Your turn to shower came every couple of days, sometimes once a week. There was a time when three or four of us had to take showers together in the same stall.”
“Marzieh” echoed Maryam’s testimony, adding:
“At the beginning of the month, each prisoner got one pack of sanitary pads, which recently was reduced to a pack every two months. This adds pressure on prisoners who don’t have much money [to buy supplies from the commissary] because the quality of the pads is so bad that they have to purchase other brands from the store. During all my time at Gharchak, I never saw a bar of soap.”
Denial of Medical Treatment
According to former inmates, access to the prison doctor was limited to once a month by appointment, and the authorities only allowed emergency visits to the prison’s clinic in extreme cases.
The UN’s Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners state, “…Where hospital facilities are provided in an institution, their equipment, furnishings and pharmaceutical supplies shall be proper for the medical care and treatment of sick prisoners, and there shall be a staff of suitable trained officers.”
Iran’s State Prison Regulations are also explicit regarding medical care: Article 118 states, “Examination, and when necessary treatment, of sick convicts is the responsibility of the prison or training facility.”
Yet the grossly inadequate nature of this “treatment” was described in the following testimonies.
“You had to be dying to get permission from the guards to see the doctor out of turn,” said Maryam. “But even seeing the doctor didn’t make much of a difference because he only gave you ibuprofen regardless of whether you had cancer or a headache. That’s all they gave you. There was nothing else.”
Hospitalization was nearly impossible, she added.
“There was a case when one of the prisoners had cancer,” she said. “The authorities said they didn’t have the staff to transfer her to the hospital so they canceled her appointment.”
The authorities also denied prisoners medical treatment based on the nature of their convictions.
“I had a cellmate who had [vaginal] bleeding and the prison gynecologist prescribed tests and a biopsy in a hospital but the prison authorities refused to transfer her,” said former Gharchak prisoner “Fatemeh,” adding that her cellmate had been convicted of aiding a murder.
“It took about two years of letter writing to various judicial officials before she was transferred,” she added. “The doctors said she could have developed cancer if she had come later. Eventually, they had to remove her uterus.”
Marzieh told CHRI that unconscious prisoners were also denied timely care:
“One night one of the prisoners passed out and her cellmates pleaded with the prison staff to come and take her to the clinic,” said Marzieh. “But they said they would wait until morning. When they realized it was serious, they said they had to call for a nurse and if the nurse thought she should go to the clinic, they would permit it. Finally they allowed the poor girl to be physically carried to the clinic, but they said she could only go with a chador, even though she was unconscious.”