A large number of Iranian prisoners are people who have ended up in prison because they come from the margins of society. (Supplied)

By Shahed Alavi

July 12, 2019

We have read accounts of Iranian security agents and interrogators sexually harassing prisoners to force them to yield to their demands. Female prisoners in particular were victims of this tactic in the 1980s, and there have been reports of male prisoners enduring the same treatment in recent years.

But, aside from this, we do not know much about sex crimes in Iranian prisons — including rape, sexual exploitation, harrassement and prostitution — or even about consensual sexual relations, although there have been isolated reports on the subject over the last few years.

To get a better idea of what some male prisoners endure in prison, IranWire talked to Behrouz Javid Tehrani, a former political prisoner who, in the late 1990s and 2000s, spent a total of 11 years in prison. According to him, recent reports indicate a profound change inside Iranian prisons. Today, rape is more common, whereas during the time he was incarcerated it happened more rarely.

You spent nearly two years of your 11-year imprisonment in the political prisoners’ ward. Up to now, whatever we have heard about sex crimes or sexual behavior in prison has been limited to ordinary prisoners and the wards on which they are held. But what do you know about attacks on the wards for political prisoners? What about consensual sexual relationships?

During the time that I was incarcerated, especially at Rajaei Shahr Prison, we did not have a political prisoners’ ward in the exact sense of the word. In total, I spent close to two years at a ward that mostly housed political prisoners. In 2004, when I was at Evin Prison’s political ward, there was a case that relates to your question. Two political prisoners at the ward with homosexual tendencies had a relationship. When other prisoners learned about it, the [men in a relationship] were confronted. Eventually, some of the inmates with more traditional views could not take it anymore and complained to the warden. In the end, these two young prisoners were transferred to a ward for ordinary prisoners.

You mean they complained because they did not want to see such relationships and affinities in the political prisoners’ ward?

Yes, such relationships were not acceptable and they saw it as a kind of deviant behavior. Some of their cellmates who said that they had witnessed their relationship wrote a letter and gathered signatures and the prison management transferred them to another ward. Of course I must explain that at the time, as well as political prisoners, a number of military prisoners and prisoners accused of spying were also incarcerated at that ward. The ward’s representative was one of these military prisoners.

There are reports that rape has become more frequent in Iranian prisons and it is usually younger inmates who are the victims. Was it like this when you were in prison?

I very rarely witnessed rape while I was in prison. One happened in the ward for young prisoners at Rajaei Shahr Prison. The thugs used their physical power to gang rape a young man.

What was prison officials’ response?

Prison official sent the rapists to solitary confinement but only for a few weeks. Prison officials usually do not take complaints of rape seriously. The same unwillingness applies to drug cases as well. And although some murder cases in prison have ended in execution, murder in the prison does not usually result in this way. Usually they prolong investigation, trial and execution so much that the murderer can somehow get the forgiveness of the victim’s family through people he knows outside of the prison.

We read of one case where a vicious inmate sexually harassed another prisoner so brutally that it went well beyond what people had seen before, even in a prison. Prison officials were moved to respond in order to safeguard the little pitiful order that exists there. Do you know about this? 

There was at least one such case at Rajaei Shahr Prison. There was an inmate by the name of Taghi who was nicknamed “rooster” because of his predatory sexual behavior, meaning he would jump anybody that he could. Taghi the Rooster sold drugs and his favorite method for forcing young inmates [to have sex with him] was to drive them into debt by selling them drugs. And when a young drug addict prisoner had no money to pay his debt to Taghi, he was forced to submit to Taghi’s sexual demands. The inmates call this “compensation;” they say that compensation in prison amounts to a “brick,” and by “brick” they mean that the debtor must submit to the sexual demands of the payee. Taghi the Rooster was flogged a few times and was eventually executed. I must hasten to add that he was not executed because of his sexual behavior inside the prison.

During the time that you were in prison, as far as you know, was the gang rape of the young inmate the only case of rape that took place in that prison?

Another time the representative of Rajaei Shahr’s Ward 2 tried to rape an inmate but failed when the inmate resisted. At the time I was in Ward 2 as well. A young inmate had just been transferred to this ward. One night, when it was time to sleep, the ward’s representative took the young inmate to his cell and dissolved sleeping pills in his sherbet so that he could rape him when he passed out. But the young prisoner guessed the intentions of the ward’s representative and before the drug could take effect and knock him unconscious he ran to the door and started banging on it, shouting, “this guy has drugged me and wants to rape me.” He was saved that night and later the ward’s representative was dismissed and transferred to another ward.

Today, there are consensual sexual relationships in prisons, an exclusive relationship between two inmates they call “mono” [monogamous]. Was this kind of relationship also common when you were incarcerated?

In those years, this type of relationship between two people was also the most common kind of sexual relationship in prison. They said that so-and-so was somebody’s “baby.”  In this kind of relationship, a younger inmate became the sexual partner of an inmate who sold drugs in prison, had a gang or, in some form or another, had power or influence so he could protect this sexual partner. Although this relationship was the result of need it cannot be equated with rape because if the inmate did not want to submit to this relationship nobody could force him and he could live a normal life in prison. But such a “normal” life meant that he could not get into fights, might not have a bunk, might be forced to sleep in the corridor and might not be given a room. In other words, if he could accept such conditions, he did not have to submit to such a relationship.

You mean that material needs, or the need for protection, drugs, a cell and relative comfort can lead to such relationships inside the prison?

Yes, things like that. A certain kind of class system rules in prison. It is the class system that decides who sleeps in the cell and who sleeps in the corridor, who sleeps in the upper bunk or who sleeps in the lower bunk, who gets the better part of the meal and who carries the food tray and serves the food to prisoners. Such a system and such needs might push a teenage inmate to become the sexual partner of a rich or powerful inmate or a drug dealer in prison, surrender himself to the powerful inmate and, as they call it, become his “baby,” his “finch” or his “cutie.”

Is it fair to say that this kind of one-to-one relationship based on needs is the most common type of sexual relationship inside the prison?

Yes, it is very common. But this does not mean that healthy sexual relationships do not exist in prison. There are also healthy sexual relationships between two equal partners who feel affection for each other.

But let me make one thing clear. I believe that any heterosexual inmate can gravitate toward his own sex after a year in prison without meeting a person of opposite sex. I had the same feeling myself and find it very natural. Of course, I am talking about the men’s prison.

It has been said that some addict inmates are forced to prostitute themselves to get money to buy drugs. They spend each night in a different room and sometimes there are bloody quarrels over who should sleep in what room. Was this also common in the years that you were in prison?

Yes. Prostitution was also common when I was in prison. As a rule, they usually exile such inmates to the worst ward in prison. During my time in prison, Rajaei Shahr’s worst ward was Ward 1, which housed dangerous criminals. I remember one case who ended up committing suicide in solitary confinement. Of course, they said that he had committed suicide, but I do not know whether he really committed suicide or if he was killed. This inmate who had entered prison as a youngster was an extreme addict. He prostituted himself, injected drugs and was suffering from AIDS as well.

In addition to all of this, he was also a “blame taker”, meaning that if someone committed a crime — for instance [prison officials] discovered that he had drugs — this inmate would take the blame and say, “it is mine.” The last time he was sent to solitary confinement, it was for taking the blame.  Somebody was killed in the ward and he claimed that he had done it. So they threw him into solitary and later said that he had committed suicide.

When he was high, this inmate would come and stand in the middle of the hall and would shout, “fuck anybody who does not spare me a quarter,” meaning a quarter gram of heroin. There were many like him in prison. I must add that drugs were the only cause of prostitution because the inmates had no other heavy expenses. One could buy some tuna fish or cigarettes by washing the dishes or doing laundry for other inmates. Only addiction drove inmates to prostitution.

Besides what prostitution does to human dignity, one of the dangers of prostitution in prison is the speedy transmission of venereal and infectious diseases. How common were these diseases inside the prison?

First let me say that during the final three years of [Mohammad] Khatami’s presidency, Rajaei Shahr Prison’s clinic would distribute condoms to those who asked for it. Of course, it was only for those three years and it stopped when [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad’s presidency started. Venereal and infectious diseases, including AIDS and hepatitis, are very common in prison. But it is really not possible to know whether AIDS and hepatitis have been transmitted through injection or whether they are the results of prostitution and unprotected sex.

Under what conditions can the inmates request conjugal visits and how frequently do prison officials agree with such visits?

All married prisoners can have conjugal visits unless, for some reason, visits to a particular prisoner have been disallowed. Under normal circumstances, actually it is easier to have conjugal visits than face-to-face meetings. The only thing needed is for the inmate to request a conjugal visit from his lawfully wedded wife.

One story making the rounds in prison is that when prison officials want to frighten a “problem” inmate they threaten him that they will tell prison thugs to rape him. Is this common in prison or is this rumor an exaggeration?

These kinds of threats are very common in prison. I myself have been the target of such threats. But they are not necessarily carried out. It is not that simple, or at least it was not when I was in prison. I must repeat: there are exceptions but, as a rule, nobody has to enter into sexual relationships inside the prison unless he wants to. When I went to prison I was only 19 and they sent me to the worst ward in the prison, called “Exile Ward.” Many of the dangerous criminals in that ward looked askance at me but I was not sexually harassed.

This coincided with the closing of Qasr Prison, when they transferred all inmates from Qasr to Rajaei Shahr. A few who came from Qasr Prison brought pills with them. At the time, there were no drugs at Rajaei Shahr. Then they lost their pills. Their suspicions fell on a boy who was a little bit goofy and who washed their dishes. They searched his bed, his pillow and his belongings but they could not find the pills. They took the boy into the cell and raped him with their hands and the handle of a masher to force him to tell them where he had hidden the pills. This led to an argument in the hall. Some of the inmates told them they had no right to do this to the boy, especially as the boy was not quite right in the head. The quarrel intensified and became bloody. A few of the inmates were sent to the clinic.

Again, the prison’s class system is very complex. It has its own rules and does not easily allow unwanted kinds of behavior. Of course, I must add that I am telling you about my own years in prison. The news that I have heard from Rajaei Shahr in the last year indicates a very horrible atmosphere that does not have much in common with my experience.

Iran Wire

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Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.