By Hannah Somerville
April 25, 2020
Prison wards disinfected with dishwasher soap. Prisoners washing their hands in cold water. Deaths from COVID-19 kept off the books. Guards taking unpaid leave out of fear.
These are just some of the appalling disclosures made by Iranian prison inmates, recently released as part of temporary amnesties, in a new report which paints a stark picture the incapacity of Iran’s underfunded prison system to cope with the coronavirus outbreak.
Published on April 21, the review by Washington-based NGO the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran brings fresh urgency to previously documented issues of rampant overcrowding and poor hygiene at detention centers across Iran. Researchers found that the day-to-day measures intended to mitigate the spread of coronavirus in these enclosed spaces – from the availability of prison clinics to the disinfection of wards, to prisoners’ access to basic necessities such as soap and hot water – are barely being implemented, if at all, placing the lives of prisoners and the wider Iranian public at risk.
The report features first-hand testimonies from some of the 100,000 prisoners recently released as part of the judiciary’s efforts to contain the spread of the virus. But according to the report, many eligible for release after the temporary amnesties are still behind bars, while official data on COVID-19 cases in prisons, and deaths, are subject to an ongoing cover-up.
The World Health Organization and the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights have issued guidelines for states to ensure the safety of detained individuals during the pandemic. In light of its findings, the Boroumand Center has called on Iranian officials to heed these and other recommendations.
“The continued lack of attention to prison conditions endangers the lives of inmates as COVID-19 runs rampant across the country,” its authors warn. “No significant resources seem to have been dedicated to protecting prisoners during the pandemic. Iran can and must take more concerted action to prevent mass infection within its detention centers, not the least of which would be removing obstacles to the release of prisoners convicted or detained for non-violent crimes. It must provide sufficient means to prison authorities to implement the recommended measures and monitor the implementation.”
“They Tell Us to Wash our Hands Regularly. But With What?”
Lead author Roya Boroumand said the Boroumand Center’s attempts to collate reliable information had been hampered because prisoners on furloughs or exceptional releases are afraid to speak out, for fear of being thrown back in jail.
In an interview with IranWire, Boroumand said: “It’s a simple survival reflex. Prisoners are aware that returning will expose them to getting sick. Inside, the spread of the virus is very real; the fact that we have seen prison unrest, and people risking being shot by the guards in order to escape, is a sign of that fear.”
On February 29, the head of Iran’s Prisons Organization, Asghar Jahangir, acknowledged that prisoners’ rights include the right to health. He instructed provincial prison authorities to take the necessary measures to protect prisoners, including daily disinfections, distributing hygienic supplies to inmates and forming full-time task forces to monitor prisoners “day and night” to identify those at risk.
But on the ground, the Boroumand Center reports, resources have not been allocated to implement these guidelines. In Tehran Central Prison in late 2019, approximately 1,500 prisoners were crammed into three rooms in Building 4’s Ward 2, with 14 toilets and showers available to each room of 400 to 500 people. In this environment, social distancing is impossible, and hot water for washing is only available for an hour a day, usually between 4am and 5am.
At Qarchak women’s prison in Varamin, hot water is available for just two hours a day and cleaning liquid is now reportedly being sold at five times its normal price. On the women’s ward of Urmia Prison, authorities do not provide any soap to prisoners. Following news of the outbreak in February, each room was provided with just one liter of dishwashing liquid a month to meet the prisoners’ sanitation needs.
At Karaj Central Prison in Alborz province, which is so overcrowded that hundreds of inmates sleep on the floors of some wards, and where at least 35 people were said to have contracted COVID-19, disinfectant is provided only to prison staff. There are reportedly three doctors in the prison clinic, working in rotations on 24-hour shifts. Elsewhere, the Boroumand Center was told, sanitation equipment in Tehran’s Evin Prison is so sparse that guards have resorted to cleaning the wards with torches and topical antiseptic. And at Langarud Prison in Qom, the liquid used to sluice down the windows three times a week smells like dishwasher soap.
Posters in the prisons instruct inmates on good hygiene practice such as washing their hands. But in many settings, hygienic products are issued in such tiny quantities that prisoners with the means are buying rations to donate to others in need. As one source complained to the Boroumand Center: “They tell us to wash our hands regularly. But with what?”
“What is especially worrying,” says Boroumand, “is that prisoners in several prisons told us they don’t have enough soap, or enough money to buy it. The wealthier the prisoners are, the better they can protect themselves.” But she says that prison authorities have the means to meet the needs of inmates. “These things are not difficult to provide,” she adds. “The sanctions haven’t affected the economy to the extent that they can’t give soap to prisoners.”
Delayed Releases and Bad Data
On February 27 and 29, Iran’s Chief Justice issued two circulars authorizing leave until April for those serving sentences of five years or less, and those jailed due to an inability to pay financial penalties. But these criteria only apply to a fraction of prisoners – of the 2,000 at Parsilon Prison, for instance, 40 were eligible for early release and 150 for furlough – and could be safely widened, while high bail amounts have prevented many releases. The Lorestan Prison Organization has acknowledged that none of its 200 inmates are being held for minor crimes with one-year convictions; but for whatever reason, they have not been released.
Boroumand says: “One reason for the delay is, there are not enough staff to process the cases. The decision to release prisoners who had financial debts was pretty easy – almost no country in the world puts these people in prison – but the cases of those who have committed ‘crimes’ have to be reviewed, and prison officials have gone on leave or got sick. The intelligence apparatus is also stopping some releases.”
The extent of coronavirus transmission in the prison system is unknown and Iranian officials refuse to provide the public with data. In Vakilibad prison, the Boroumand Center was told, 30 suspected COVID-19 patients are being kept in close quarters together, without any testing. When asked about the number of cases, Mehrzad Tashakorian, who heads Prison Health and Treatment for Tehran Province, told the Boroumand Center he was “not authorized” to disclose the figures.
“The Prisons Organization says there has not been a single death [from COVID-19],” Boroumand says. “We know that not to be true. We know there have been deaths in prisons starting in early March. Some prisoners said when they left there were 60 to 70 people in quarantine – and when people are taken into quarantine, no one sees them.”
What Has to Change?
“The dire state of Iran’s prisons,” researchers surmise, “is a policy choice.” For four decades, the Boroumand Center says, successive governments in Iran have failed to allocate sufficient resources to the prison system. Despite a steady increase in the prison population, the budget for the Prisons Organization was cut from 944 billion tomans (more than US$22 million) in 2017/18 to 800 billion (just over US$19 million) in 2018/19, which threatened prisons’ ability even to provide three daily meals to inmates.
At the same time, the Boroumand Center notes that Iran has failed to reform the “draconian” penal codes that sees hundreds of thousands of people who pose no threat to society sent every year to prisons, detention centers and camps that the Prisons Organization cannot properly maintain. In the long term, Boroumand says, Iran must reduce its eye-watering number of indictable crimes to ensure prison facilities are not as dangerously overcrowded and resource-stretched in the first place.
“Something has to change in the approach,” she says, “for prisoners but also for the Iranian communities outside the prisons. Releasing prisoners doesn’t cost any money; it’s the cheapest thing they could do. But the priority isn’t people’s safety; it’s a punishment-oriented judicial system.
“This has not been a priority for any parliament at any time. Now the Prisons Organization and the government have been boasting about the measures they are taking outside the country. Iran wants to be a respected international player. If there is sufficient international pressure, they will do something about this, but if the international community doesn’t hold them accountable, they won’t.”