By Aida Ghajar
April 7, 2020
From January to March 2020, judicial officials and representatives of the Iranian Prisons Organization visited Mashhad Central Prison, also known as Vakilabad Prison, and reiterated previous statements made by Ebrahim Raeesi, the head of the judiciary, regarding the conditions there.
During his own visit on March 24, 2019, Raeesi had emphasized the importance of “improving the prison environment,” “developing facilities” and “empowering prisoners,” adding that “any injustice regarding prisoners’ rights should be avoided.”
One of the more recent visitors, on February 10, 2020, was the Deputy Prosecutor of Mashhad, a low-ranking judiciary official. But instead of addressing the lack of facilities and the conditions prisoners were being held in, he said that “repentance” and “appealing to the Ahl al-Bayt” would help convicts secure release.
One month later, in the same city, judicial authorities ordered the closure of the shrine of the eighth Shia Imam following the outbreak of coronavirus. But the deplorable conditions inside the prison remained the same. By that point, not only had coronavirus spread among people who had visited the shrine, but it had also spread throughout Mashhad Prison.
Mohammad Hossein Sepehri, a teachers’ rights activist and a co-signatory of a statement calling for the resignation of the Supreme Leader, is currently being held in Vakilabad Prison and is one of two prisoners to have recently contracted coronavirus. On March 9, 2020, Fatemeh Maleki, the wife of human rights activist Mohammad Nourizad, quoted activist Fatemeh Sepehri, another co-signatory to the statement, who had said that coronavirus had spread to Vakilabad Prison and that one of the prison wards had been dedicated to infected inmates.
On March 10, 2020 it was reported that Abbas Vahedian Shahroudi, who had also signed the letter, was thought to be suffering from COVID-19 and had been transferred to the prison’s health department, then to a detention center where infected prisoners were being housed. His daughter Hengameh Vahedian said her father had claimed more than 30 prisoners thought to be infected were being held together, but that no tests had been carried out. At the same time, the Human Rights in Iran Campaign reported that two wards in Vakilabad Prison had been allocated for suspected coronavirus infected patients.
Overcrowding and Increased Risk of Infection
The situation at Vakilabad Prison exacerbates the concerns of the prisoners’ families. One prisoner out on temporary leave at the beginning of April told IranWire: “At least 800 prisoners are being held in Rooms 101 to 104 of Ward 5 of the prison. The space is so small that a number of prisoners open the doors of the toilet facilities to sleep, or sleep on top of the retaining walls between two stalls. Some inmates have to sleep on the toilet floor, where they spread a bit of cardboard and spend the night.”
Section 1.6 of the prison houses prisoners held on political and security-related charges. It has seven rooms, each of which holds a different number of detainees.
Room 3 has a capacity of about 30. Prisoners in Room 3 are denied the right to use the telephone or to receive visits. Michael White, who left the prison on March 19, 2010 with suspected coronavirus, had been held in this room. The space has two toilets and a bathroom attached to it but hot water is usually cut off during the day. Elsewhere in other wards of Vakilabad Prison, inmates are not allowed to use the bathroom between 10pm and dawn.
Room 4 in Section 1.6 is a detention center for prisoners whom the Islamic Republic categorizes as Islamic State (ISIS) members, as well as others accused of non-terrorism-related crimes. This room is well over capacity. It has been reported that Room 2 of the same ward, which houses inmates held on drug offenses, is so crowded that prisoners are forced to sleep at the entrance to the hall.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has said that people maintaining a distance of at least one metre between one another is key to reducing the spread of coronavirus. In February 2020 Khosro Ghahremani, the deputy director of management, development and human resources at Iran’s Prisons Organization, said that the per-capita indoor space in prisons was 8.5 square meters. This, he said, should be extended to 11.5 square meters during the country’s Sixth Development Plan. But what is currently being reported from Iran’s prisons including Vakilabad does not meet the WHO’s recommendations, in spite of the official’s claims. Clearly, any WHO guidance regarding hygiene is also being ignored if prisoners are sleeping in corridors and toilet facilities.
The high population, water shortages and lack of basic hygiene facilities at Vakilabad Prison make it an extremely dangerous environment in the context of coronavirus, and renders preventing the spread of the virus impossible. Detainees who spoke to IranWire said they had been given very little educational or public health material to help them stop the virus spreading, with the only guidance displayed on banners installed in the main corridor of the prison and ina series of black and white leaflets instructing prisoners to make sure they wash their hands. Prison officials disinfect rooms with a diluted bleach solution once or twice a day.
Following the news in February that the coronavirus had begun spreading in Iranian prisons, detainees have repeatedly asked health authorities for masks and gloves, only to be met with the same response: “We are facing difficulties in obtaining these items even for ourselves – let alone you.” When inmates come down with a fever or other symptoms of COVID-19 and go to the prison health center, health staff simply take their temperature. “If we have a fever, they put one or two suppositories down on the table from a distance and tell us to take it and go,” an inmate said. Nothing else happens. Inmates also say that guards, prison officials, soldiers and the prison’s administrative staff all wear masks and gloves, but prisoners are not given any protective clothing or equipment.
In March, after the Islamic Republic officials finally admitted that there were cases of coronavirus in Iran, prisoners and their families feared the virus would spread to the country’s jails and prompt a humanitarian catastrophe. On February 26, Sediqeh Maleki, the wife of teachers’ rights activist Hashem Khastar, published a letter on Telegram entitled Justice-Seeking Teachers Call for a Cure Before the Incident Takes Place that highlighted the issue of the high concentration of inmates in prison wards. But no action was taken until a prisoner in Ward 5 was infected with coronavirus and had to be removed.
One of Michael White’s cellmates spoke to IranWire about the days before White, who suffers from cancer, was removed from the prison on medical furlough. Prior to White’s departure, he said, he had begun to develop symptoms of COVID-19. White was transferred from Room 3 to an unknown location and after five days of not hearing any news, cellmates watched as officers in full anti-coronavirus protective gear arrived and took away all of White’s belongings. Michael White’s family later announced that he had been hospitalized and had contracted coronavirus.
According to White’s cellmate, before he left the prison, White had only been allowed to communicate with other prisoners during the hours allocated for prisoners to go outside for fresh air – or occasionally through the small window in his cell that looked out onto the ward. Those prisoners who knew some English would speak with him. These moments were the only links he had to other people and the outside world.
No Protective Equipment for Prisoners – or the Doctors Looking After Them
The deputy prosecutor of Mashhad has so far only advised prisoners to repent as a means of appealing their sentences. But his superior, Mohammad Hossein Droudy, the prosecutor of Mashhad, has advised administrative staff working for the judiciary in Mashhad to use masks to protect themselves against the coronavirus. He announced on March 3, 2020 that the prosecutor’s office was planning to provide masks, gloves, and disinfectant to the judiciary’s security unit and to soldiers stationed at the entrances of the complexes. No arrangements were made for detainees, however, and medical staff in Droudy’s jurisdition were also deprived of basic health equipment and facilities.
The official failure to tend to the needs of inmates in Vakilabad Prison is long-standing and not limited to the pandemic. This crowded, low-capacity prison has witnessed many executions, even in the period during which coronavirus has been spreading. According to a report by the Human Rights Organization of Iran, at least two prisoners have been executed there since the outbreak began. The pair have been named as Ahad (or Tohid) Salehi, 27, who was in a wheelchair after being shot in the spinal cord by police, and Nader Hosseini, who was arrested on charges of murder. The organization’s report said that other prisoners feared for their lives.
The spokesperson for Iran’s Ministry of Health delivers daily reports on coronavirus infection and recovery statistics. But so far no figures have been released on coronavirus infection or death rates among the country’s prison population, either by the Prisons Organization or the offficials tasked with protecting them.