The following article is a narration from a prison inmate in Iran, published by IranWire as part of a collection of reports from convicts on their experiences behind bars. Here, an inmate at Greater Tehran Penitentiary describes an emerging capitalist system behind bars that beggars belief: one in which the poorest inmates, who take on labor duties in prison just to adequately feed themselves, are about to be forced to work in factories set up between the prison authorities and the most well-heeled financial criminals.
"... and furthermore, I will not make a claim in the event of any accident at work that results in my disability or death."
The above is not derived from a contract drawn up a century ago, nor from a translated account of life in Tsarist Russia. It forms part of the commitment signed by inmates of the Greater Tehran Penitentiary, otherwise known as Fashafuyeh, in order to take on work during their incarceration and become so-called “laborer-convicts”.
Once the contract is signed – with the prisoner’s fingerprint – it will be sent on to the authorities and the prison judge for approval. The prisoner can then be deployed on a range of tasks, from construction to unit installation, from stitching to mask-making, and to helping around the prison.
I am one of the signatories of this contract. Recently, the director of this vast complex in Tehran had a meeting with several inmates, all convicted of financial crimes, about "a joint venture plan to establish new factories in the area around the prison."
The idea of a prison’s most senior presiding officer engaging with a consortium of venture capitalist convicts might sound unbelievable, but it is only part of the truth that we are living.
How can the judiciary and the penal system allow for joint collaboration – and indeed, the establishment of an entire factory – with those whose images have been tarnished in the media as financial criminals? How much do they profit from these joint activities, and how significant is the product of the unpaid labor by working-class prisoners, that all parties have to be brought to the negotiating table?
Prison Guards or Prisoners’ Lackeys?
October 2020 came with a changing of the guard at Fashafuyeh. Asghar Fathi, who had served as the director here since the early years, was reappointed about three years after he last left post. Older prisoners refer to him as “the Godfather": a man who bought himself a Maserati by selling prison waste.
New appointments across the penitentiary swiftly followed. The newly-reanointed head brought in his own team of Brigadier Generals, deputy chiefs and acting chiefs of staff, an officer class of guards, and subsequently new ward lawyers.
Another item on the agenda was the transfer of all political prisoners, prisoners of conscience and detainees from the November 2019 protests from the 5th Brigade to other locations. The 5th Brigade is a part of the complex in which financial criminals have been held since last year. Almost all those tried in the special economic courts now serve their sentences here.
After news was published about the so-called "luxury" lifestyle that people of means on the 5th Brigade enjoyed, the head of the Prisons Organization, Mohammad Mehdi Hajmohammadi, paid a visit. Ahead of this the carpets and ward facilities were removed for 48 hours to disguise the stark differences between the 5th Brigade and other wards. These impounded trappings of wealth were returned soon afterward and that night, prison officials told an assembled group of 10 ward lawyers that it had been a “misunderstanding”.
Managers and staff on the 5th Brigade are practically the valets of the complex. For instance, a prisoner can pay a monthly sum of 10 million tomans [$400] to have their letters and clerical affairs transferred out of prison, and have items brought back that they might want from outside. If the guards call in a nice gift, like a handful of clothes, a flash drive, a book, a magazine or a mobile phone, they can get a nice gift themselves. With the cooperation of the authorities upstairs, they can even bring in proper microwave ovens, wheelchairs for sitting in, TVs with multimedia facilities, electric fryers, refrigerators, sports equipment for break times... and so on, and so on.
Behind Short Walls
In a prison where everything, from top to bottom, can be bought, and everything is a commodity to be traded, the situation of prisoners with capital behind them is practically beyond imagination. Consider, for instance, a cell occupied by the owners of two well-known brands. From this cell, they can continue to operate, running the company with the help of a landline phone, eight mobile phones, two service staff – one to buy their clothes, another to wash them– two private visits a week, and fresh fruit: things that are completely unattainable for many of us even outside the prison. Life based on social class in prison is rendered a comedy.
Sometimes on overcrowded wards, a cell will be vacated for one of these capitalist prisoners while others have to sleep on the floor. Based on conversations with financial prisoners, your author understands that most of them believe themselves to be victims of a dysfunctional economic system, political point-scoring and injustices in the judiciary. But in fact, the same dysfunctionality and inefficiency here, within the Prisons Organization, allows them to materially benefit.
Being with the confines of prison absolutely does not prevent the accumulation of capital. On the contrary, in prison it is possible for them to build a factory and make a profit using cheap labour.
Behind High Walls
At the same time as the prison guards try to be ingratiating toward the capitalist prisoners, their treatment of others – especially the laborers – is akin to that of slave-owners. The lack of adequate drinking water and food forces some inmates to pay for the basest necessities out of their own empty pockets, or from the money they are forced to extract by exploiting other prisoners.
Prison guards use this indentured labor force to build up new units, prison facilities and services, and even to help with “law enforcement” on the inside. In Fashafouyeh, poorer prisoners, especially those who have no external financial support and are thus barred from having visitors, are forced to work in both formal and informal jobs.
We sacrifice our lives with our signatures and fingerprints to gain a piece of bread behind bars. It’s that or become yet another link in the chain of drug trafficking, or become a servant, shopping and cleaning the clothes of senior officers – or pandering to their sexual desires.
But the greed of the new directors at Greater Tehran Penitentiary is sharper than that of their predecessors. Factories and workshops are now going up in the prison, with the full cooperation and participation of five capitalist prisoners (read: financial criminals).
Those inmates who have committed minor crimes are often the youngest, and they have often grown up in crime hotspots. They are by far more oppressed in prison than any others, including the capitalist prisoners they may now be forced to work for. This is our life, behind the high and short walls of prison.
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