Homemade goods and handicrafts made by prisoners are always objects of curiosity, attracting ample attention from the public, and of course from the families and friends of prisoners. Visitors to Tehran can even go to exhibitions that display work by prisoners at Evin and Rajaei Shahr prisons.
But apart from simple artwork and other crafts, prisoners are often busy making other items, more useful and more controversial, handiwork that is hidden from the public — and from the eyes of prison guards.
Below, prisoners at Evin and Rajaei Shahr Prisons provide a guide to some of the useful goods they produce to make life in prison a little more bearable.
1. Handmade Electrical Outlet
Prisoners are not allowed access to electricity, but they do need it for a variety of purposes, from powering reading lights to charging MP3 players and watching TV when the lights are out. So whenever the prisoners find a piece of wire, they pick it up, stick it to other pieces of wire and use it to conduct electricity next to their bunks.
What you see in Photograph Number One works as an electrical outlet. But those are not electrical wires. The outlet is actually made up of television antenna cables in the absence of any other appropriate material. In most Iranian prisons, reading lamps are forbidden and during lights-out — 10 pm to 7 am — inmates are instructed to sleep, in line with prison regulations.
This ad-hoc outlet uses a piece of a broken metal pipe to carry electricity to televisions and other electrical appliances. The other end is of course connected to the prison’s power lines. It is a very dangerous endeavor and setup, but it satisfies the needs of many inmates.
Oddly, although the Iranian Prisons Organization does not provide electrical outlets in prison cells, it does sell inmates television sets and refrigerators, available through prison shops.
2. Handmade Electrical Switch
Having managed to get contraband electricity, inmates then require switches to control the flow of that electricity. But finding a standard electrical switch in prison is next to impossible, so prisoners must find ways of doing this. Photograph Number Two shows one such ingenious solution.
Lighting in the cells is controlled by prison guards from a centrally-locked box, outside the control of inmates. The switch shown in the photograph is not industrial-strength but does the job. Its key component is the plastic tube of a ballpoint pen, which provides insulation. The wire carrying electricity is inserted into one end and the wire from the appliance — TV, light, rechargeable battery and so on — is pushed into the other end. The tube holds the wires secure but with a little push or pull from either side it works as an on-off switch.
During prison inspections, such contraptions are sometimes seized as contraband. But for prisoners, finding a few meters of cord and a ballpoint pen is not such a challenge. They can easily make another switch.
3. Any fruit is a candidate for moonshine
Many prisoners view any kind of fruit as raw material for making wine — and they make it out of any fruit they can get their hands on. For this reason, an unwritten law forbids the entry of grapes into all Iranian prisons. Ask inmates who have spent decades in prison and they will tell you that throughout their time in prison, they have never seen any grapes, nor have prison shops ever offered them for sale. But prisoners use every other kind of fruit, from pomegranates to cherries, to produce alcoholic drinks. They take the juice, pour it into bottles and place the bottles on a heater or some other warm area so that the fruit slowly ferments. The bottle must be uncorked every day so that excess gases evaporate.
Hiding the bottles while preparing this wine is not an easy task, and sometimes inmates even bury bottles underground. When caught, inmates are charged with the offence of producing alcoholic beverages; some have been sentenced to lashes or an additional prison sentence. But this does not stop them.
4. The Multipurpose Brick
What you see in Photograph Number Four looks like a neatly wrapped gift, but it is not. This is a photograph of a brick, which Iranian prisoners use for many purposes. Bricks are considered contraband, so the newspaper wrapping is an effort to hide it.
A brick can be used as a weapon in fights between prisoners. But it can also be used as a hammer, as a tool to flatten out uneven surfaces or as a weight on top of a pot, turning the pot into a pressure cooker so that rice is tastier and easier to make and stews cook faster. For an inmate, the lowly brick is a precious stone, in a way that nobody outside the prison can imagine.