Over the last week, as temperatures dipped and the cold of the winter settled in, there was no fuel to turn on the heaters at Ward 350 at Evin Prison for a full three days. “The radiators feel like ice,” one inmate in the ward told IranWire. “When you touch them, cold runs through your veins. Even under the best conditions, when the boiler room is working, the radiators are lukewarm. When we lean our backs on them, we get no warmth. Our hands and feet shiver. We are not allowed double-layer blankets or clothes with lining. No matter how many thin blankets we use to cover ourselves, it’s no use.”
As winter arrived, there were reports that the heating systems in many Iranian prisons — especially at Evin, Rajaei Shahr and Urmia’s Central Prison — have essentially shut down.
For six years, Hossein was jailed in the communal Ward 350, which houses political prisoners. He has just recently been released. “From 2010, when I entered Ward 350, until my release, it was the same every winter,” he said. “Iranian prisons are old. Cold seeps through the cracks of worn-out doors and windows and dilapidated frames. Every night we had to cover ourselves with two or three paper-thin blankets. All the same, we were sick almost throughout the whole winter. The radiators are old and they cannot live up to the task.”
Inmates Pay for Prison Renovation
According to Hossein, the same year that he started his sentence, a cellmate and the spokesman for the reformist Party of Construction, Hossein Marashi, appealed to the prison to install double-pane windows and doors. It was hard to persuade prison officials, but the inmates paid the costs themselves, solving the problem — but only up to a point. If the heater or boiler room stops working completely, repairing decrepit windows and doors will only have minimal effect.
At times during the winter — and particularly on the weekends — if the Prisons Organization finds itself short of funds, it cuts off gasoline supplies to Evin. When this happens, not only is there no heat, there is no hot water.
One inmate spoke about how prisoners did not have anything but cold water for three days in late November. Those who had access to gas burners heated water for bathing and washing dishes and clothes.
Once, said Hossein, he and his cellmates staged a sit-in to protest against the poor conditions. “For six days we had no hot water,” he said. “We told them we would pay for the gasoline ourselves and all they had to do was fix the heating system. It was really unbearable. Guys were coughing and shivering all night. We had to wash our clothing and the dishes with cold water.”
Yet Hossein doesn’t think it is likely that inmates will actually die because of the cold. “We, the political prisoners, started sending out letters at the beginning of summer,” he said. “This way, when the autumn approached, we would have warm clothing and blankets.”
Guarding the Prison’s Reputation
But the Prisons Organization does not follow a consistent policy when it comes to accepting prisoners’ desperate offer to pay for heat and hot water. At times, officials say they cannot accept donations because it damages the prestige of the prison. “We staged a sit-in in the corner of the yard,” said Hossein. “They threatened us with solitary confinement but we stood our ground. The next day the boiler room got the gasoline and we had hot water.”
Iran’s prisons house plenty of prisoners who come from poor backgrounds, but there are financially comfortable and even rich inmates in various wards too. They occasionally contribute to improving conditions — whether it’s to combat the stifling heat of summer or the harsh cold of winter — but, because of the inconsistent policy, their help is sometimes quite limited.
Hossein said prison officials did accept contributions for renovating the stone façade of the ward, but not when it came to buying air conditioners. “In the summer, when I was at Ward 350, we had to deal with the problem of heat. Air conditioners were not working properly and could not cope with the summer heat. We had to cool ourselves down using cold tap water. Again Mr. Marashi suggested we should replace water-cooled air conditioners with gas-cooled ones. So we bought air conditioners with contributions from inmates, but prison officials said that since they needed three-phase electricity they were not able to install them. What they really meant was that they would install separate meters for the air conditioners and we would have to pay the electricity bills out of our own pockets.”
In Iranian prisons, fuel is often rationed. In some prisons, the wards are heated on alternate days, and the same goes for hot water.
Unlike Evin’s Ward 350, the windows and doors at Rajaei Shahr Prison have not been upgraded. When the gasoline is out and all wards are without heat or hot water, the extreme cold regularly sends the inmates to the prison’s clinic.
“There are not enough radiators in the cells or in the hallways,” said an inmate at Rajaei Shahr. “They are set at the lowest possible level to save gas.” I asked him whether they are able to get warm clothing or blankets from outside the prison. As with Evin’s Ward 350, he said that after arriving at the prison, inmates must provide their own blankets, but they are not allowed any double-layered clothes or blankets.
If prisoners do want to bring heavy blankets or clothing in, they are required to get permission from the prosecutor’s office for the privilege. And it all depends on whether the person in charge on the day the request is put through feels like granting permission or not. Sometimes, the relevant official might grant permission for an inmate in solitary confinement, but not for the community ward, or vice versa. In any case, the permission process is an arduous one.
A Way to Stop Drug Smuggling — But no Clear Laws
Officials argue that the prison policy about blankets and clothes is aimed at preventing illegal drugs from getting into the prison. They say prisoners can easily hide drugs inside blankets or the lining of clothing, and smuggle them in. And since prisons lack sophisticated and modern tools to detect hidden drugs, those in charge have chosen the simplest and the most hassle-free solution — banning anything with a heavy lining.
Despite the policy on blankets and clothing, there are actually no laws governing prison facilities. This extends beyond heating and air conditioning. A few years back, the families of political prisoners asked to pay for an elevator so that elderly relatives did not have to climb 45 steps to the visiting room. Prison officials rejected their offer.
Such disputes have become part of the daily lives of inmates. As the winter begins in earnest, more and more prisoners are writing letters calling for heating, hot water and warm blankets, basic rights for any human being. It remains to be seen whether they get what they need — or if Hossein is correct in his assertion that the prison will not let inmates die from the cold.