Prison Narratives is a collection of stories told and informed by prisoners. The narrators of the series are both prisoners of conscience and people jailed for non-political offences. They talk about their lives in prison and guide the reader through the environment and people they encounter. In this article, inmates at Greater Tehran Penitentiary describe the contradictions of “vocational” skills training behind bars.
“Vocational training for prisoners is an effective factor in reducing the likelihood that they will return to prison”, declared Abdolmajid Keshvari, director-general of prisons in Iran’s Lorestan province, on January 30 this year. Training “not only contributes to public safety”, he said, but “supports the livelihoods of families”.
In many countries and in many individual prisons, Keshvari would be quite correct. Other officials have also extolled the virtues of inmates’ vocational training; in May 2021, Mohammad Ali Arab, director general of South Khorasan Technical and Vocational Training Agency, said it was predicted that in the coming year more than 224,000 inmates would be sent to prison workshops to learn new skills.
In October 2021, Habib Erfan-Manesh, director-general of implementation strategy at the National Technical and Vocational Training Agency, said that in the preceding year, 50,640 inmates, more than 6,000 of them women, had completed training in prisons. He added that around 70,000 inmates in Iran complete these courses each year.
So, what’s the reality? Shahin, an inmate at Greater Tehran Penitentiary, described his own “skills training” to IranWire.
“At 8am, after the roll call, the ward’s representative would call us and tell us to be ready to leave the ward at 10am. We initially thought they were taking us to the chapel for Ashura prayers. Then we learned we were going to the workshop.
“They’d instructed the ward representative to bring 60 inmates there from his ward. We hadn’t been off the ward for about a month. They’d put rows of school desks in there, and as soon as we sat down, they gave each of us a form. The top of mine said ‘Barber, 3rd Grade’. The name written on it wasn’t mine, but the name of someone I didn’t know. It had the logo of the National Technical and Vocational Training Agency on it.”
Shahin went on to say that once he and his cohort were all seated, the director of the skills training division came and told them exactly to answer the questions. “They’d cut each pencil into three pieces and gave each of us a piece. We filled out the forms as we ‘d been instructed. Some were about mosaic-making or welding.
“We were halfway through when they brought in the cameras; they surrounded us with cameramen and photographers. We were there for about an hour. A few visitors in suits also came in. Then they gathered up the forms and we were sent back to the ward.”
Sahin is being held on Ward 5 of Greater Tehran Penitentiary for financial crimes. So far, he says, he has been called up to fill in “exams” under other inmates’ names three times, approximately every quarter.
The Potemkin Village of Vocational Training
Morteza is another inmate who has first-hand experience of the farcical exams. He, too, was jailed for financial misdemeanors and for a while was allowed to do computer admin for the training office, because he knows one of the prison officials.
“It’s a joke,” he said. “At the end of each season they’d call me to help typing up the lists. I sat behind the computer for 12 hours. I had to enter the list of inmates working in the prison, and the names of those on vocational training courses, and send them to the Technical and Vocational Training Agency in Rey [a city near Tehran].
“Our whole job was to forge documents. We had to enter a load of inmates into the system on falsified working hours and pay, while those who actually did work there didn’t get paid. The whole vocational skills training thing is about forging documents.”
Three months before preparing each round of lists, Morteza said, he would receive another list who were supposedly on courses in various fields. The reality, he said, was “some of these were the cronies of officers and prison officials” who would grease examiners’ palms upfront in order to be passed. “They’d give him a painting or some other gift, right in front of us. Then they’d bring in 50 or 60 inmates from various wards to take the exams under other’s names, and record it. Sometimes the answers would already have been written in the form.
“There are no classes and there is no training. And they call us crooks.”