“It happens a lot. At seven o’clock in the morning, before prisoners have even woken up, they can open their eyes by chance and find themselves face to face with four different soldiers and a prison guard who’ve sneaked into their cell,” says Evin prisoner Saeed R. “They’ll suddenly shout, ‘get out of bed and sit in a line on the floor. This is an inspection!’”
With these inspections, soldiers and prison guards hope to find something incriminating — a piece of contraband.
According to the bylaws pertaining to short-term Iranian detention centers, inmates are allowed “full-time access to publications, books, magazines, newspapers and communication facilities, including mobile phones and computers.” According to Article 60 of the Prison Organization regulations, defendants with a final verdict are restricted to “books, publications, toothpaste and non-metallic toothbrushes, non-metallic bar soap holders, soap, shampoo, sponges, non-metallic combs, two small towels, two pairs of socks, underwear, stationery including paper, envelopes, pencils and ballpoint pens, as well as medical glasses, nail clippers, manual hair trimmers and single-station radios.”
But, contrary to this legislation, in recent years prison officials have repeatedly ordered that wards holding prisoners of conscience and political prisoners be inspected on the basis that inmates are “illegally” using contraband mobile phones to contact the outside world. This is not always the case.
“They look around to spot political prisoners who are behaving suspiciously so that they can catch them and ask them things like, ‘what’s in your hand?’ or ‘what are you hiding?’” explains Saeed. “They create an atmosphere of terror and if they find something, that prisoner’s name will go on the offenders’ list. It’s the same routine every time.”
He adds, “Some of the prisoners take their bank cards, rings and cigarettes with them to the yard. But those who forget to take their valuables with them know they may as well kiss them goodbye forever.”
Of course, a number of prisoners do violate the contraband laws. But they are not the only ones. Soldiers do too, by accepting bribes and hush money from inmates. Soldiers interested in accepting bribes notify prisoners by signaling from behind the backs of prison guards. On occasion, cellmates deliberately leave contraband in their cells for specific soldiers.
“In the political wards, repair tools like mending irons, screwdrivers and kitchen utensils, such as knives and cleavers, get confiscated. They also take headphones,” says Saeed. “Nowadays, headphones and tools for handcrafts or carpentry are brought into the prison with the permission of prison security via family members or the prison shop. But if an object is confiscated during an inspection, it will not be returned to the prisoner, even if it was allowed in the first place. Even single-station radios that can only pick up broadcasts from the state-run radio channel are prohibited in prisons like Rajaei Shahr and Ghezel Hesar. Lighters and hot plates are also often forbidden.”
What can be worse?
But the situation for ordinary prisoners is much worse than for political prisoners. “They’re beaten, humiliated and insulted,” says Saeed.
“Soldiers are rough because guards allow them to step over the legal line in order to have greater control over the prison and the inmates,” he says. “They intimidate prisoners so that they understand that they can’t complain. During body searches, they sometimes make the inmates stand completely naked in front of one other while they search every orifice so they can humiliate them.”
Objecting to this behavior can have dire consequences for prisoners. This could involve a soldier or soldiers abusing the prisoner verbally or physically with a baton. On occasion, a soldier or two will restrain the hands and feet of an inmate so that other officials can beat him or her up.
“When a prisoner returns to his or her cell after an inspection, they’ll find that the room looks nothing like it did before,” explains Saeed. “All their personal belongings and clothes are dumped on the floor in a mess.”
Like every prison, inmates frequently smuggle drugs in with help from the outside and these illicit substances often turn up during inspections.
“A variety of drugs always turn up during inspections, sometimes up to several kilos worth. At Rajaei Shahr Prison, they found half a kilo of meth in just one cell,” says Saeed. “The so-called ‘prison drug mafia’ always has a ‘dog’ in the prison, which allows them to continue smuggling. In other words, somebody that protects them, such as a security agent or a prison employee. Most of these items are smuggled in by prison guards, security agents or by other employees — and they make a huge profit for the prison mafia.”
Contraband in prison costs at least 10 times as much as the equivalent would on the outside, sometimes reaching as high as 50 times more. Although those responsible are sometimes caught, the profit margin is so high that it is always possible to persuade other people to join and work for the gangs smuggling contraband into prisons.