At the notorious Rajaei Shahr Prison in Iran, a note sticks clumsily to the wall. The note – full of angry and frustrated comments aimed at “the thief who stole my handball” — is far from an exception. These notes are commonplace, much like the theft that inspires them.
Prisoners in Iran have very little in the way of comfort and entertainment, so many of them resort to stealing other peoples’ belongings. At times, these can even be the most insignificant of items.
“For ages I’ve been trying to find the person who stole my spoons,” says one Rajaei Shahr Prison inmate. “I think we need to appoint someone in the ward to referee the theft problem. Stealing even happens in the prisoner of conscience ward because it now holds regular criminals as well. In the past, theft in the political wards happened only rarely.”
There is very little an inmate can do if he or she discovers something has been stolen. Prison guards ignore complaints, and the risk of being bullied is very high. According to one prisoner at Rajaei Shahr, the only way to prevent people stealing your things is by joining a prison gang.
“If you don’t, not only do they steal your belongings but you’ll never sleep easy, and the chance of coming out alive is slim,” explains Sa’adat, a prisoner on the so-called Murderer Ward. “Just this month, Mohammad Mardani, the head of Rajaei Shahr Prison, sent somebody accused of spying to the ward to ‘teach him a lesson.’ I saw with my own eyes that the moment the prisoner in question was brought here, 10 inmates jumped on him without provocation and started beating him up. They said they’d kill him if he didn’t obey prison officials.”
According to Sa’adat, some prisoners unashamedly steal things in the middle of the day. They even try to steal prison cells. “I saw one inmate push out another inmate the moment that he had arrived. According to the aggressor, other inmates in the ward had ‘sold him’ the cell for three million tomans [around $1000]. But obviously buying and selling cells in prison is both illegal and immoral.”
Lack of Morality
In addition to the thieves themselves, there are prisoners who actually orchestrate the theft, instructing other inmates to steal a particular item that they want, then buying it and selling it on to make a profit. Sa’adat says he sees this firsthand on a frequent basis.
“I know one prisoner who has two guys to do his dirty work. He takes advantage of the fact that both of them have been in prison for over a decade and are in dire need of money so that they can satisfy their drug addiction,” says Sa’adat. “He gives them the green light and then they go and steal. This way they can finance their drug habit. A few inmates have testified to this but they’re part of one of the stronger gangs in the prison so they’ve never been punished.”
According to Mohsen, another inmate in the security ward at Rajaei Shahr, certain prisoners, often with serious criminal backgrounds, are specifically chosen to harass specific people. The criminals are often people that are badly in need of money.
Mahan, a prisoner in a communal ward for political prisoners at Evin, says that theft is absolutely used as a tactic of intimidation. “Some thieves are ordered by other people to steal in order to harass, threaten or terrorize other prisoners. Nearly every inmate has, at some point, heard these threats and knows full well that gang leaders or prison officials are behind them. But nobody can do anything about it.”
Some political prisoners offer classes to their fellow inmates on democracy and society. Mohsen has taken some of them, including one called “Obstacles to Achieving Democracy.” Mohsen says he remembers how Keyvan Samimi, a journalist and political activist who was released from prison in 2015 after spending six years behind bars, told one class that “Iran lacks the moral values for democracy.”
“Well, this lack of morality has now infiltrated the ward for security and political prisoners at Rajaei Shahr too,” Mohsen says. “Evin Prison is almost just as bad. Anyone coming out of Ward 209, which is run by the Intelligence Ministry, says how the ward is filled with detainees accused of embezzlement and financial corruption. Particularly under Ahmadinejad, things got worse, with the end results being profiteering, cronyism, thievery and lies.”
Sa’adat explains that prisoners often team up to steal things. It might be that one person chooses a target, whilst another person keeps watch and a third person steals the item. The group will then sell the item on.
“I even saw that one of my friends’ TV had been taken from his bunk and just put on somebody else’s, but there was no way to prove it was theft,” says Sa’adat. “In certain wards, thieves are protected by gangs or even by prison officials.”
According to Mahan at Evin, more items get stolen just after guard inspections than at any other time.
“Thieves steal expensive items and then blame it on the inspectors,” Mahan says. “During inspection times, the wards are complete chaos so different inmates’ belongings get mixed together. It’s much easier for thieves.”