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Society & Culture

Meals and Showers: Small Consolations in Solitary

April 29, 2016
Fereshteh Nasehi
4 min read
The view from solitary
The view from solitary
Mealtime: the highlight of the day
Mealtime: the highlight of the day
If you need anything, bang on the door and hope someone comes
If you need anything, bang on the door and hope someone comes

The scariest part of imprisonment in Iran is solitary confinement. Prisoners endure such harrowing silence and loneliness, they wish for the return of their interrogator – often the same interrogator who has humiliated or even tortured them.

One of the biggest agonies of solitary is when a prisoner has to answer the call of nature. There are no toilets in the solitary cells. Prisoners have to bang on the metal door and shout that they have to use the toilet, but often nobody answers.

Hadi, a prisoner at Evin Prison, recounts how in his last days in solitary he lost his mental focus. “I felt that I had lost myself, my name and my identity without a trace,” he says. “I was obsessed with the idea that nobody outside those walls remembered me. I was sure that even my mother had forgotten all about me.”

“I passed the early days in prison by reimagining and reviewing past events, by daydreaming and thinking wishfully,” he says. “I ate the smelly food that was pushed through the hatch and imagined that I was eating my mother’s exquisite and incomparable cooking. I knew all the cracks, stains and the scrawls on the wall by heart. But by the end, I wanted time and again to ask for a pen and paper so I could confess to all the things they said I had done, which I had not done.”

After a political or a “security” prisoner is arrested he is usually taken to  a place called "the Special Security Ward," The officer on duty then puts him in a solitary cell as a matter of course.

This is illegal. According to the bylaws of Iran’s Prisons Organization, a detainee can only be sent to solitary if the organization’s classification board orders it. Officially, solitary confinement is considered a punishment for unruly behavior inside the prison. In practice, prison staff impose it with impunity.

Officially, prison bylaws set the maximum time in the solitary confinement to three weeks, but some prisoners have recalled months or even years spent in solitary.

Another prisoner, Mohsen, has experienced solitary confinement more than once in more than one prison. “Solitary confinement is a tool for intimidating, pressuring and forcing the political prisoner to make false confessions,” he says. “When I was in solitary, my communication with the outside world was completely cut off. They tried to make me believe that I had no support, and I had only my lonely self. Many times I cried my heart out.”


Thankful for Even 10 Minutes

“Our only fun in solitary was taking the daily shower,” Mohsen says. “But sometimes we were denied even that. If we were allowed to take a shower, we were not given more than 10 minutes. But we were thankful even for that. Some old-timers told me that in the 1980s, prison officials deprived those in the solitary of light and showers for months on end.”

At Evin Prison, wards 209 and 240, as well as the Revolutionary Guards’ Ward, which is known as 2A, are full of solitary cells. But they contain shared cells as well. After authorities conclude their interrogations, they send prisoners facing similar charges to shared rooms until the investigations are over, or the prisoners are released on bail.

Rajaei Shahr Prison near Tehran has a Revolutionary Guards’ ward as well, at least in name, but this ward is under the control of the Intelligence Ministry. Prisoners have their personal possessions taken away and are then taken to a solitary cell under a written order signed by an examining magistrate.

According to Mohsen, solitary has one single consolation. “All prisoners who have been in solitary confinement testify that the food is really good, although these days the quality of food at Ward 209 has diminished a little,” he says. “The officials order the same food from restaurants for themselves and the detainees in solitary. The food is served on clean disposable plates, and lunch and dinner in the solitary become highlights of the day. Imagine how horrible the experience must be for the prisoner to find a meal the best daily entertainment that he has.”

“Solitary confinement is a grave for the body and a paradise for daydreaming,” says Hadi. “The feeling of uncertainty is painful. You keep wondering what your fate will be when your case goes to trial.”