When I was trying to find out how prisoners pass long hours in their cells, an inmate at Evin Prison told me many of them enjoy playing computer games, especially action games made by Sony PlayStation, Konami Digital Entertainment or Electronic Arts Inc, including the “Battlefield” series.
But it is not always easy for prisoners to get their hands on the games and consoles. I discovered that some prisoners go through a lot of trouble to get them. They regularly lobby prison wardens or other officials to acquire them on their behalf. And the enjoyment of them is twofold: for entertainment, but also for making money by renting them out to fellow prisoners.
In prison, time seems to go at a maddeningly slow pace. Accessing PlayStation, a TV set equipped with USB ports or a DVD player can help with the tedious monotony, and, one prisoner said, can be as enticing as a mirage of water in a parched desert.
Reza, an inmate at Evin’s Ward 7, told me after he agreed to work for one of the wardens and was on best behavior, he was rewarded with a permit to buy a PlayStation. “Not all prisoners get a chance like this,” he said. “It’s not easy. But I was lucky and managed to get a permit signed by the warden. Many prisoners try. Now I can have some fun. I have a little freedom from the prison atmosphere and feel less under pressure.”
But Mostafa, an inmate held at Evin’s political ward, told me that those serving sentences for political activity seldom receive those kinds of favors. “Prison management denies prisoners of conscience and political prisoners many amenities,” he said. “Not getting a PlayStation is just the start.”
Why don’t they protest? I asked Mostafa. “It’s not like we don’t object when we’re discriminated against,” he said. “But the inmates of this ward have so many more important issues to deal with. We are denied even the most basic amenities that ordinary prisoners enjoy. We have to struggle even to get a simple phone call. We don't have enough air to breathe because of the fences and prefabricated walls installed over the windows. Our health is at risk because of radio-jamming equipment, which has been installed directly over our roof. Naturally, things like entertainment don’t take priority over these sorts of problems.”
Spies Can Play
So there are no PlayStations in wards where political prisoners are kept? I asked. “A few years ago, a young inmate on the ward managed to get a permit and ordered one from the prison store,” Mostafa told me.“We might get a chance to play occasionally. Some inmates who have been convicted of espionage have received permits to get PlayStations but they are mostly in cells with ordinary prisoners, not on the political prisoners ward.”
“Before they made Ward 350 into a ward for political prisoners, there were a few PlayStations normal prisoners could use,” said another inmate at Evin. “Sometimes people who owned PlayStations made money by renting them out by the hour to other prisoners. After the number of political prisoners increased — especially after the 2009 presidential election — authorities deprived us of more things and the club room was turned into a place for sewing and ironing.”
One inmate described how he became addicted to PlayStation, claiming it was harder to give up than illegal drugs.“I played so much that my eyes became tired and red,” he said, adding that the most popular games featured simulated fast car chases, guns and football. He decided to kick the PlayStation habit. “After a while it bored me,” he said. “Now I loan mine to my friends.”
Read other articles in Feresteh Nashehi's prison series:
Evin Prison TV: More Music, Less Censorship
An Unlikely Classroom: Learning English in an Iranian Prison
How Prison Graffiti Nourishes the Soul