In January, two months before the outbreak of coronavirus in Iranian prisons made the news, an inmate in the Greater Tehran Penitentiary, known as Fashafuyeh Prison, lost his life to tuberculosis. In February, less than a month later, three other inmates died of meningitis. Then came the news of the spread of coronavirus in Iranian prisons and of fatalities among prisoners. Aida Ghajar looks at unfolding events in the prison and the consequences of the prison authorities' policies.
In January, according to information received by IranWire, an inmate at Ward 4 at Fashafuyeh Prison died from tuberculosis. When the medical staff tested the patient’s 85 cellmates they found that 45 of them were also suffering from tuberculosis (TB). In an emergency step, prison officials moved imprisoned Gonabadi dervishes from the so-called “closed-door hall” in Ward 4 to Ward 2 of the penitentiary, and then turned this hall into a quarantine ward for 350 inmates who had been diagnosed with TB.
In February, less than a month later, three inmates at Ward 2 lost their lives to meningitis. This time a hall in Division 1 of Fashafuyeh Prison was turned into a quarantine ward for prisoners with meningitis.
Prison officials did not announce how many inmates were suffering from meningitis and how many of them had died from the disease. Instead, they cited the causes of death as “heart attack” or “breathing failure.” It was only after the news of coronavirus in Iranian prisons emerged that they acknowledged that a number of inmates had died from meningitis. Before, the doctors had been ordered by higher-up authorities to give innocuous reasons for the deaths.
Fashafuyeh Prison officials, who in January and February had been covering up the news of meningitis and tuberculosis outbreaks among inmates, now used meningitis as a cover to hide the fact that a number of prisoners had died from coronavirus. It was only after mid-March, when news about the Covid-19 outbreak in Iran had been reported, that they relented and focused on coronavirus, designating a hall in Ward 1 of the prison to quarantine people with the virus. On March 12, an inmate reported that there were coronavirus deaths in Fashafuyeh and said that inmates were dying every day from the virus [Persian link].
Hospitals Refuse Sick Inmates because of Unpaid Debts
Information received by IranWire shows that, at the time, a number of prisoners who had been infected with coronavirus were transferred from Fashafuyeh to hospitals, but that the hospitals refused to accept them and they were returned to prison. The reason? Iran’s Prisons Organization had not paid the hospitals the money that it owed them.
The amount the Prisons Organization owed the hospitals for the last year has not been officially announced, but debts for other years may offer some guidance. On February 13, 2016, Ali Asghar Jahangir, head of the organization, had announced that the amount was 40 billion tomans (over $12 million in the 2016 official exchange rate) and had revealed that the hospitals were refusing to accept sick inmates because of this unpaid debt. And on December 30, 2017, he let it be known that this debt had doubled to 80 billion tomans [Persian links].
On February 24, 2020, the Supreme Judiciary Council issued guidelines for protecting prisons from coronavirus. In a video conference with director generals of the Prisons Organization across Iran, Jahangir emphasized that prisons must be disinfected on a daily and continuous basis, the prisoners must be provided with sanitary necessities and the guards must be trained to handle the virus [Persian link].
Even though during the video conference Jahangir had reported that sanitary committees had been formed in prisons to guard inmates’ health, a prisoner who had recently been released on furlough told IranWire that a nurse in Fashafuyeh had been infected with coronavirus. Also, prison officials have prohibited medical staff from wearing protective gear because they want to prevent inmates from panicking and rioting. In the coming days, there were riots in a number of prisons in Iran, during which some inmates were killed.
Furthermore, despite claims by the head of the Prisons Organization that it was guarding the health of prisoners, inmates have reported that not only are regular disinfections not taking place, the guards and officers lack the most basic protective gear such as masks and gloves. According to these inmates, the prisoners also lack basic necessities for hygiene. Even before the coronavirus outbreak, the rations for health products had been smaller than the amount specified in Prisons Organization bylaws. The inmates had been receiving rations of soap, shampoo, laundry powder and bleach only once every few months, and then in limited quantities.
Not Even Enough Hot Water
Inmates report that besides the severe shortage of sanitary necessities like soap, they are also deprived of enough hot water even though, according to the World Health Organization, washing with soap and hot water is one of the most effective ways to protect against coronavirus. Furthermore, the very low number of shower stalls and sanitary facilities in the prison cannot meet the needs of the prison population. In Ward 2 of Fashafuyeh, there are only six lavatories and four shower stalls for approximately 240 inmates. The situation in Wards 1 and 4 is even worse. In Ward 4, around 450 inmates have access to the same number of facilities as provided in Ward 2.
The very polluted environment of Iranian prisons and the lack of minimum health facilities leaves the door open for dangerous diseases to spread. On March 1, 2015, the then health minister Hasan Hashemi visited Ghezel Hesar prison in Karaj and reported that a number of inmates were suffering from AIDS and drug-resistant tuberculosis. And a few months after him, Morad Hashemi Zehi, a member of parliament’s Health Committee, said that contagious and infectious diseases such as hepatitis were increasing among prisoners due to the lack of sanitation [Persian links].
According to information received by IranWire, vaccines for meningitis, a disease that can be both infectious and deadly, were sent to Fashafuyeh after mid-March but all these vaccines were used on the medical and the administrative staff of the prison. The inmates say they never receive medications for contagious diseases such as AIDS, hepatitis or TB and they are never screened for such diseases — not when they arrive at the prison nor during their time behind bars. Their testimony belies the claim made by Mehrzad Tashakorian, Director General of the Prisons Organization’s Health Department who, on March 13, said that a year earlier all prisoners had been screened for AIDS [Persian link].
On March 31 at a meeting of the Supreme Judiciary Council, Ali Asghar Jahangir asked the health minister to order medical schools around Iran to cooperate with the Prison Organization and screen and separate inmates who might be infected with coronavirus after they return from their temporary leave of absence, or furlough. If the furloughs granted to inmates because of the epidemic are not renewed, said Jahangir, 100,000 prisoners will be returned to prison by April 19.
So how can the Prisons Organization, which is unable to protect inmates from known diseases like tuberculosis and meningitis, protect them against a mostly unknown virus? When will the Prisons Organization and its bosses in the judiciary provide at least 200,000 prisoners with minimum sanitary necessities such as hot water and soap?
IranWire reports on Coronavirus Outbreak in Iran
Coronavirus Crisis in Iranian Prisons, 27 February 2020
More Prisoners Quarantined in Iran, 26 February 2020
Reports of Coronavirus in Three Iranian Prisons, 25 February 2020