The Iranian children’s rights advocate Atena Daemi was released from prison on January 24, 2022, after five years of arbitrary detention. The 34-year-old has spoken to IranWire about her ordeal and that of others in Qarchak Women’s Prison, where inmates are stripped of their humanity and dignity, seemingly by design.
In this Varamin jail, she said, even the clothes the women arrive in are taken away from them. For years they won’t see a cucumber, a banana or a carrot – or, if they have seen them, they were chopped up and stuffed into plastic bags so they couldn’t be used for sexual gratification.
Snitching on cellmates is rewarded with trivial items. To get hold of so much as a cigarette lighter, or a bent and rickety spoon, the women have to inform on amorous relationships between their fellow inmates. Those without money to sustain themselves must prostrate themselves before the guards and hope for the best.
Daemi served her sentence between Qarchak and two other jails: Evin Prison and Lakan Prison in Rasht in northern Iran. Evin is somewhat different, she said, but Rasht and Qarchak – Qarchak especially – are monstrous places.
Encounters With Child Traffickers
“I had different experiences in each of the three prisons I served time in,” Daemi told us. “I witnessed different things, and met different people, but my most painful experiences had to do with children.
“During my years in Qarchak, I couldn’t have visitors and didn’t have access to the phone. They didn’t let me go to my sister’s wedding, and they incited a number of inmates to attack me and beat me and my friend up. But nothing was as painful as the situation of [some other] women, which I’ll never come to terms with.”
“I met this one woman at the prison clinic. Her trade was selling the virginity of little girls, a subject I talked about in an interview with Radio Zamaneh.”
In the mentioned interview, Daemi had explained that the jailed child traffickers were gang members who abducted little girls and sold them their “virginity” to men for a high price. The victims, she said, were aged one to five, and would be abandoned in the street after they were raped.
Inmates Deformed and Driven to Kill
The inhumanity at Qarchak prison, itself established on the site of a former industrial chicken farm, is pervasive, Daemi says. “The conditions created by prison officials at Qarchak drive the inmates to violence. And the inmates themselves abuse each other because the conditions are bad.”
Two particular long-term inmates, Daemi said, had gained such notoriety their names were even known at Evin Prison. “The pair were originally sentenced to six months, and two years, in prison [respectively]. They were drug addicts, but the conditions inside – and family and societal pressures – had driven them to murder.
“They’d had light sentences when they arrived but after they killed one of their cellmates they had had to serve 15 and 18 years. It was so painful. It would have been very different if Qarchak had the same amenities we had at Evin. There would have been less violence.”
Even the sleeping conditions, she said, inflicted additional punishment on the women: “There were too many prisoners, and since they had to fit all of them in, they had three tiers of very substandard beds screwed to the wall. Ninety percent of the old-timers were bent double because the beds were so close to each other, and they couldn’t sit on the floor to rest their backs against the wall. They’d been forced to sit on the edge of the beds for years and so their backs and spines were deformed.”
Guards Pitting Women Against Each Other
In Qarchak, Daemi said, women have to degrade themselves or put their cellmates at risk to obtain basic items for personal use, or to feed their addictions. “Blood might be spilled to get hold of just one needle. The prison staff used this to extort information from the prisoners. If the inmate needed a lighter or a needle, they’d show it to her and tell her, ‘If you want this, give us information about so-and-so inmate.’
“The atmosphere created by the officials had a dreadful impact on the prisoners’ morale. Prison is very corrosive and everything repeats itself over and over again. The prison ought to take measures to make this endless repletion more tolerable, but in Qarchak, they were exploitative.
“For example, they’d set up an argument between inmates over even the most trivial things and watched without doing anything about it. They loved fights among inmates so that they would not ask prison officials for anything. They allowed the inmates to quarrel and fight each other as long as they wanted.”
During her visits to the prison clinic, Daemi found opportunities to speak with other inmates. In most cases, she said, women’s treatment by their jailers had reinforced the negative sides of their personalities, where in kinder circumstances their better sides might have found the upper hand.
Some found solace, of a kind, with each other. “Mate” or “body” were the terms commonly used in Qarchak for inmates who had developed romantic relationships with another – but this, too, had a dark side. “There were women in prison who really were sexually attracted to others,” Daemi said, “but some did it for sport.
“My investigations in prison showed me that many of these women wanted to compensate for the emptiness they were feeling, and sometimes even because they wanted to act like men. Many of them did it just to show off, or show they were stronger. But 80 percent of the fights in Gharchak Prison were over these relationships.
“The jailers enticed the inmates with needles and lighters so that they’d report emotional bonds between their cellmates, even though sex was not possible because of the guards, the overcrowding and the surveillance cameras. It was more an emotional bond.”
Most of the murders committed inside Qarchak were over these pairings and their fallout, Daemi said. “Women in prison were deprived of sex and because they couldn’t get any satisfaction they were attracted to each other. The prison didn’t not provide any means of entertainment to fill the void. Many have been in prison for years, leading to fights. In one of these fights, a woman was maimed. She was raped with the handle of a mop.”
Maryam and Fatemeh
In her conversation with IranWire, Daemi then returned to the two women she had described previously – the ones who had been driven to murder. Their names, she said, are Maryam and Fatemeh.
“One was arrested for carrying drugs and the other for theft. One was sentenced to six months and the other to two years. The one who was sentenced to six months was born in 1988. The night she was due to be released she committed murder.
“When I saw Maryam at clinic she was biting off the flesh of her own hand. This was how 18 years of prison had driven her out of her mind. They transferred her to Aminabad Psychiatric Hospital. I heard from the guards that over there they had tied her hands and feet to a cage. In Aminabad she had attacked a nurse and a doctor. She had bitten the nurse and, as punishment, they had pulled out all her teeth. This is how inhumanely she was treated.
“If Maryam and her friend Fatemeh had been kept in humane conditions, they would not have got to this point. When you talked to them, they were very kind, pleasant and respectful. But they felt anger towards their fellow inmates who were incarcerated for common crimes like them, and they wanted to exercise power over them.
“I believe they did this to compensate for what society had taken away from them. When you deny women the chance to be humans, you are going to see such things.”