“The purpose of holding women prisoners in such a place is to pressure and psychologically abuse them and their families.”
The little girl is three years old. She approaches my wife Nasrin Sotoudeh who is sitting in a corner of the prison yard and asks, “Aunty, can you tell me the Rolling Pumpkin story?” Sonbol is a beautiful girl with golden hair, born here at Qarchak prison. Her mother was pregnant when she was arrested for bank robbery. Now they live in a place the inmates call “the end of the world.”
Nasrin has been unjustly and cruelly imprisoned since June 2018 for her legal work representing Iranian human rights and women’s rights activists. She was sentenced to 38 years in prison and 148 lashes. Under the law she must serve at least 12 years. In October 2020, Nasrin was taken out of Evin prison and told she was being taken to the hospital to have treatment for her heart condition. They lied and drove her to Qarchak. Soon after she arrived, Nasrin caught COVID-19. She told me that coronavirus had spread in her ward and many inmates became sick.
Qarchak prison—the women’s prison of Tehran province—is located on the outskirts of a town called Qarchak, 25 miles south east of Iran’s capital, Tehran.
Eleven years ago, the Iran Prison Organization decided to establish a women’s prison in Tehran. Since there were no empty prisons available, a structure that originally had been an industrial cow barn and later served as housing for drug addicts was chosen to temporarily hold female inmates until an appropriate facility could be built. That never happened.
Qarchak holds over 1,400 women, many convicted of violent crimes. A wall has been built around the prison without observing any building standards or using appropriate materials. It is surrounded by camel and ostrich farms. The first time I drove to the prison, to my absolute surprise, I found camels roaming in the parking area.
At Qarchak, 13 inmates have small children. Sonbol is one of them. Once Nasrin asked her if she’d ever been out of the prison on furlough. “Yes, one time.” she answered, “My dad bought me kabob and rice. It was very delicious.”
A young woman who served time in Qarchak told me that she entered the ward with painted nails because it could not be taken off with a regular nail polish remover. One of the children who was born inside had never seen nail polish before. She was so surprised that she asked how it was possible. “What beautiful nails, Aunty!” the little girl exclaimed. “Can my nails be colored, too?”
Many of the wards are a place where women sentenced for serious crimes exercise authority and dominance. Extortion, starting fights, and attacking other cellmates with broken glass and razors are normal day-to-day activities for them. Rape and sexual abuse are among the most dangerous threats some of these prisoners impose on others.
Since there is not a proper sewer for a prison of this size, a foul smell permanently permeates the prison’s air. Nasrin says, “I always feel that my lungs are filled with the smell of sewage.”
The first time I visited the prison office to discuss a furlough for Nasrin, I took a few steps and that smell Nasrin described hit me. I asked the officer escorting me about the origin of the odor. He told me he didn’t know, but added, “It’s always there. It never goes away.” Apparently, at the beginning of his posting to the prison, he got so sick from the smell that he was prescribed two weeks rest to recover.
Since the weather has warmed up, the stench has become unbearable. It is so rancid that it feels like they are living deep inside a sewer. Nasrin’s letters and complaints about the situation have gone unanswered.
Last Monday was visitation day at the prison. I noticed the rain from the night before had soaked up many of the prisoners’ carpets and blankets. The roof of Nasrin’s ward, which covers a number of rooms, was leaking in at least ten spots. Even though prisoners had placed pots and pans under the leaks, water was everywhere.
In response to Nasrin’s complaints, the security officer in charge said, ′′See, the roof of my room is leaking too.” She couldn’t resist a sardonic reply: “Would you like us to come repair your office?”
Nasrin also reports that along with all sorts of insects and cockroaches, they have spotted tarantulas inside the prison.
Overcrowding is so serious that every ten-square meter cell holds twelve beds—four rows of triple bunk beds. None of the rooms have windows or air filtration systems. Instead of following architectural standards and design principles, the prison authorities continue to haphazardly add walls to extend the space and bring in more inmates.
The state of the bathrooms in the prison is another sad story—one that cannot be described in words. I have taken a photo of a bathroom in the parking lot that officers, bus drivers and visitors including lawyers can use. This toilet is unimaginably dirty and dilapidated. And, of course, there is no soap. A friend who had spent time in solitary confinement in Qarchak told me that the toilets in the solitary cells are much worse. Solitary confinement is used to punish prisoners, and it is a true disaster in every sense of the word. Those on death row must also spend the last days of their lives there. Entering these cells is like being transported back to the Middle Ages.
It is not clear what the source of water in the prison is, but it is so salty and untreated that over time it causes irreversible damages to the kidneys and other organs.
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The food in all Iranian prisons is unbearable, and Qarchak is no different. It is extremely greasy and unhealthy. Because some of the women are fasting during the month of Ramadan, prison officials are using the religious holiday as an excuse to not serve lunch to any of the inmates. If a prisoner does not wish to fast and requests lunch, she must wake up at 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. to receive suhur—the first of the two daily meals Muslims eat during Ramadan. However, they will not eat their lunch for another 10 to 12 hours after it is handed to them. Since there is no way to re-heat the food, the meal will have gone completely cold and the fat in it will have congealed.
I was held in Evin prison for four months in 2018. I remember one day when they served spaghetti with lumps of soy. I thought I could at least eat the noodles. After the second spoon, I had to run to the bathroom. The food tasted so bad, and it had been prepared in such unclean and unhealthy ways that it was not edible. In all the time I spent in the general ward at Evin, they never once served meat, chicken or fish.
It’s been more than seven months since Nasrin has been in Qarchak. I have not been able to take the children to visit her because of the long commute and the prison’s unsanitary conditions. This is very painful. The visitation hall has a story of its own. The booths are built in a way that small or short children can’t reach the glass to see their mothers’ faces. Like the food, I don’t think this is an accident. The purpose of holding women prisoners in such a place is to pressure and psychologically abuse them and their families.
Perhaps the only benefit of Nasrin being transferred to Qarchak is that she can learn about the inhumane conditions of this place of banishment and raise our awareness. All of us have the responsibility to help. Little Sonbol, her mother, Nasrin, and all the other women in Qarchak prison need the support of public opinion, human rights organizations, businesses and governments around the world.
I call on the United Nations to conduct an independent investigation into all of Iran’s prisons, and for Qarchak women’s prison to be immediately closed. The dignity, health and safety of women, children and families everywhere demands no less.
Translated from Farsi to English by Parisa Saranj.