Evin jail is Iran's most notorious penal institution with a mixed population of criminals and political prisoners.
From inside its walls, Anoosheh Ashoori has given The National a detailed account of a time of crisis as the Covid-19 pandemic swept the country exposing the endemic shortages and dangerous conditions that inmates can only hope to survive.
Prisoners with suspected coronavirus were given sleeping pills and sent back to their multi-occupancy cells after examinations, in breach of WHO best practice guidelines, Mr Ashoori said.
A former government official, one of 11 people in Mr Ashoori’s small room on wing four, was told he should go “back and rest” in his room without any medication after showing signs of coronavirus.
The following day with his condition worsening, the man - identified under the pseudonym Campbell - returned to see the doctor.
The doctor told Campbell “not to enter his room and again gave him the same advice”, said Mr Ashoori. “The doctor said ‘I can only give you sleeping pills’.”
When Campbell asked for antibiotics, the doctor dismissed his concerns. “You talk too much. You can’t even find antibiotics outside, let alone in the prison,” according to Mr Ashoori’s account.
WHO prison guidance says inmates with symptoms “should be put into medical isolation until there can be further medical evaluation and testing”.
Campbell eventually recovered after nearly two weeks of headaches and pain after losing seven kilogrammes. He was never tested.
Mr Ashoori told of rumours swept through the prison that an inmate who helped with cleaning and other menial tasks on his wing had been taken to a medical centre on suspicion of having contracted coronavirus.
“He was not feeling well from two days before his departure and he spent most of the time in bed,” he said. “Once an inmate leaves wing four he does not return. Nobody knows any more about his fate.”
Mr Ashoori also recounted how he was on the phone and saw a 74-year-old with a history of heart and other health problems collapse on the wing. He asked for some drugs for his condition when he was taken to the doctor.
“The doctor opened the drawer of his desk and after searching for a while he found only one capsule,” said Mr Ashoori. “He [the doctor] called the person in charge and asked him why we don’t have any nitroglycerin capsules in here? The guy simply answered: we don’t have any.
“About half an hour later, someone came with a sachet of nitroglycerin capsules. So apparently they had it but they were not going to give it.”
The Iran Prison Atlas, a US group that keeps a database of political prisoners in Iran, said that medicine shortages were common in Iranian prisons.
“We had several reports claiming that all prisoners got the same pill against everything, mostly any pain pills and paracetamol,” said programme manager Amin Riahi.
Fights and Fears
Fights broke out in Mr Ashoori’s wing after a bread shortage cut supplies to inmates.
“We have had two fights in the hall,” said Mr Ashoori on April 11. “The fight in room five started over bread.
“Today we were given one bag full of lavash bread, instead of the two daily ones. Bread is distributed once a day. and it must provide for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
“We usually have enough bread, but today it was scarce. Apparently an inmate was criticised for using more than his share, but sometimes even valid criticisms are not taken lightly.
“The scuffle ended after the other roommates intervened and didn’t allow it to escalate.”
With little in the way of information, rumours swept the prison of what was happening to those who had left their prisons under the furlough schemes and what was in store for those left behind.
Prisons across Iran have been rocked by unrest from prisoners concerned about the state’s response to combating the crisis.
Mr Ashoori cited an Amnesty International report from April 9 that said around 36 prisoners in Iran were feared to have been killed by security forces while quelling unrest in jails connected to the outbreak. Live ammunition and tear gas were used to suppress protests in at least eight jails, according to the report.
“Another inmate said go and be thankful that they are not killing us yet,” said Mr Ashoori, the day after the report was published. “A rumour was spreading that the inmates in a number of prisons in different cities were somehow allowed to flee the prisons only to be shot in the back.”
The diary recounts the plight of ‘Max’ a security prisoner who was denied furlough after prison officials failed to properly read his papers.
Security prisoners who have been jailed for more than five years, like Mr Ashoori, were not allowed temporary release from jail under the terms of the agreement.
Max – not his real name – had also become eligible for pardon under a clemency announced by the supreme leader Ali Khamenei, which allowed for those serving a third of a sentence of less than five years to be pardoned.
“The name of a roommate whom I shall call Max was mentioned through the loudspeaker,” said Mr Ashoori.
“He was told to pack his belongings and go to the front desk where a soldier was waiting to escort him to the prison’s entrance to be released. He had been waiting for this moment for 28 days.
“As a number of other inmates who were in the same category gradually started to be released, he grew increasingly impatient.
“Those who were not called, despite their eligibility, were left behind and their hopes were utterly shattered with their awaiting families left dumbfounded on the other side.
“Yesterday it reached a point where he made a beeline to the governors’ office and he started shouting and swearing at them until the governor had no choice but to come out of his office and to stifle his anger.
He said it emerged that officers in charge had not read his papers properly to learn that the original 10-year sentence had been downgraded and he would only have to serve two years. The staff had “never bothered to go through it completely to see that five pages later the final decision was printed thus making him eligible for pardon”.
Quarantine and Isolation
The warders at the prison have retreated from the general population because of fears that they will catch the virus, said Mr Ashoori.
The guards have delegated some of their duties to a selected group of non-security prisoners unless they are forced to step in.
“You only see prison guards when they come for the head counts… when a prisoner is being sent outside for medical or legal purposes, or when he is called upon by the governor of the wing,” said Mr Ashoori.
An area of the prison has been turned into a coronavirus quarantine hall where all new and returning prisoners are held for days before being introduced to the prison population, according to both Mr Ashoori and IPA.
According to the WHO guidance, in “prison settings, monitoring should be done by prison health-care or custodial staff with regular visits to see if symptoms have developed”.
Mr Ashoori was sitting in the small outside yard attached to his wing when he saw one of the quarantined prisoners wave towards him from behind a barred window in an adjacent building.
“We greeted and I particularly asked him about the conditions in the quarantine,” said Mr Ashoori.
The prisoner told him that six had returned the prison from furloughs and they were mixing freely together without protective equipment. “This is most bizarre quarantine with no common sense behind it,” said Mr Ashoori.
The IPA said it had not received any reports from contacts in the prison about inmates with symptoms being held there.
Corruption and financial demands
The refusal of some warders to mix with inmates has seen some prisoners given greater positions of power inside the jail.
Mr Ashoori told of his anger after a fraudster involved in a notorious case visited his hall during an apparent attempt to seek a transfer to a wing that mainly held political prisoners.
“The guy who referred to himself as doctor swaggered into our hall with such an assumed air of defiance,” said Mr Ashoori on April 9. “His bravado disappeared when he was told off by some of us and he was criticised for intruding into our hall without any mask or any gloves.”
Five days later, the man returned to the wing as Vakil-e band, an effective go-between with the prison authorities and inmates.
The position is normally given to long-serving prisoners, while the doctor was still under investigation, according to Mr Ashoori. The inmates suspected that he had paid off prison authorities to secure the post, or was an informant.
Bribery is commonplace in prison either semi-official – to pay for better facilities – or illegally to get preferential treatment for jobs, transfers or release on furlough, said IPA.
Mr Ashoori recounted how dentists operating at the prison demanded payment for most procedures with the money being transferred into bank accounts by relatives outside of the prison.
The recovering patient, Campbell, was struck down with toothache and the dentist said he would only carry out the work on a molar once payment into his account was confirmed.
“The only thing that is free of charge here is pulling teeth out,” said Ashoori. “This dentist, and the ones in wing seven, are well-known to have pulled ten teeth out in 20 minutes or less.
“They tell the patients to sit on the chairs in the waiting room. They start ingesting local anaesthetic, one patient after the other. At the end, they [the dentists] start with the first patient and start pulling their teeth out in a row.”