Nearly half a year has passed since Iranian officials acknowledged the grave threat posed by the novel coronavirus to the country’s prison population. In late February 2020, high-ranking officials in the prison and judicial systems announced new protocols to head off a health catastrophe in the country’s chronically overcrowded and underfunded penal system, including furloughs for certain classes of prisoners, a reduction in intake of new prisoners, daily rounds of disinfection, hygiene training for prisoners and prison staff, distribution of hygienic supplies, and the formation of full-time task forces to monitor prisoners’ health. In April of 2020, Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran (ABC) released a report, COVID-19, Fear in Iran’s Prisons, detailing the scope of a COVID-19 crisis that was spreading across multiple prisons despite administrative measures taken to prevent it — including the release of thousands of prisoners — as well as the unrest sparked in late March by heightening fears of the virus and the subsequent violent crackdown by security forces.
In its analysis of key risk factors such as overcrowding, which makes social distancing next to impossible, the report identified shortcomings and inconsistencies in the implementation of Judiciary directives. It pointed to persistent overcrowding in some prisons; an unjustifiable insufficiency of fundamental necessities, such as cost-free cleaning products and hot water to ensure prisoners’ personal hygiene and to the glaring absence of systematic disinfection procedures in prison wards and common areas. In view of addressing these problems, the report also set forth recommendations that were in line with best practices formulated by international health and human rights authorities.
In conjunction with the Human Rights Activist News Agency (HRANA), ABC conducted a follow-up investigation into the evolution of these problems since April. The findings of this report indicate that the hygienic conditions in Iranian prisons, rather than improving, have significantly deteriorated. The research sheds light on Iranian officials’ failure to adequately decrowd prisons and implement prevention protocols, which led to a proliferation of COVID-19 cases in several prisons. Disinfections by prison officials have stopped across several investigated prisons, apparently due to a lack of budget. Some prisons were found to have reduced supplies of free food, basic hygiene products, and personal protective equipment to prisoners, and the steep price markups in prison shops render these items inaccessible to less-affluent prisoners, who can then not afford to ensure their own protection.
Quarantine procedures were shown in many cases to be self-defeating, due in part to a constant flow of newcomers and continued commingling in common areas such as bathrooms, hallways, and kitchens (ex: Zanjan, Greater Tehran). Initial efforts across several prisons to reduce the prison population in March and April seem to have been abandoned by May, coinciding with the return of prisoners who had initially been sent on furlough. Avoidable arrests and detentions for petty crimes and for crimes not recognized under international law, including for social media posts, religious activities and drug use, have countervailed releases and pardons that were issued in an attempt to keep inmate numbers low. These problems are compounded by a systematic and long-standing tradition of opaque governance and heavy-handed securitization. Consequently, Iran remains secretive about COVID-19 cases within prisons and the number of prisoners who were hospitalized or died, generating anxiety among incarcerated people and preventing an actionable assessment of the problem.
The human cost of this neglect continues to mount: confirmed or suspected cases of the novel coronavirus — some resulting in death — are cropping up in increasing numbers across the country, including Mashhad Central Prison (where three halls, with a cumulative capacity of around 600 people, have been designated as holding spaces for both confirmed and suspected cases), Evin (where at least eight people in the political prisoners’ ward have recently tested positive), Orumieh (where medical staff went on strike to protest a lack of preventative measures after prison personnel, including one doctor, fell ill and eight prisoners were transferred to the hospital with high fever and seizures), Greater Tehran (where two men exhibiting severe symptoms were held in a prayer room of Building 5 when the overwhelmed prison clinic couldn’t accommodate them, and a ward of Building 5 was placed under quarantine after an outbreak caused by the introduction of sick newcomers into a previously health ward), and Shahr-e Rey women’s penitentiary (known also as Qarchak, where scores of prisoners who tested positive have languished without much medical care).
Iranian officials have sung the praises of their coronavirus response in prisons, which they tout as exemplary for the region, if not for the world, yet the credibility of their claims is undermined by their blatant under-reporting of cases, their denial of prison access to independent human rights observers, and the persecution of citizens who disseminate accurate information about the virus. Documents recently leaked to Amnesty International indicate that Iran’s Ministry of Health has repeatedly ignored urgent appeals from the Prisons Organization to remedy the widespread shortages of the protective equipment, disinfectant products, and medical supplies needed to fight the pandemic.
Sanctions have indeed proven crippling to the economy of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and its leaders are facing hard choices in terms of resource allocation. But this adversity cannot account for the continued shortages of certain vital products such as soap, which has been produced in Iran for close to a century. Ordinary citizens, Iranian officials, hospital staff, and sources with knowledge of medical supply chains have told ABC and HRANA that domestically produced masks and disinfectants, hard to come by at the beginning of the outbreak, are now available in adequate supply.
The dire state of Iran’s prisons is a long-standing systemic problem that stems from policy choices of Iran’s leaders. Responsibility for the failures highlighted in this report rests with the Judiciary, parliamentarians, and successive governments who have, for four decades, failed to reform a draconian criminal code — as repeatedly recommended by experts and prison officials — or resource the carceral system while continuing to overload it with hundreds of thousands more people each year. In normal times, prisoners are more vulnerable to disease than the general population; in a time of pandemic, when an increase in COVID-19 infections and deaths have been reported in several prisons, it is reckless to disregard prisoner’s rights to health and life, rights which Iran is obligate under international law. If Iranian prisons become hotspots for COVID-19, thousands of prisoners will get infected, constituting a real threat for the prison population and the communities outside prison walls.
Iran has ratified several UN Conventions, which bar it from arresting individuals for crimes not recognized under international law and obligate it to protect the health and life of individuals deprived of liberty. The International community must hold Iran accountable for violating prisoners’ human rights, the lack of administrative transparency, and denying access to independent human rights monitors. It is imperative to distinguish Iran’s systemic failures of resource allocation from current international tensions and the hardships they have placed on trade. Iran does have the resources it needs to improve prison conditions and save lives, but decision makers have simply chosen to allocate precious resources to non-essential causes instead, such as the rebuilding of golden shrines in Iraq or the funding of religious studies for foreign students. Releasing prisoners who do not belong in jail is also a budget-neutral measure that, if implemented, would reduce the strain on prison resources while helping prisons’ staff who are themselves at risk and under tremendous pressure in the fight against the pandemic.
Iran must immediately allocate the resources prison officials have repeatedly asked for. It must allow implementation of the preventive measures recommended by the World Health Organization, as well as the Judiciary’s own directives, including but not limited to:
- daily and thorough disinfection of prison facilities,
- ensuring that essential personal hygiene items such as soap and sanitizer are made available at no cost and in sufficient quantities to all prisoners,
- systematic testing and monitoring of prisoners,
- provision of proper medical care inside and outside prisons to prisoners who are infected
- allowing independent monitoring and health assessments by human rights groups and civil society.
It is imperative to note that the measures above will fail to curb the spread of the pandemic if they are not paired with a significant reduction in the number of incarcerated people to enable prisoners to respect sufficient social distance and avoid mass infections. The vital decision to release prisoners –including prisoners of conscience and human rights defenders, individuals accused of petty crimes, and those guilty of crimes not recognized under international law– is in the hands of Iranian leaders alone. They must not allow lifesaving measures to be hindered by administrative and political obstacles.