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Child Inmates in Kachooie: A Life of Pollution and Violence

Child Inmates in Kachooie: A Life of Pollution and Violence

This article was translated and published by Zamaneh. The main article in Farsi was published by Zamaneh on October 19, 2023.

Physical punishment and beatings, daily exposure to violence and fights, insufficient and inappropriate food, unhealthy drinking water, limited access to hot water, lack of heating devices, lack of appropriate clothing, and overnight stays in a confined space without adequate welfare facilities and without education appropriate to their age, as well as inhaling the smell of cigarettes and bleach, are part of the experiences of infants and toddlers in the nursery and women’s section of Kachooie Prison in Karaj; a place where their physical, sexual, and psychological health and safety are at risk.

This report describes the conditions of children in the nursery and women’s section of Kachooie Prison based on the latest information obtained in September 2023. It also provides insights into their experiences over the past months and years. Parts of this report refer to a study conducted by the COIPI in February-March 2022 about the situation of children in Iranian prisons.

For this report, conversations were held with Elham Modarresi, a painter and one of the detainees of the ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ uprising, who was held in the nursery from mid-November to early December 2022 and in Section 5, quarantine, from that time until early February 2023. Also, a former prisoner who was held in Kachooie Prison from early autumn 2020 until the end of 2022 and is still in contact with inmates of this section, discussed the general conditions of the women’s section of Kachooie Prison, the situation of the children before the nursery was reopened in January 2022, and the current conditions of the children in this separate section. Published reports in official and semi-official domestic media as well a s human rights reports are other sources for this report.

The precarious situation of children in the Kachooie Prison nursery

A girl about six months old and a boy about two years old, along with their mothers, are the current residents of the nursery in the women’s section of Kachooie Prison in Karaj. The nursery, which was opened in early 2016, has three rooms located along a corridor that leads to a small courtyard. Currently, the children and their mothers reside in two rooms, each approximately 12 square meters in size. The door to the third room, which is smaller and said to be the kitchen of the nursery, is locked. The small courtyard of the nursery is also closed to the children.

A former prisoner of Kachooie Prison has seen children in the adult yard during their stay.

According to available information, the children are confined in the limited space of the nursery. They have limited recreational facilities, and the nursery manager does not make all the play equipment provided by donors available to the children. Although it was supposed to be that the children’s movements to the general prison section would be restricted from January 2022 and with the permanent presence of children and mothers in the nursery, the testimonies of Elham Modarresi and someone who had previously been in Kachooie Prison do not assure us that the children have had no contact with other inmates.

The number of children – mothers and pregnant women prisoners was not always this low. Additionally, considering the population of about 380 in the women’s section of Kachooie Prison (an estimate of current inmates as of September 2023) and the daily entry and exit of prisoners, there is a possibility that this number may change in the future.

From approximately November to February 2023, five children were housed in this nursery: a five-year-old boy, a boy between two and three years old, a boy about eight months old, two newborn girls who were born in the prison during this period, and a three-year-old child who had been transferred to the prison with his mother, who was homeless and addicted. All these individuals were residing in the three rooms of this nursery alongside 60 to 70 protesters detained during the ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ uprising.

According to reports available in domestic media, this nursery has been operational since September 2016. Before this date, children were placed with other inmates within the prison sections. According to a report published, there were about 180 female prisoners in Kachooie Prison in 2016. The number of children in the prison has also varied, reaching up to 12 children before the year 2013.

We do not have much information about how children were present in the nursery and the general sections of the prison until 2020 and the outbreak of the coronavirus in prisons. However, at least for part of this period, the nursery was used from morning to afternoon solely as a place for children’s play and education.

Since early 2020, with the outbreak of the coronavirus in prisons, the nursery in the prison was closed until early autumn 2020, and children were kept in the general sections along with other prisoners, whose numbers had decreased to less than 250 by 2021-2022. The general section of Kachooie Women’s Prison consists of 4 wards, each with two bathrooms, two Iranian-style toilets, one Western-style toilet, three sinks, and four kitchen sinks. However, a former prisoner has stated that the showers, toilets, and sinks always had issues and were not always usable by the inmates.

From early autumn 2020 to December 2021, when the nursery was reopened, children only had about 2 hours per day to use the space and facilities of the nursery. After December 2021, the nursery has been used as a permanent residence for children, their mothers, and pregnant women.

Violence and Pollution: The Life of Children in the Women’s Section of Kachooie Prison

A prison, in any judicial system, is an adult environment and is not designed for the care of children. For this reason, the United Nations in the document known as the Bangkok Rules, ‘Minimum Standards for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders,’ has emphasized that the living environment of children, alongside their imprisoned mothers, should be as close as possible to a child’s developmental environment outside of prison. (Rule 51)

However, as mentioned, children in Kachooie Prison live in a confined environment, without free access to fresh air and without recreational, educational, or medical facilities. Although they have not always been in a separate ward, and it is unclear how long the current situation, which based on our findings, has limited interaction with other wards, will last.

In response to protests following the death of Jina (Mahsa) Amini, prison authorities placed dozens of protesters in a small environment with children. According to Elham Modarresi, prisoners smoked cigarettes in the unventilated rooms and the nursery’s rooms and bathrooms were cleaned with bleach twice a week, the smell of which lingered in the air for two days. During this period, two newborns along with three children up to 5 years old were held in the ward.

This former political prisoner also told me about the disruption to the children’s sleep due to the overcrowding and ‘arguments between the prisoners,’ resulting in behavioral disturbances such as aggression in the children. According to Elham Modarresi, these ‘arguments’ sometimes led to broken teeth and bleeding if not controlled. She also mentioned that this overcrowding, environmental pollution, and lack of attention to the judicial cases of the imprisoned mothers created a high-pressure environment for these women, which in some cases led to their harsh behavior towards their children.

However, before the nursery was used as a living place for children and their mothers, the children were kept in the general wards along with other prisoners. On December 11, 2021, Mojgan Kavousi reported the conditions of children in ward 4 of Kachooie Prison in an open letter. She noted that “due to the constant crying and screaming of these infants and children, the necessary sleep for the prisoners in this hall has been disrupted.”

A former prisoner of this prison also talked to me about the impatience of some prisoners and as a result, their grumbling and verbal violence towards the children. He also mentioned that the children were moving around “in any ward that welcomed them” during the day. This former prisoner also witnessed the birth of three pregnant women during his time in prison. These women spent one night in Kamali Hospital in Karaj and were transferred to the prison quarantine the next day, moving to the nursery 14 days later. According to this former prisoner, the quarantine, especially during the years 2020-2021 coinciding with the outbreak of the coronavirus, was a polluted and unhealthy environment.

Ward 4 of Kachooie Prison, formerly the residence of children, is known as the health ward, and it houses individuals who do not smoke. However, a former prisoner who was detained in the same ward later along with two toddlers and three pregnant women, stated that smoking occurred in both the yard of this ward and the bathroom. At that time, ward 4 housed about 40 prisoners.

In light of colder seasons, it is also important to note that the heating system in the women’s ward of Kachooie Prison has not been working properly since the fall of 2021. Elham Modarresi also told me that warm water was only available for two hours for all 60 to 70 prisoners in the nursery, including children and mothers.

Threat to the Growth and Survival of Children in Prison

Children need a healthy environment and food for their growth and survival, as well as educational programs and facilities appropriate to their age. The process of acquiring and strengthening communication, social skills, and brain development of a child is disrupted without interaction with the free environment and society and targeted educational programs.

A former prisoner of Kachooie Prison and Elham Modarresi both told me about the lack of educational tools, limited recreational facilities, and the unavailability of even those limited amenities in the prison. However, the former prisoner mentioned the “compassion” of the previous nursery manager based on what he heard from other inmates who had experienced the previous management of the prison and nursery. According to this former inmate, the “older children of the nursery” had been taken outside the prison to recreational camps several times.

According to a report published in domestic media, the former nursery manager had a background in social work and had previously worked in Urmia Prison, where the nursery is promoted by the government. According to the same report, at that time, children up to six years old were also kept in prison. Currently, the presence of children up to six years old is legal, according to the decision of a predominantly male and non-specialist committee on child education.

Based on our knowledge about the situation of children in ward 4 from the years 2020 to 2023, and according to a former prisoner of Kachooie, the prison nursery had “significantly influenced the children, who used terms and language that were very ugly and offensive.”

On one hand, although a former prisoner of this prison witnessed separate food being cooked for children in the nursery, Elham Modarresi’s observations state that the imprisoned mothers “usually give their children the same oily food cooked with leftover oil that they use for themselves.”

According to a former prisoner, the children did not have separate food. On the other hand, imprisoned mothers, like many other prisoners, did not have adequate financial resources to provide proper and necessary food for their children. In the absence of support from the prison, some prisoners and a number of guards personally supported these mothers and their children.

This former prisoner also spoke about pregnant women, saying, “They took Iranian multivitamin pills, which are not of very high quality.” According to Elham Modarresi, children only had “an apple or an orange” once a week as their fruit ration, and on other days, they received packaged juice.

The former Kachooie prisoner also told me that vegetables were not readily available in the women’s ward of Kachooie Prison, and it was only through the insistence of prisoners, mainly political prisoners, for the sake of having “specific vitamins needed by women” that they were made available in limited quantities and could be purchased from the store.

The problem with children in prison was not just food. According to Elham Modarresi, “The water in Kachooie Prison was well water and was purified with chlorine 100%.” She also commented on the sanitary conditions in Kachooie Prison:

“People were getting head lice. Also, diseases were circulating among the inmates within the ward. For example, if one person caught a cold, the illness would continuously spread among the people.”

The former prisoner of Kachooie also told me that the prison did not have a pediatrician, and a midwife checked on the health of the women, including pregnant prisoners, once a week. Prison officials did not pay much attention to the health of the children either. In one instance, according to this former prisoner, a child had a severe fever, but while the mother did not take any action to send him to the clinic, the prison officials also ignored the issue. He also said that during the coronavirus pandemic, prison authorities transferred a mother and child who had contracted COVID-19 to the suite, a holding area for death row inmates, on the night before their execution, without providing any facilities for their treatment. This former prisoner, during his time in this prison, learned of several “deaths in custody” due to lack of medical care.

What the Prison Authorities Do Not Care About: The Future and Welfare of Children

“The mother was distraught and cried constantly. It was a heart-wrenching situation. Eventually, the mother apologized to the staff and the head of the ward.”

This was told to me by a former prisoner of the women’s ward of Kachooie Prison. This mother had been threatened with having her child taken away and sent to welfare because of her behavior in prison.

In another instance, a child, instead of being assigned to a family capable of providing for the child’s financial and educational needs, was handed over to welfare due to the applicant family being Baha’i.

According to observations by prisoners, at least since the fall of 2020, the manager of the nursery in Kachooie Prison has been withholding new clothes provided by donors from the children, giving them instead “old and worn” clothes. A former prisoner of Kachooie heard from mothers who were her cellmates at the time that once before a government official’s visit to the prison, new clothes had been provided to the children. These clothes were immediately taken back from the children after the visit ended. The Imprisoned Parents International (COIPI) has encountered other instances of this form of propaganda and exploitation of children, including in Qarchak Varamin Prison.

As previously mentioned, most prisoners, including mothers who are with their children in Kachooie Prison, do not come from financially stable backgrounds. They perform “corridor and nursery work” to cover their expenses. Over the years, the prison has also reduced the volume of food and hygiene packages allocated to each prisoner. The former prisoner told me that during the approximately two years she was in this prison, the allotment of some hygiene items like shampoo and laundry detergent was halved, and some items like toothpaste were completely removed from the prisoners’ hygiene packages. Under these conditions, prisoners were forced to buy these items from the prison store, where the price of goods “kept increasing day by day” and the store itself would add “a 30% markup on its goods.”

Prison Cuts the Wings of Children

“Day by day, I saw this smart, articulate, and energetic child become more and more introverted and isolated. The prison was cutting the children’s wings.”

This is how a former prisoner of Kachooie Prison describes the conditions of children accompanying their mothers in this prison. International research in child psychology and development in a prison environment clearly shows that the presence of children in prison, along with other inmates, damages their physical, sexual, and psychological health. The neglect of their rights, including the lack of nutrition, clean drinking water, a suitable environment for recreation and movement, and age-appropriate education, disrupts their development process.

Furthermore, even if children and mothers are completely separated from the general prison environment and all basic needs are met, not only the imprisoned mothers, but also the prison staff, need to be trained on how to interact with children and mothers.

To ensure the provision of the aforementioned conditions, transparency, the ability for independent media to report, and the facilitation of activities by specialized civil and grassroots institutions are essential preconditions in working with children. In such an environment, one can hope that laws, provided they are written in accordance with international principles and knowledge, will be implemented and not be subject to arbitrary changes by new managers.

Although achieving ideal conditions may seem time-consuming and costly, a government that is committed to supporting the rights of children can create the conditions for taking steps towards ideal circumstances in a transparent and corruption-free environment, by empowering civil institutions and supervising their activities.

The author, as a child rights activist, hopes that the media, activists, and experts will follow the issue of children in prisons with greater sensitivity so that the plight of children imprisoned in the wards of women and their mothers is not normalized, and alongside other human rights violations, it is documented, reported, and pursued.

Picture: (COIPI’s archive: Fars News Agency – Sara Rajaee)