COIPI envisions the children of incarcerated parents reaching their highest level of development, free from the burden of parental absence.
Children and Mothers Imprisoned in the “Qarchak Hell”

Children and Mothers Imprisoned in the “Qarchak Hell”

Hamed Farmand, Children’s Rights Activist and president of Children of Imprisoned Parents International

Children, along with their mothers, are kept in inadequate conditions in Qarchak prison, lacking welfare facilities for children. The harsh and unhealthy environment of this prison exposes them to additional challenges.

The text discusses changes in Iran’s penal system during the second half of the 1980s, leading to an increase in the number of prisoners, including a rise in the presence of children in prisons. Media and specialized forums began addressing the conditions of these children, with insights from released women from Qarchak prison in the early 1990s, shedding light on the situation. This report, focusing on the situation of children in Qarchak prison, the only women’s prison in Iran, draws from official media, judiciary publications, online testimonies, civil and human rights organizations’ reports, documentaries, and interviews with former prisoners, including Maryam Ebrahimvand, documentary filmmaker. Interviews with former Qarchak prisoners, one who was in this prison in the Fall and Winter of 2022, and the other one who was kept in Qarchak in the early 2010s, contribute to a more current understanding of the conditions children face in the prison.

Children Feeling OK — Don’t Take It Seriously

“When we went to the prison infirmary and saw mothers, we asked them about their conditions and those of their children. They claimed that good care was provided for the children. However, when one of the initiatives aimed at assisting mothers was approached, they suggested that bringing some toys for the children would be helpful.”

This information was shared with me by a former prisoner who spent the past fall and winter in Qarchak prison. She and her fellow inmates have no firsthand observations of the conditions in the mothers’ section of Qarchak prison. Political and religious minority prisoners in Qarchak have been held separately since at least the fall of 2020, with their direct connection to the mothers’ section severed.

Without direct access to the mothers’ section, it becomes challenging to fully believe in the “good condition of the children” in Qarchak prison. One of the mothers featured in Maryam Ebrahimvand’s documentaries, “Motherhood in Captive,” and “For What Sin.” describes the mothers’ section of Qarchak as “most unfortunate” due to its residents’ financial and social circumstances. This perspective raises questions about the accuracy of claims regarding the well-being of children in that particular prison section.

The documents from other prisons and previous years, alongside the testimonies from Qarchak prison, suggest that the presence of political prisoners alongside those convicted of common crimes provided an opportunity for the latter to address some of their rights and needs due to the political prisoners’ access to platforms and the cost-effective reflection of news. A former prisoner mentioned that when she and other political female prisoners were transferred to a section previously designated for mothers and children in the winter of 2020, they discovered that the sanitation facilities had recently been repaired. Prisoners who were there for a longer time informed them that during the mothers’ presence, the facilities resembled “field toilets.” This information raises doubts about the belief that imprisoned mothers in the isolated section had truly shared their everyday reality with other female prisoners.

I’ll try to help you gain a clearer understanding of the situation for mothers and children in the Qarchak women’s prison despite limited access to the mothers’ section.

A Prison or A Hell?

Qarchak Women’s Prison, also known as the Women’s Penitentiary or the Women’s Detention Center, in Rey County, is recognized as the sole women’s prison in Iran. While officially promoted as a facility with adequate amenities, it has been referred to by former inmates as “Second Kahrizak” (detention center in Tehran, famous for its mistreatment of their prisoners, which ends in death in custody) or “Hell.” Initially built in the early 1950s, it served as a poultry farm and later as a rehabilitation center for men with addiction issues. Its function changed to a women’s prison in 2011. Despite official descriptions, the prison’s grim reputation raises questions about the actual conditions experienced by the incarcerated women.

Qarchak Women’s Prison, in addition to having facilities like the kitchen, administrative sections, a store, a gym, and counseling services, comprises 12 sections. One of these sections is dedicated to mothers, their children, and pregnant women. According to reports and interviews with former inmates up until around November 2020, political prisoners were held alongside pregnant women, mothers, and their children in Section 8 or had direct contact with them. Since then, the location of political prisoners has been separate from that of mothers and children, with these individuals being transferred to Counseling Section 1 for about two years before returning to Section 8. As of our latest information in February 2024, fewer than 20 children and mothers, and more than ten pregnant women, were being held in this section. This number has remained relatively consistent over the past decade.

A report by Rahleh Zokayi, using the pseudonym Narges Salimi, in October-November 2012, shed light on various concerning aspects of the Qarchak Women’s Prison for the first time. The report highlighted issues such as the free buying and selling of drugs within the prison, inadequate drinking water, poor hygiene conditions, sewage system overflow, the poverty of incarcerated mothers and their struggles to provide for the needs of their children, the lack of proper diapers, injuries to children due to the use of unhygienic and inadequate diapers, child abuse, and criticism of the government’s propaganda through the television show “Staff Shelter” portraying it as the residence for prisoners. 

Over the past decade, the non-standard and inhumane conditions in Qarchak Prison have been repeatedly reported in various publications. For example, the non-profit organization Children of Imprisoned Parents International (COIPI) encountered cases of child abuse, including sexual abuse, in its research in the year 2022. In a report in June 2020, the Hrana News Agency mentioned using expired diapers for children in this prison. The water situation in Qarchak Prison has even found its way into official reports. In April 2022, Mizan News Agency, the media outlet affiliated with the Judiciary, highlighted the historical difficulty in providing drinking water for the inmates and mentioned the establishment of desalination facilities in 2021-2022. This news came despite the presence of desalination pipes in the prisoners’ reports from 2012-2013, and ever since, the reports consistently depict the disconnection and unavailability of these pipes, resulting in inmates’ limited access to clean water.

Some inmates have also mentioned the presence of gravel in Qarchak’s freshwater. These reports also emphasize that the washing water in the bathrooms is salty and cold.

While prison officials in their official reports insist that children and mothers in Qarchak’s Mother and Child Ward receive separate meals, Elham Ferdousi, a former inmate, stated in her report in 2014-2015 that children in this ward had not consumed “fruit, meat, and cold water.” Another former inmate, in an interview with the COIPI Institute in 2021-2022 regarding children’s food, mentioned:

The nutritional regimen used for children is the same as the prison’s general diet; only the cook pays more attention to preparing children’s food. However, mothers are not allowed to eat this food.

The former inmate also confirmed that fruits and vegetables are not part of the prisoners’ dietary regimen.

Children in Qarchak Prison who are in infancy and early childhood, use the same prison infirmary that more than 1,000 adult prisoners visit. According to former inmates, a pediatric specialist attends to children’s health once a week.

The inmates also highlight the overcrowding and density in Qarchak Prison. In the documentary, “Motherhood in Captive,” a mother whose child was born in Qarchak Prison tells her child, “[The prison] in Rey becomes crowded; you can’t sleep there.”

She also stated that there is a high number of children in the children’s ward, leading to conflicts among them. The noise from the children “makes the mothers nervous, and they quarrel with each other.” COIPI’s research also reflects similar concerns from other Qarchak inmates: “There is constant tension and conflict in the prison, and physical violence occurs, with inmates using vulgar language.”

The Fake News of the Opening of a Children’s Nursery in Qarchak

In recent years, Iranian judicial authorities have introduced the establishment of nurseries in prisons and the care of children with incarcerated parents in these environments as a solution to mitigate the damages of imprisonment for children who “have to” be with their mothers in prison. In May 2014, IRNA reported for the first time that “the women’s reformatory in Rey will have a daycare center.”

In the same year, TASNIM News Agency also reported planning to construct nurseries in prisons in 5 provinces, including Tehran. The Prisoners’ Cooperation Foundation, through images of an under-construction building in November 2014, informed about the progress of the nursery project in Rey [Qarchak] Prison. Finally, in February 2015, Shahindokht Molaverdi, the then Vice President, inaugurated the daycare center in Qarchak Prison. However, in March of the same year, when Elham Modaresi and Negar Haeri published their reports on the concerning situation in Qarchak Prison, including the conditions of children, there was no sign of a nursery in the prison. In April 2015, The Iranian Student’s News Agency (ISNA), citing Shahindokht Molaverdi during her visit to a charity center, reported:

Currently, Qarchak Prison is among the prisons that have prepared to open a daycare center for prisoners’ children. 

According to the head of the Office for Support of Women and Children at the Judiciary in June 2015, “The nursery in Qarchak Prison has been built but has not been launched yet.” At that time, she referred to the existence of a separate ward for children, mothers, and pregnant women in the prison.

The problem of not utilizing the constructed daycare center in this prison persisted for various reasons in the following years, including the lack of a license from the Welfare Organization. It was claimed that this issue was resolved in September 2017 with the issuance of a permit. However, contradictory statements about the existence of the daycare center, having or not having a license, and its operation continued in the subsequent years. Ultimately, during the reports related to the spread of the coronavirus, it was mentioned that this daycare center, along with other daycare centers in women’s prisons and wards, were closed. Nevertheless, a former prisoner from Qarchak Prison informed me that this daycare center had been closed since around 2017-2018 during her time there. In an interview with another former prisoner from Qarchak Prison I conducted in 2021, she mentioned the following about this daycare center:

Creating a separate room with toys and such was their way of establishing a daycare center. 

However, it remains uncertain whether the daycare center in the Qarchak women’s ward has been able to meet the developmental needs of children and ensure their mental, physical, and behavioral well-being.

Children’s Experience in Qarchak Prison: Violence Under Supervision of the Government

The lack or inadequacy of clean drinking water, inappropriate and insufficient food, mothers’ inability to provide clothing for their children, the absence of educational and recreational facilities suitable for the children’s age, and living in a crowded environment accompanied by physical, verbal, and even sexual violence constitute various forms of violence against these children. Importantly, these acts of violence are either directly enforced by the government or take place in an environment designed and managed by the government. Instances of direct violence by prison authorities, such as taking children around and teaching them inappropriate language, have been reported by former inmates. Additionally, one prisoner mentioned the fabrication of a “deceptive freedom” for the imprisoned mother to present a false image in front of the cameras.

The geographical location of Qarchak Prison and its desert surroundings have further compromised the hygiene conditions for children, as insects, beetles, scorpions, and even rodents are often found in the food and make their way into the cells.

Unfortunately, violence and abuse against children in prisons don’t end here. Official information and available evidence indicate a direct relationship between individuals’ imprisonment and poverty and discrimination, as is the case in many countries. This issue becomes even more complex for women, involving layers of discrimination and inequality. The Children of Imprisoned Parents International (COIPI) identified cases in Qarchak Women’s Prison where economically disadvantaged incarcerated mothers resorted to selling their children at low prices. On the other hand, the patriarchal laws of the Islamic Republic of Iran accuse women of engaging in sexual relations, leading to imprisonment, and some mothers in Qarchak Women’s Prison fall into this category.

In conversations with some former inmates, I encountered cases where women, due to the lack of legal abortion options, attempted self-harm to induce miscarriage. Maryam Ebrahimpour, a documentary filmmaker who spent some time in Qarchak Women’s Prison in Varamin, shared a story with me: “I saw a child in the mothers’ ward with one of his eyes damaged. I asked his mother about it. She said that when she was pregnant, she tried to get rid of her baby in prison but failed. However, the things she did, like carrying heavy loads or jumping off the bed, affected the fetus.” Another mother in the documentary “Motherhood in Captive” recounts a similar experience about herself.

Children in some prisons, including Qarchak Prison, also face the consequences of their mothers’ addiction. According to my research and our findings in COIPI, mothers incarcerated due to addiction or those who had addiction issues during detention receive no supportive services. This situation extends to their children, with some born addicted and experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms: “Some of these children were born addicted and had severe withdrawal symptoms. There was no proper care.”

Some children born in prison lack birth certificates due to discriminatory laws that deny mothers the ability to obtain one for their children. Although Iran’s Labor News Agency (ILNA) announced in November-December 2021 that “children in prison have obtained birth certificates for the first time,” there is no evidence supporting this claim. Referring to her daughter, a mother stated in an interview in the same year with documentary filmmaker Maryam Ebrahimpour, “Gandom only has a vaccination card. I can’t even get a birth certificate for her.”

Additionally, in the event of incidents like the 2018 riots or the 2023 fire, the protection of children in Qarchak Prison in Varamin is not guaranteed.

A Bad Law that is not Enforced

It’s crucial to strive for a secure environment, free from overcrowding and prison violence, with detailed nutritional, health, and educational programs for the care of young children accompanying their mothers. While aiming for an ideal situation, efforts should focus on improving the current conditions, ensuring the maximum fulfillment of children’s needs, and eliminating all forms of violence against them. However, existing laws not only lack specific monitoring and support tools for children up to two years, who, according to the law, “must” be with their mothers in prison except in exceptional circumstances, but recent changes have extended prison stays for children up to six years. Despite this, prison authorities have not shown significant regard for these laws.

The issue persists, according to “Salamat News” in 2019,  as despite the law stating that children should stay in prison until the age of two, some prison managers consider allowing these children to stay with their mothers until the age of six, based on the discretion of the childcare manager. The director of Qarchak Prison, Saghar Khodadadi, emphasized that the prison chief could decide whether children should stay in prison until they reach school age and even suggested the possibility of children staying until seven. However, a new executive directive by the Organization of Prisons, approved in May 2021, grants the Classification Council, not the prison chief, the authority to care for children up to six. This discrepancy raises concerns about the respect for laws and regulations in Iran, as well as the dissemination of inaccurate information about children’s needs, international laws, and the experiences of other countries in the domestic media.

Indeed, increasing public awareness of the conditions of children in prisons can contribute to improving their situation. The need for policy and social changes to create a suitable and non-violent environment for incarcerated children is crucial.

This report was published in Radio Zamaneh on March 26, 2024: