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Sepidar Prison in Ahwaz: The Tragic Situation of Children in the Women’s Ward

Sepidar Prison in Ahwaz: The Tragic Situation of Children in the Women’s Ward

This report is translated by and published in Radio Zamaneh website on March 13, 2024:

Hamed Farmand – Sepidar Prison in Ahwaz is not only one of Iran’s substandard prisons where the rights of prisoners are not observed, but in the women’s ward, children of incarcerated mothers are also present. These children grow up in an unsuitable, unsanitary, and unsafe environment.

Having a clearer picture of the lives of children inside Iranian prisons helps us to have a more precise understanding of the necessity of separating mothers and children from the prison environment and keeping them in a safe, healthy, and expertly supervised environment. In a report published by Radio Zamaneh on October 19, 2023, I examined the situation of children in the women’s ward of Kachooie Prison in Alborz province.

In this report, I will describe the conditions of children in the women’s ward of Sepidar Prison in Ahwaz based on the latest information obtained in October 2023. Parts of this report refer to research conducted by the Children of Imprisoned Parents International in February-March 2022 about the situation of children in Iranian prisons. To prepare this report, in October 2023, I directly interviewed two former prisoners, one of whom was in Sepidar Prison in Ahwaz in autumn and winter 2023 and the other in summer and autumn 2023. Additionally, two other former prisoners of this prison, one from 2019 to late spring 2023 and the other in summer and autumn 2023, indirectly answered my questions.

Reports and news from official and semi-official Iranian media, the report by Sepideh Qolian, a civil activist and political prisoner, “Tilapia drinks the blood of Hoor al-Azim,” published by IranWire in 2019, and another human rights report were among the sources used to compile this report.

Hamed Farmand, a child rights activist and director of the Children of Imprisoned Parents International.

According to our information, in October 2023, two toddlers under two years old were the only children in the women’s ward of Sepidar Prison in Ahwaz. Due to the entry and exit of prisoners, including pregnant women or as children grow older and are handed over to families or welfare services, the number of children in any prison, including Sepidar Ahwaz, varies.

Based on the information from one of the people I interviewed, in 2020, about 10 children were with their mothers in this prison. The number of these children reached 4 to 6 in autumn 2022, coinciding with the start of arrests related to protests over the killing of Jina (Mahsa) Amini.

According to unofficial sources, the women’s ward of Sepidar Prison in Ahwaz was likely inaugurated in 2009. The first trace of children in this ward was also seen in official news related to a visit by the then-head of the Prisons Organization to Sepidar Prison in Ahwaz in 2015. According to available information, this prison has 10 wards, each facing each other in pairs. Each ward has 9 bunk beds. According to prisoners who were in this prison in 2019 and 2021, except for the period of widespread arrests after the protests related to the “Woman, Life, Freedom” uprising, between 150 to 180 women are held in this prison.

A prisoner who had been in this prison since about 2019, based on his observations and what he heard from other prisoners, said that at least since 2016 or 2017, the prison authorities had converted one of the wards of Sepidar Prison in Ahwaz into a kindergarten. They had blocked the entrance to this ward from the corridor inside the prison hall and created a new entrance from inside the prison yard. Children could spend hours of the day in this kindergarten until 2019, and according to a former prisoner of this prison, a teacher also came to the kindergarten to work with the children. In my research on official news, I did not find information about the launch and inauguration of this kindergarten.

With the outbreak of the coronavirus, the kindergarten of the women’s ward of Sepidar Prison in Ahwaz, like most kindergartens of women’s wards in prisons across the country, was closed. According to a former prisoner of this prison, by placing a slide and other toys in part of the prayer hall, children used this part of the prison for play and recreation for a while. But after a while, the prayer hall was also used as a quarantine area, and the children’s play area was closed.

Discussing the play and recreation equipment for children, the former prisoner stated that “colored pencils, dolls, balls, and puzzles” were available to the children. According to this person, some of these items were old and worn out. It is not clear to us how the educational and play equipment available to them matches the needs of the children’s development process. In the research of the Children of Imprisoned Parents International, we did not encounter any case where educational materials suitable for their age and developmental needs were available.

Another need of children is to have a suitable space for running and walking. The prison yard of Sepidar Prison in Ahwaz is available to prisoners from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in autumn and winter and from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. in spring and summer. However, according to a former prisoner, the “substandard asphalt” of the yard is not a suitable environment for children, especially toddlers.

Children’s Coexistence with Rats and Sewage

Since the first testimonies of political prisoners residing in the women’s ward of Sepidar Prison in Ahwaz to the present, the unsuitable sewage situation of this prison has been repeated in various narratives of these prisoners. In an interview, a former prisoner of this prison said, “The prison’s sewage regularly overflows, and the prisoners themselves are used to unblock the sewage.” Thus, although, according to this person, prisoners observe personal hygiene, “rats even roam inside the dormitories.” However, some prisoners have witnessed that during food distribution, the food of the wards was placed on the ground, and even once, a rat crossed over the children’s food.

A former prisoner of Sepidar Prison said that they had seen “rat feces” inside their bread. For a long time, the toilets and several of the shower heads in the women’s ward of Sepidar Prison in Ahwaz were problematic. According to a former prisoner of this prison, the prison’s facilities management did not cooperate much with the mothers’ ward, delaying technical issues in this ward was significantly.

Although, according to existing testimonies, the quality of food in Sepidar Prison in Ahwaz is “extremely bad,” most former prisoners have emphasized that “children’s food is separate.” Although we do not have precise information about the quality of children’s food, one of the former prisoners described it as “good.”

According to observations of a former prisoner who was in this prison in 2021, fruits were provided to prisoners twice a week, albeit in limited quantities and of low quality. According to our information, vegetables were removed from the food basket of female prisoners of this prison. Additionally, due to the lack of a proper water purification system, the prison’s drinking water is not of a suitable quality. On the other hand, the number of refrigerators available in the wards does not match the number of their population, and prisoners do not have the possibility of long-term storage of their food items in the hot weather of Ahwaz.

The infirmary of the women’s ward of Sepidar Prison in Ahwaz has a general practitioner and a midwife who take care of the health of all prisoners, including pregnant women, mothers, and children of this prison.

Children’s Lives, Between Blood and Violence

“The atmosphere of the prison was a sad atmosphere.” This was told to me by a former prisoner of Sepidar Prison in Ahwaz, who emphasized that sometimes, even if a celebration was held, the dance and joy of the prisoners were censored.

Before this, Sepideh Qolian, who had been in this prison in 2020, wrote on her Twitter (X) account:

Dancing is prohibited here. Holding each other’s hands is prohibited. Tight clothes, short sleeves, short shirts up to the waist are prohibited.

Another prisoner, who was in this prison in the autumn and summer of 2023, narrates that the cultural officer of the women’s ward of Sepidar Prison in Ahwaz used to wake up the prisoners with the sound of mourning songs. According to another former prisoner, the library of this prison mostly had “religious books or trivial novels.” They also mentioned the lack of cultural activities in the prison. According to our information, no specific sports facilities are available in the women’s ward of Sepidar Prison in Ahwaz. While these prisoners say that the women’s ward of Sepidar Prison does not have a psychologist, pills are easily accessible to the prisoners.

Both the report published in 2019 and my conversation with a former prisoner of Sepidar Prison in Ahwaz speak of repeated instances of self-harm and suicide in this prison. This former prisoner told me that “several cases of self-harm occur daily” in the women’s ward of Sepidar Prison. In addition to the psychological conditions prevailing in the prison and the lack of recreational and educational programs, the failure to address the legal cases and administrative affairs of the prisoners also adds to their psychological pressure.

A former prisoner of this prison told me about a child being physically threatened by her mother to achieve her administrative demands in the prison. While a former political prisoner of this prison told me about the “appropriate behavior” of the welfare officer of the women’s ward of Sepidar Prison in Ahwaz and her efforts to “attend to the prisoners’ needs,” it seems that, like other prisons, the structural problems of this prison are not solved by the “appropriate” behavior of one or a few jailers.

In addition to self-harm, according to a former prisoner of this prison, at least two and sometimes up to five cases of violent group fights occur daily in the women’s ward of Sepidar Prison in Ahwaz.

Previously, the Children of Imprisoned Parents International had documented physical and verbal violence against children residing in this prison in 2020 based on the testimony of Ms. Sepideh Qolian. Currently, no such cases of violence have been observed. When fights or self-harm incidents occur, prison officials move the children out of the wards to the corridor. “However, they are returned to the same violent environment.”

Human Life; The Right of the Child, Mother, and All Prisoners

“Mothers prefer to hand over their child to welfare” rather than having them in the tense environment of prison. However, according to Article 523 of the Criminal Procedure Code, prison officials are obliged not to separate the child from their mother until two years of age, except in special cases.

The stay of children after the age of two can also be extended up to the age of six with the decision of the prison classification council. However, according to a former prisoner of the women’s ward of Sepidar Prison in Ahwaz, there are mothers who, despite having a caregiver outside of prison, keep their children with them for financial benefits. Economic conditions, especially due to gender-based discrimination, can be the basis for such decisions.

The Children of Imprisoned Parents International also encountered similar cases in its research. The Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA), in its report in January 2020, while explaining the hard daily work of more than 8 hours with “meager wages” by prisoners in the women’s ward of Sepidar Prison in Ahwaz, writes: “… Women who also bear the burden of their loved ones’ lives outside of prison or raise their children in the general wards of the prison are willing to do even heavier work…”

Thus, the prison not only does not help improve the economic conditions of these incarcerated women but also exploits their situation. Atena Daemi had explained in a note in 2022 about the forced labor of female prisoners in the prisons of Evin, Qarchak, and Lakan Rasht.

Although this report confirms the findings of the Children of Imprisoned Parents International’s research that “prison is no place for children,” reaching the final step, namely preventing the imprisonment of mothers, issuing alternative punishments to imprisonment for them, and keeping children and mothers in a completely separate environment from prison with high-standard health, wellness, and educational conditions, important initial steps must be taken to improve conditions for children and their mothers until reaching the ideal situation, conditions that, in many cases, are deserved by all prisoners.

Necessary Standards in Prisons Where Children Are Present
• Permanent presence of a pediatrician
• Availability of healthy food and drinking water
• Up-to-date educational materials and toys suitable for the child’s developmental stage
• A healthy and safe environment for play and physical activity
• An environment free from violence and tension
• A child-friendly environment, including trained staff and supervision of adults’ behavior, including the mother’s interaction with the child
• Necessary hygiene supplies
• A refrigerator for storing food items

It is essential to remember that without independent media and the safe activity of civil institutions, it cannot be assured that what is mentioned is being implemented. Therefore, conventional media reports, which are mostly part of the judiciary system’s propaganda, do not prove the safety of children in prisons.