COIPI envisions the children of incarcerated parents reaching their highest level of development, free from the burden of parental absence.
In Urmia Women’s Prison: Violence against children, a credibility issue for authorities

In Urmia Women’s Prison: Violence against children, a credibility issue for authorities

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

In the Women’s ward of Urmia Prison, not only do children witness violence and heated arguments among adults, but sometimes they themselves become the target of violence. Many adult prisoners cannot tolerate the noise and commotion created by children. Additionally, adults struggling with addiction may exhibit aggressive behavior towards others, including mothers or even their own children, due to their circumstances.

In mid-January 2022, the Iran Prisons Organization, through a regulation titled “Explanation of the Rights of Detainees, Respect for Their Dignity, and Supervision over Detention Centers,” communicated the approach to dealing with prisoners in prisons nationwide. Regarding children accompanying their mothers in prisons, this directive reiterated the executive regulations of the Iran Prisons Organization, approved in May 2021. However, it emphasized that, in addition to ensuring food, health, and necessary facilities for children with incarcerated mothers, prison authorities are also responsible for establishing “necessary provisions for operating childcare facilities” in the vicinity of prisons.

According to official reports, Urmia Women’s Prison has had a childcare facility since 2008. With the relocation of Urmia Women’s Prison in early 2020, news emerged about establishing a new childcare facility in connection with this prison. As of early January 2024, several Million Dollars (Billion Tomans) have been spent on building this childcare facility. However, former inmates of this prison deny the utilization of the childcare facility for the children of incarcerated individuals.

This report will address violations of children’s rights in Urmia Women’s Prison, including information on the childcare facility and the involvement of governmental and foundation entities operating as non-governmental institutions in building childcare facilities in Iranian prisons. The research for this report is based on official reports and news published from 2013 onwards, reports from the Iran Child Foundation (Bonyad-e-Koodak), the Urmia Children and Adolescents Welfare Institute, human rights organizations’ reports, interviews and correspondences with a former inmate still connected to Urmia Women’s Prison, and the March-April 2022 investigative report[1] by the Children of Imprisoned Parents International (COIPI).

In the Name of Children in Prison: Gaining Benefits and Moral Credibility under the Shadow of Non-Transparency

The construction of childcare facilities inside or near the women’s prisons across the country is entangled with an institution that identifies itself as non-governmental: the Welfare Children Charity or the Iran Child Foundation. The branch of this foundation in Urmia, operating independently as the “Urmia Children and Adolescents Welfare Institute” since 2014, has been responsible for building childcare facilities in Urmia Women’s Prison.

The Iran Child Foundation introduces itself as the “responsible party for launching childcare centers in women’s prisons” in seven provinces, including West Azerbaijan. However, neither the organization’s goals and mission nor its performance reports refer to the construction of childcare facilities (as far as available on the institution’s website). Consequently, information regarding the budget, timeline, and process of constructing these childcare facilities is not provided in official government reports or publications from this non-governmental institution.

Although establishing childcare facilities is officially stated as part of the activities of the Urmia Children and Adolescents Welfare Institute, information regarding the extent of financial assistance allocated budget and expenditure remains undisclosed. On the other hand, questions arise about the governmental responsibilities of some members of the board of directors of the Urmia Children and Adolescents Welfare Institute, raising concerns about this institution’s non-governmental or non-affiliated status. Alireza Mollamohammadi Zadeh, officials in the West Azerbaijan Provincial Administration and the Governor of Urmia from 2018 to 2021, and Naser Zargar, the Head of Industries and Mines of West Azerbaijan Province and Deputy Chief of Staff during Hassan Rouhani’s presidency, have both collaborated with this institution since its inception and are currently members of its board of directors.

According to available official information, the Urmia Children and Adolescents Welfare Institute (Urmia Child Foundation) established the Migrant Birds Nursery childcare facility in Urmia Women’s Prison in 2008.

In April 2019, the Islamic Republic of Iran News Agency (IRNA), citing the Director-General of Prison Affairs and Provisional and Educational Measures of West Azerbaijan Province, reported the construction of a new childcare facility near Urmia Women’s Prison. In July of the same year, the West Azerbaijan Provincial Administration’s website announced the groundbreaking ceremony for the new childcare facility. According to the news, the plan was to open the childcare center three months later, with a budget of $2000 (one billion rials[2]). However, in November 2019, the Public Relations of the Prisons Organization of West Azerbaijan Province stated that the Prison Organization, along with the Provincial Administration, the Welfare Department of West Azerbaijan, Urmia Municipality, and the Urmia Children and Adolescents Welfare Institute, had reached an agreement for the construction of a new childcare facility in Urmia Women’s Prison.

In September 2021, less than two years later, the Director-General of Prisons in West Azerbaijan Province announced that the construction of the Urmia Women’s Prison childcare facility had progressed by only 25%. He also mentioned that a budget of $20K (10 billion rials) had been allocated for the construction, of which around $4,800 (2.4 billion rials) had been spent by the time of the announcement, and an additional $1400 (700 million rials) had been allocated.

The Director-General of Prisons in the province initially stated that the childcare facility in Urmia Women’s Prison would be inaugurated and operational by mid-December 2021. However, a year later, in September 2022, the head of the country’s Prisons Organization officially opened and operated the facility. Subsequently, six months later, the National Prisons and Provisional and Educational Measures Organization’s website announced that the Urmia Women’s Prison childcare facility, previously “inaugurated” in September of the previous year, had been completed in March 2023 and equipped with a budget of $40K (20 billion rials), reaching operational status.

Urmia Women’s Prison for Children: Suffocating, Harsh, and Contaminated

Until September 2023, five mothers with their children aged one to four were held in Urmia Women’s Prison, a place described by former inmates I interviewed as an oppressive, harsh, and unsanitary environment. The exact number of pregnant women is not currently available. The Children of Imprisoned Parents International reported in its March-April 2022 report that at least ten pregnant women were being held in this prison.

Even if the prison childcare facility has been declared operational, the environment remains unsafe for children spending hours during the day and the entire night, as well as for pregnant women. A former prisoner, still in contact with current Urmia Women’s Prison inmates, informed me in July 2023 that “they had created an area in the prison yard and were holding an opening ceremony for it. However, in reality, the children of prison staff on duty are kept there, and none of the children of the inmates have used that area so far.”

The Children of Imprisoned Parents International, citing a prisoner from Urmia Women’s Prison, reported that before the “reconstruction” of Urmia Women’s Prison in 2019 and the transfer of inmates to a new location, what was known as the childcare facility was a single-room in the prison with some toys. However, these facilities are no longer available in the new prison.

The new Urmia Women’s Prison, while free from environmental contaminations like pests and insects due to its recent construction, is still considered a polluted environment. This environment is attributed to the overcrowding of inmates, limited access to restrooms, and inadequate hygiene services. According to a former inmate, the women’s section of Urmia Women’s Prison, consisting of four rooms, holds more prisoners than its capacity, a common issue in many prisons across the country. Additionally, she mentioned that each room, accommodating between 35 and 40 inmates, only had two toilets and two bathrooms.

The former inmate from Urmia Women’s Prison mentioned that there was no specific dietary regimen for pregnant women and toddlers, except for one serving of pasteurized milk for children. Human rights organizations report low quality and quantity of food in Urmia Women’s Prison. The drinking water in the prison has also been noted as inadequate, leading to health issues for some inmates, including kidney problems.

In Urmia Women’s Prison, children are not only witnesses to the violence and disputes among adults but sometimes become victims of violence themselves. Many adult prisoners struggle with the noise and commotion caused by children. Additionally, adults undergoing addiction recovery may exhibit aggressive behavior due to their challenging circumstances, affecting others, including children or their mothers. In 2020-2021, prison authorities released a child harmed by its addicted mother and gave it to the family of the mother’s spouse.

According to research by the Children of Imprisoned Parents International, drug use in the bathrooms of Urmia Women’s Prison is common, and smoking is prevalent even inside the rooms. Like other prisons, mothers and children do not have dedicated spaces. According to a former prison inmate, some mothers used to hang curtains around their beds for their children to block the light for them to sleep, but the prison authorities removed the curtains.

“Hamyaran,” the internal magazine of the Iran Child Foundation, reported in early 2011 about “arguments, disputes, and physical violence” in prison, the inconvenience caused to other prisoners by the presence of children, and the financial inability of mothers to provide essential needs for their children, such as powdered milk and diapers. The economic struggles of incarcerated mothers continue to be a challenge for some female inmates in Urmia Women’s Prison. The lack of identification documents for many children born in this prison exposes them to risks such as inadequate access to health, hygiene, and educational services.

Children in Prison: The Need for a Fundamental and Comprehensive Solution

Establishing childcare facilities in prisons is based on a non-scientific and inaccurate belief in the “necessity of children being with their mothers” without considering the prison conditions and the experiences of other countries. Until now, there hasn’t been any university study on the effects of keeping children in childcare facilities in Iran prisons, assuming the existence of standard facilities. In contrast, national and international studies on inadequate prison conditions in terms of health, education, and their adverse effects on children’s mental and behavioral aspects are available.

Experts emphasize the need to reconsider Iran’s criminal laws and reduce criminal titles as one of the ways to decrease the number of prisoners. Attention to the unfair structure of laws and wealth distribution is essential for assessing the roots of committing crimes and preventing them. Additionally, it is crucial to reiterate international legal recommendations that prisons should be the last resort for punishing “mothers” and “pregnant women.” However, alternative punishments should not unfairly deprive individuals of their rights due to poverty. When imprisonment is the only option for pregnant women and mothers, ensuring the best interests of the child and fulfilling all children’s rights, including the right to health, growth, and education, becomes crucial. Some countries have established centers to accommodate children with their mothers while maintaining security. These centers, though protected for security, do not resemble prisons. In these facilities, children, mothers, and staff receive education, and the child’s and mother’s nutrition, health, and well-being are closely monitored to prevent harm. While ongoing research examines these centers and their potential adverse effects on children and mothers, the conditions in these centers are vastly different from the violence occurring in Iranian prisons and women’s wards.


[2] We used the average exchange rate of 500,000 Rials for each dollar.