COIPI envisions the children of incarcerated parents reaching their highest level of development, free from the burden of parental absence.
What Goes on Inside Vakilabad Prison’s Nursery Ward in Mashhad?

What Goes on Inside Vakilabad Prison’s Nursery Ward in Mashhad?

Hamed Farmand – This report assesses the situation of children and their mothers in Vakilabad Prison, Mashhad. Pregnant women, children, and their mothers are held in Ward Four of Vakilabad Prison, Mashhad, a place once known as Ershad Two.

This article was published on Radoo Zamaneh website in English on April 5, 2024

In this report, which continues the series of reports on the situation of children and mothers in Iranian prisons, the conditions of children, their mothers, and pregnant women in Vakilabad Prison, Mashhad are addressed. Previous reports have covered Sepidar AhvazQarchak, and Urmia.

To compile this report, in addition to referring to official sources such as the Prison Organization’s website, IRIB, and IRNA, semi-official sites like ISNA, Tasnim, and the Young Journalists Club, and websites of human rights organizations such as HRANA, and testimonies from former prisoners or those related to prisons, like Raheleh Zakaei’s memoirs published in the report of the Union for Iran, tweets from Zhila Bani-Yaghoub, a journalist, and Twitter Mahi al-Sultan were utilized. Also, reports published by the Child Foundation, which introduces itself as the authority for establishing kindergartens in Iranian prisons, and an interview with the former director of this organization by VOA, were referred to. This report, in addition to utilizing previous research from the International Foundation for Prisoners’ Children, is completed by indirect conversations with some political and ideological prisoners detained in Vakilabad Prison, Mashhad. Marzieh Mohebi, a judicial attorney who visited this prison as a supervising judge in 1998 and as the CEO of Sura Women’s Lawyers Association in 2014 and 2015, as well as Mahsa Sediri, a journalist-photographer who visited this prison in the summer of 2012 to prepare a report, shared their observations and information with the author of this report.

Hamed Farmand, an activist for children’s rights and director of the Children of Imprisoned Parents International (COIPI).

“Many women become pregnant in prison during conjugal visits with their husbands, and their children are born in prison. There are also children who are the result of men raping their mothers. These women filed complaints against their assailants but were imprisoned for adultery because they could not prove the rape, lacked the financial means to hire a lawyer, and due to the laws of the Islamic Republic, they are even at risk of stoning.”Marzieh Mohebi, judicial attorney and civil activist

According to Marzieh Mohebi, who has worked for years in Khorasan Razavi to support women, children who are arrested with their mothers or born in prison are the result of official marital relationships. Currently, more than twenty young children, without shoes and warm clothes, walk and grow up in the yard or on the dirty carpets of the section for pregnant women and children and mothers in the women’s ward of Vakilabad Prison, Mashhad, in an unsafe environment. They, along with their mothers, eat low-quality and scarce prison food and, due to their mothers’ economic conditions, are deprived of access to supplementary food. They spend most of their time in cramped, suffocating, and overcrowded rooms.

Young Children; Without Recreational and Educational Facilities, in a Suffocating and Polluted Environment

Pregnant women, children, and their mothers are kept in Ward Four of Vakilabad Prison, Mashhad, a place that was known as Ershad Two. According to current and former prisoners of this prison, this section is separated from the rest of the prison by a door, and other prisoners do not have direct contact with it. However, the conditions of this section, in terms of hygiene, food, and other facilities, are no different from the overall situation of this prison.

Ward Four of Vakilabad women’s prison has one corridor and six rooms, all sharing a common restroom. The corridor, which was tiled in 2012, is now carpeted. The rooms, according to current prisoners’ evidence and observations by Mahsa Sediri in 2012 and Marzieh Mohebi in 2014 and 2015, are similar: cramped, suffocating rooms with beds covering the entire room, accommodating mothers, children, and pregnant women.

Based on observations, at least between 20 to 30 children and mothers, along with pregnant women, reside in this part of Vakilabad Prison. According to Marzieh Mohebi, “24 people slept in one room. If one child woke up, the other 23 would wake up too. It itself was a source of conflict and noise.” Mahsa Sediri, who had entered three or four rooms closely, told me, “Upon entering the room, the stale and suffocating air and the simultaneous breathing of so many people were bothersome.” Although, according to Marzieh Mohebi in the years 2014-2015, pregnant women were kept in the general ward of the prison, at least since 2017, according to official reports, Ward Four has been considered the place for keeping pregnant women, children, and mothers. Observations by current prisoners of this prison also confirm this.

Since the yard of the quarantine ward of Vakilabad women’s prison is shared with Ward Four, through intermediaries from current prisoners of this prison, I’ve heard that in this yard, there is a welded swing and a small, broken slide. They have not observed any other play or recreational equipment for young children of this prison. The deficiencies of these children are not limited to recreational and educational needs. Marzieh Mohebi, from her observations in the years 2014-2015, said, “Whenever we asked these women about their demands, clothes, formula milk, and food were their main needs.”

Current female prisoners’ observations in Vakilabad Prison are the same: young children and mothers who must be content with the prison’s scarce and low-quality food and struggle to provide warm clothing and shoes. Fruit is only available once a week and in small quantities through the store and at high prices, and vegetables are not included in the prisoners’ food basket. Throughout these years, imprisoned mothers in Ward Four of the women’s section of Vakilabad Prison have been punished because of their poverty and social conditions. According to documents from the past two decades, most of them have been accused of theft, carrying, or using drugs. Marzieh Mohebi told me about the cases she pursued during her time as the CEO of Sura Women Lawyers Association along with other active lawyers in the association:

“There was a woman there who had stolen a pack of pasta and a pack of tomato paste and was imprisoned for six months. … We encountered several women who were imprisoned for stealing a few cans of formula milk.”

The Insistence of Non-Specialist Managers on the Existence of a Kindergarten That Doesn’t Exist

In August 2017, Fatemeh Daneshvar, the then-chairperson of the Cultural Commission of Tehran City Council, in an interview with Quds newspaper, referred to the prison environment which “is not pleasant and cheerful for children in terms of light, window dimensions, and physical space,” considered the existence of a kindergarten necessary for children to spend at least a few hours of the day and stated, “I am an advocate for the creation and construction of kindergartens in prisons and fully defend this matter.” However, Fatemeh Daneshvar neither has expertise in the field of child development psychology nor has she engaged in any executive activities in this regard. She is not the only advocate for building kindergartens to address the damages of prison on children. The country’s judicial and legal system defends this idea, and so far, billions of Tomans have been spent on constructing kindergartens in the country’s prisons, and the presence of kindergartens in many prisons has been promoted as a philanthropic act by officials.

Regarding the existence of a kindergarten in the women’s ward of Vakilabad Prison, the Tasnim News Agency reported on July 31, 2014, that “the preliminaries for launching, equipping, and constructing a standard kindergarten in 5 prisons (including Khorasan Razavi) are underway.” According to this news agency, the construction of these kindergartens is being carried out in collaboration with the Child Welfare Institute (Child Foundation). This foundation, on its website on June 10, 2015, in a news piece that was also published by the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA), wrote about the establishment of a kindergarten in Mashhad (Khorasan Razavi) and five other provinces; in addition to the Urmia prison kindergarten, which was claimed to be operational at that time. This is while the then CEO of the Child Foundation in an interview with Voice of America, broadcasted on April 22 of the same year, emphasized that apart from the Urmia and Karaj kindergartens, no other kindergarten has been established by the Child Foundation in any other prison, nor is there any plan for it. Marzieh Mohebi, who as a civil activist visited the women’s ward of Vakilabad Prison, Mashhad in 2014 and 2015, insisted that “there was no kindergarten. Children were only confined to the area around their mothers’ beds.” However, she mentioned a kindergarten where the children of the prison guards were kept by prisoners who were “exploited” to work in this kindergarten.

The contradictions regarding the existence of a kindergarten in Vakilabad Prison, Mashhad, continued in the following years. While the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA) mentioned the presence of a kindergarten in this prison in April 2018, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), in a report dated November 5, 2021, related to the visit of Anousheh Khazali, the Vice President for Women and Family Affairs, to the women’s ward of Vakilabad Prison, Mashhad, referred to “providing the basis for the establishment of a kindergarten in prison” as one of the “demands of the prison’s women’s section officials from the Vice President.” Following that, in official reports from this prison, there is no mention of the existence of a kindergarten.

The tragedy of a child’s separation from an incarcerated mother: losing a child forever

In laws, regulations, and news related to the presence of children with their incarcerated mothers, there is seldom mention of the method of separating the child from the mother and the support programs for the child and parent, including for reconnecting them after the mother’s release. Article 523 of the Criminal Procedure Code prohibits the separation of children from their incarcerated mothers until the age of two. The decision regarding the custody of children up to the age of six in prison is left to the classification council of each prison. What is mentioned in the law and most news is that after the legal age for a child’s presence in prison, children who have a family outside of prison are handed over to them, and otherwise, the child is transferred to the welfare system. The then Director-General of Children and Adolescents Affairs of the Welfare Organization announced in a news piece that at least 1,800 children whose mothers are in prison are under the care of the Welfare Organization. This figure has been on average 2,100 children between the years 2003 and 2018.

What happens to children whose mothers are released?

The Welfare Organization’s website, on January 12, 2023, quoted the General Director of Welfare in Khorasan Razavi, stating:

“The priority for children who are in welfare centers due to the lack of an effective guardian is reunification with their family. The welfare’s entire effort is to maintain contact with the parent during the stay in welfare centers.”

What happens in practice?

Marzieh Mohebi, speaking from her experience in 2014 and 2015, said:

“[In Vakilabad Prison, Mashhad] as soon as a child reaches two years of age, they are separated from the mother. If the mother does not have a family outside the prison, the child is handed over to welfare. After that, the child’s fate is uncertain. If the welfare center in the province does not have space, they send the child to the welfare of a different city without the mother’s knowledge. There are no visits arranged. When the mother is released, she has no idea how to find her child.”

Marzieh Mohebi and her colleagues, through the Sura Women Lawyers Association, during their active years, managed to help some of the released female prisoners find their children in different cities of Khorasan Razavi province. However, this is not the fate of all women and their children. Also, with the pressure on civil institutions increasing in recent years, the possibility of aiding women harmed by the Islamic Republic of Iran’s judicial system has decreased.

Moreover, it’s not only the judicial and legal system that perpetrates violence against incarcerated women and mothers and their children. The absence of a supportive system and the existence of misogynistic laws also pave the way for further harm to women through family and society. Being ostracized by the family, abandoned by their spouses, and losing their lives and children forever are experiences of a group of incarcerated women. Marzieh Mohebi told me about the fate of a woman who, after six months in prison for stealing a package of pasta and tomato paste, was released but “had no home, no child, nor a life left.”

Establishing a Rights-Based Approach in the Judicial System

If the violation of children’s rights, as well as women’s and incarcerated mothers’, is to be stopped, fundamental changes in the area of laws and the implementation of regulations need to occur. Also, a special support system must be established to prevent systematic and customary violence.

One of the serious deficiencies of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s judicial system, which is not alone in this regard, is overlooking children in the decision-making, legislation, and execution process. According to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the recommendations of experts and child rights activists, children should play a central role in the decision-making and execution path. Thus, the judicial system, before anything else, should have mechanisms to support children whose parents have committed crimes. These are, of course, assuming that the judicial process is fair and the crimes attributed are reasonable; assumptions that, in the non-independent judicial system of the Islamic Republic, are incorrect, and there is no hope for structural changes.

Featured Image: Sodeiri, Mahsa; Vakil Abad Prison; Nursery Ward; Summer 2012