Family Visitation and Telephone Calls
The behavior consistently cited by the inmates as the most distressing of all was the denial or limitation of visits and telephone communications with family. This is in keeping with the Islamic Republic’s punitive treatment of political prisoners throughout the country’s prisons.
As a number of the prisoners of the Women’s Ward are mothers, this provides prison authorities with an additional opportunity to inflict pain, given the unique bond between mother and child.
In a July 2015 letter from prison, Narges Mohammadi (who was at that time imprisoned in Evin’s Intelligence Ministry-controlled Ward 209) wrote about the anguish such denial brings: “The entire time I was inside 209, they neither allowed me to hear their voices, nor did they allow me to see [my children]. The bitterness and the sting of this ‘deprivation,’ which barred me from seeing those I hold dear, was no different than dying a slow death. I keep remembering my interrogator’s words, ‘You will pay with even more deprivations.’”
Under Iran’s State Prisons Procedures, weekly visits with family members is a right to which all prisoners are entitled, not a privilege. Yet as the following testimonies show, these rules regarding visitation are frequently outed—including between inmates who are mothers and their young children.
Moreover, in contrast to most other wards and prisons throughout Iran, where the placement of telephones for use by inmates is standard, there are no telephones in Evin’s Women’s Ward.
“In practice,” Iranian human rights lawyer Mahnaz Parakand said in a March 17, 2016 interview with the Campaign, “almost all prisoners can use public tele- phones inside their wards to contact their friends and family. Prisoners are able to purchase telephone cards inside prison in order to make their calls. But political prisoners are not offered the same public phones and access to telephones.”
The denial of this vital means of communication be- tween prisoners and their families, especially between mothers and young children, is another example of the punitive conditions inflicted upon the prisoners of the Women’s Ward.
One former prisoner reported:
There’s no telephone there. Mothers are always very worried. They only allow small children to visit every two weeks. Mothers were allowed to make phone calls to their children abroad three or four times a year. Now apparently it’s a lot less. And absolutely no domestic phone calls. When we were in prison we were very careful not to organize any group protests that would affect the mothers because they were the first ones to get punished by cutting visits with their kids. It was a cruel way of silencing the Women’s Ward.
Another former prisoner reported:
We were not allowed to make phone calls, and there were no telephones inside the ward. Only inmates whose immediate families lived outside the country, with agreement from the Prosecutor’s Office, were allowed to go to the prison’s Sentence Enforcement Unit or to the Prison’s Intelligence Unit to make phone calls.
The women themselves consider [lack of access] to phone calls as their most important issue. We really pursued the issue of access to phone calls, but we received no answers. We even wrote group letters, but they never responded.
Each inmate had one weekly visitation through the booth, which lasted a maximum of half an hour. Each person also received an in-person visit every 35 days, but each time the family had to go and file a request. As punishment, the Prosecutor’s Office would refuse visitation authorization…Some mothers were allowed a weekly visit with their under-18 children. The in-person visits generally lasted only 40 minutes.
The variable conditions relayed in the above two testimonies indicate that again, similar to many other is- sues such as the provision of food rations and heat, the actual practice of visitation was subject to the whim of the prison officials.
Another former prisoner also spoke about the denial of phone calls and visits, with her report also indicating that the exact terms of phone usage could vary, and indeed did fluctuate. The arbitrary nature of such allowances reflects the lack of clear and transparent rules regarding issues such as phone usage.
The other big problem is lack of access to a telephone. Those who have relatives outside Iran may be allowed to call their families once a month, after much pursuit of the matter.
But this is not offered to everyone. It all depends on the prison officials’ mood. They allowed me to call my family on my birthday one time. It is possible that even when there is a medical or other type of emergency with [an inmate’s] relative, a prisoner is not allowed to call them [and find out about them] between prison visits.
There was a lot of issues and stress around visitations. They only allow inmates to visit for half an hour through a glass wall each week. If your visitor forgets to bring his/her birth certificate, they are not allowed to visit. Several times, when the mother of [prisoner name withheld], who lives in the U.S., came [to Iran] to visit with her in prison, because she had left her birth certificate in the U.S., she was not allowed to have a visit with her.
For the past five years, they have not allowed the inmates in this ward to make phone calls. They don’t allow prisoners with children to make calls, either. If women who have children outside the country pleaded, they would be allowed to make phone calls once a month.
Prisoners with children under the age of nine are allowed in-person weekly visits. But the kids get a lot of stress for this. When they were still in prison, the children of [prisoner name withheld] and [prisoner name withheld] had to get transported from school to prison in a rush, which was very stressful for the kids.
A former prisoner released two years ago confirmed the long-standing nature of denied phone use and visitation issues:
For inmates who had children under the age of 18, they allowed an extra hour-long, in-person visit per week in addition to the weekly visitations, but sometimes it wasn’t enough. It was precious, but sometimes, for young children, spending one hour per week with their mothers was too little— imagine how it would be for a woman with multiple children. Some prisoners were allowed to make calls, and some prisoners were denied access to telephones. The Women’s Ward does not have telephones inside. But sometimes they allowed the women to make phone calls from the landline in the ward’s office.
The husband of Narges Mohammadi, Taghi Rahmani, corroborated these testimonies regarding the denial and fluctuating nature of phone usage in an earlier interview with the Campaign. “Narges has also not been allowed telephone calls to her children for the past three months. Ever since the children came to stay with me [in France] three months ago, prison officials have not allowed Narges to contact her children….”
Iran’s State Prison Procedures specially detail prisoners’ visitation rights. Article 182 states inmates are entitled to weekly visits with immediate family (spouse, father, mother, brother, sister, children and spouse’s parents). Article 183 states that inmates who have demonstrated good behavior can, upon approval by head of the institution or the facility’s supervising judge, have in-person visits with the above family members, while a prison guard is in attendance, and Article 185 adds that in certain cases, private visits with spouses and children, without the presence of a supervisor, are allowed. Article 188, Note 2 stipulates that each inmate has at least one visitation per week, not to last less than 20 minutes.
As such, the denial of visitation detailed in these prisoners’ accounts is in direct violation of Iran’s own laws.
Prisoners of the Women’s Ward who have been hospitalized have also been denied their family visitation rights. Article 190 of Iran’s State Prison Procedures state, “Under guidance from a physician, the Head Warden can facilitate visitations with sick inmates who are hospitalized and unable to move.”37 Yet in the above-mentioned interview with Narges Mohammadi’s husband, Taghi Rahmani, he reported that his wife had been denied her full visitation rights while hospitalized as an inmate for months.
“Family contact” is also considered a prisoner’s right—not a privilege—by the United Nations. In the UN’s Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-Custodial Measures for Women Offenders (known as the Bangkok Rules), Rule 23 states: Disciplinary sanctions for women prisoners shall not include a prohibition of family contact, especially with children, and Rule 26 stipulates that “Women prisoners’ contact with their families, including their children…shall be encouraged and facilitated by all reasonable means.”
Moreover, Rule 28 states “Visits involving children shall take place in an environment that is conducive to a positive visiting experience, including with regard to staff attitudes, and shall allow open contact between mother and child. Visits involving extended contact with children should be encouraged, where possible.”
Indeed, the United Nations explicitly urges the careful consideration of imprisonment of mothers given the unique bond between mother and young child. In Rule 58 of the Bangkok Rules, it states “women of- fenders shall not be separated from their families and communities without due consideration being given to their backgrounds and family ties. Alternative ways of managing women who commit offences, such as diversionary measures and pretrial and sentencing alternatives, shall be implemented wherever appropriate and possible.”
The Rules goes on to say (in Rule 64), that “Non- custodial sentences for pregnant women and women with dependent children shall be preferred where possible and appropriate, with custodial sentences being considered when the offence is serious or violent or the woman represents a continuing danger….”
Given that none of these women were convicted of violent crimes, but rather for peaceful dissent (which the Islamic Republic has chosen to treat as a national security crime), alternatives to incarceration—let alone full and generously interpreted visitation rights—are clearly called for under United Nations standards.