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CJCCJ/Volume 64.4 (2022)

Prison in Iran: A Known Unknown

By Nahid Rahimipour Anaraki
The Netherlands: Palgrave Macmillan. Palgrave Studies in Prisons and Penology (PSIPP). 2021. 178 p.

Prison in Iran-A Known Unknown, published as a new contribution to the Palgrave Studies in Prisons and Penology, explores the situation of 90 men and women (38 males and 52 females) in addition to the situation of their families over five years. The Iranian prison system is a core part of a legal and judicial system that is going through an exceptional revolutionary-Islamization discourse since 1979. This study applying a Foucauldian understanding of prison as an incomplete project of modernity, presents a good reading of the political, social and religious mechanisms behind the changes in the prison system of Iran.

The book provides a relatively fluent narrative on the prison system in Iran, most of which is based on the author’s field research in several Iranian prisons across the country. The author Dr Nahid Rahimipour-Anaraki while mindful of serious challenges in access to the prisons-in-Iran is sharing her specific penal, sociological and anthropological journey with some innovative analysis on the phenomena of incarceration and its developing subculture under the hegemony of prison drug networks and using drugs as a multitasking management tool, as practiced under an unusual Islamic state. She observes, interviews, and learns about not only the ordinary inmates locked up behind the walls but also members of their families, especially children and prison guards. Her close observations and qualitative interviews on the issue of incarcerated mothers accompanying their children give some fresh insights for further in-depth analysis of the Iranian prison system.

The author offers her analysis of the field research in three ways. First, she briefly highlights some structuralist and post-modernist approaches and theories related to prison and prisoner, especially regarding contemporary studies in the west that are inspired by 1979 Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison by M. Foucault. Although this part of the book lacks recent critical reviews of Foucault’s work, her references to current prison scholarships is interesting. Second, the book narrates historical events and legal interpretations of the Iranian judicial system, which generally relies on the author’s analysis from Persian sources. This section tries to provide the foreign reader with basic information about the post-revolutionary Iranian legal and judicial systems, especially criminal law. It also provides a fascinating historical review of the prisons in Iran’s last two centuries. Third, the recorded statements of prisoners from inside and outside the correction centres are the primary and innovative part of the book. This part, which is different from other parts of the book, is the product of the author’s field presence and numerous interviews with prisoners. The themes and the subsequent analyses prepared for these interviews are significant. How these themes and interviews are presented and elaborated is the product of the author’s genuine effort and mindful field investigation. Additionally, the author tries to use some international statistics and reports related to prisons in Iran or even other countries.

Another advantage of this research is its simple storytelling language for Iranian and foreign readers. The Iranian reader recalls some common understandings and reports about the deplorable prison conditions that are frequently highlighted in the public sphere. For the foreign reader, apart from the fluent narratives, some analytical explanations are provided that helps understand of the specific situation of the Iranian prisons within the bigger context of the Iranian judicial and penal system. In general, the author successfully transfers personal experiences and the inputs from the field visits and interviews to an academic text.

Yet a critical review of the book, in terms of structure and content, reveals some methodological and analytical limitations: first, although the title of the book is about prison in Iran, it is more about a limited group of prisoners and their subcultures than the institution of Iranian prison in itself. Consistent research on the institution of prison usually includes a triangle of interactions of the prison environment, prison management, and the prisoner; the author addresses the first two categories in a simplified version with many short sentences borrowed from some limited foreign sources. There is an ongoing domestic penological literature on these two aspects, but they are overlooked in the text. The author’s reliance on her limited interviews without cross-checking with similar available research from Iran does not speak a lot about the analysis of the prison system in Iran today.

Second, the book’s long introduction in 18 pages provides details of the author’s personal experiences in dealing with prison officials and prisoners. In the introduction, the reader seeks the author’s key questions and methodology, not talking about the type of government of the Islamic Republic of Iran or religious and political attitudes in the country or the attitudes of corrections officers. The introduction makes the book like a memoir, which is an objective and neutral scholarship.

Third, the emotional narration of interviews’ contents has diminished the book’s value as a standard scientific work. Sometimes the text is in the form of newspaper stories or news analysis as presented in the colourful public media influencing the readers with strange citations. In the book, we often find that the author quickly concludes from the interviews with the least critical analysis, while the statements of the prisoners should be a subset of the author’s in-depth analysis of both text and context of the interviews. It could be much better if the main points of the author’s analysis were stated in the text and the interviews sent to footnotes. In critical criminology, there is disagreement as to how much the interview with the accused, offender, prisoner, or convict is knowledge-producing in the true meaning of the scholarship.

Apart from the above, the centrality of the interviews has led to the author’s analysis being overshadowed by the individual stories/statements of the prisoners, regardless of their accuracy. In this regard, the author could try to rely on other methodologies such as statistics, inductive approaches, and aggregate processing of prisoners’ statements from other data collection methods. The interviews reflect the statements of some prisoners in five specific cities while providing a comprehensive analysis of prisons in Iran, as claimed in the title of the book, requiring a comprehensive review of all or most of prisons. Iran currently has 268 official prisons; The subcultures of prisoners in Kurdish or Lor provinces may be different from other provinces in the south and centre of Iran because Iran is a multi-ethnic society.

Fourth, despite providing additional information on prison system for the foreign reader, the book is generally accompanied by interpretations and descriptions that only the Iranian reader understands. The details of prison subcultures in the book, for instance, are more understandable for the Iranian reader than the non-Iranians. It seems the author’s focus on the words of the interviews and conversations with prisoners has prevented her from going into depth and offering an analytical piece of research.

Fifth, although the book is published in 2021, there are sometimes inaccurate references or analyses that are generally due to a lack of updates from the recent developments in the Iranian judicial and legal system. During the last three years, the prison population in Iran has sharply decreased — almost 45% compared to before 2019. This is mainly due to the new judiciary’ penal policies and executive directives. But also, the outbreak of Covid-19 in the correction centres during 2019-2020 accelerated the process. The legislator also supported this development by introducing alternatives to imprisonment and the development of new non-custodial penal institutions as well as introduction of electronic monitoring virtual tracking tags. These changes were amended in the Islamic Penal Code 2013 and its later revisions. The new penal policies have been communicated to judges’ continuous directives and decrees issued by the Head of Judiciary during 2019-2021. Hence the situation of the prison and the prisoners in Iran has changed significantly now compared to the past (i.e., a decade ago that the book covers). Published recently, it would have been helpful to consider the full range of new criminal justice developments after the approval of the Islamic Penal Code in 2013 and the criminal procedure in force in 2015. While the book is mindful of the Islamic Penal Code of 2013, the author forgets to give some refences to the development of new non-custodial institutions that in practice have reduced the prison population; the institutions include probation before judgment, open prison system, regular conditional releases and issuance of judicial amnesties, exemptions from punishments, prison leave, release under electronic monitoring and convicting to community services as an alternative to imprisonment. For example, until 2015, the majority of Iranian judges did not refer to the new institution of probation before judgment, but currently, this institution has found its way into their decisions.

Simultaneously, we cannot ignore the deteriorating economic situation in Iran that supported judicial decisions on reducing the prison population. The comprehensive reform of the Islamic Penal Code in 2013 and the provision of alternatives to imprisonment in this law (including fines, daily fines, period of free care and community services), facilitated the replacement of the classical imprisonment policies by fines. The executive branch also welcomed this change. In practice, instead of resorting to alternatives to imprisonment that required oversight and formalities, judges now welcomed the government’s approach and, to a large extent, imposed fines that led to the increased government revenues from one side and the consequent cut in prison population from the other side.

The author in the entire text sincerely tries to analyze how prisoners and their families, particularly their children, have been governed and monitored through the tortured bodies and spirits, not through various sorts of expert knowledge. Yet the book fails to address one of the core issues within Iran’s criminal justice system: confessions and their central role in the Iranian criminal justice process. The legal-judicial analysis of the torture is missing. The judges are frequently not satisfied with the evidence presented, preferring to have confessions from the accused. In most cases, confessions are the primary or only evidence presented against the accused. From a larger discursive perspective, the issue of torture is related to the underlying assumptions of the Islamic government, which views the universal human rights as something foreign to Islamic identity of the state. Although the Iranian society is quickly moving towards modernization, especially in cultural and technological aspects, it seems as long as the system of Islamic Republic evolves around its dominant hostile attitude about universal human rights standards, torture and ill-treatment will remain inside the Iranian prison system because there is a system of impunity. The system is based on the ideological affiliation and the attachment to the security sector, throughout the system that leave the vulnerable victims without any prospect of access to justice, reparations and dignity.

Lastly, it was expected that for a comprehensive analysis of the prison system, the book seriously considers the main regulatory framework of the prisons and detention centres, i.e., Executive Regulations of the Iranian Organization of State Prisons/Prison Regulations. Only a few lines in less than a paragraph (p. 49) addresses this body of rules that with the 2011 Amendment has 247 articles. The author only mentions the 2005 version.


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