The Gohardasht Prison in the city of Karaj, also known as Rajaishahr Prison, is one of the most crowded prisons of Iran. 6000 prisoners are currently crammed into facilities with an optimal capacity of 1500. Conditions are as deplorable as one would expect under such conditions. Inmates are released into open air for no more than two-and-a-half hours per day, and they are expected to pay any and all medical and dental expenses, resulting in a large proportion of prisoners going untreated, even for serious ailments. Upon returning to the prison facility, every inmate must fully disrobe before two cameras, and any protests are met with a punitive sentence of 20 days in solitary confinement, usually accompanied by shocks from electric prods, beatings with batons, or lashes.
This abuse begins even before their imprisonment, with many cases being decided in absence of a lawyer, and many convicts being transferred from courthouse to prison with broken hands, legs, and ribs.
Gohardasht Prison also has the highest rate of executions in a country that ranks second only to China in the number of prisoners who are put to death each year. What’s more, executions in Gohardasht are carried out haphazardly and at the whims of the prison staff, so that every week prisoners wait from 8:00 AM on Monday until 2:00 PM on Tuesday, in fear that theirs will be on the latest list of names that is read off to announce who is slated for execution. Of the 6000 total prisoners in Gohardasht Prison, about half of them are sentenced to death. Approximately 250 inmates are recognized as political prisoners or prisoners, of conscience, and even about 40 of these are sentenced to death.
Along with physical abuse, the mental strain of wrongful imprisonment and arbitrary execution dates has reportedly driven most death row inmates to drug addiction. Methadone and crack cocaine are common sights in the cells, and sources from inside Gohardasht indicate that prison guards are the main source of this epidemic. One eyewitness reported that “the drugs were imported by the prison guards in one or one-and-a-half kilogram packages and were given to distributers. The former head of the prison security by the name of Faraji had this responsibility.”
The source had little to say about the guards’ exact motives for distributing drugs, but there is little doubt that it is seen as a means of pacifying and controlling an overcrowded and abused prison population. At the same time that controlled drug distribution provides guards with leverage over prisoners, it also works as a ready-made excuse for raids and crackdowns. The discovery of alcohol and drugs were cited among several conflicting explanations for a violent raid on the similarly notorious Evin Prison in April.
At the same time that control of prisoner behavior remains a serious issue for Gohardasht guards, control of the outrageous overpopulation is also a contributing factor in prison policy. Iranian law allows victims or their survivors to show mercy to a condemned man and effectively commute his sentence, though the regime authorities have the ultimate say in whether to reduce his sentence or execute him on a separate occasion. Reports from inside Gohardasht Prison indicate that during 2013, a number of prisoners were pardoned by the plaintiffs in the cases that condemned them, and yet the prison authorities successfully pushed for their hangings to be carried out anyway.
The shocking conditions in this and other Iranian prisons, along with the disturbing prevalence of capital punishment, has led numerous human rights organizations to call upon the UN and other international bodies to investigate the situation inside this facility and in the Iranian criminal justice system as a whole. International activists also call upon governments and individuals to pressure the Iranian regime to release prisoners of conscience who are imprisoned, beaten, or even sentenced to death for nothing more than organizing for workers’ rights, the rights of women, and other peaceful social causes.