"There was so little food that we were always hungry. It was not possible to get drinking water, even with money, and we did not have hot water to take a shower," a woman who has recently been released from Qarchak prison, south of Tehran, tells IranWire.
"More than 50 people were held in six cells. An average of 10 people arrived every day, and they were not transferring anyone to the general ward because the prison wards were full."
On the morning of November 19, the prison officials decided that inmates should sleep in the corridors amid a dramatic increase in the number of detainees.
Two days later, Nazanin Keinjad, a translator and activist held in Tehran’s Evin prison that all the prisoners in Qarchak went on strike to protest the conditions inside the prison.
“You have to pay for everything”
After a long drive on a desert road, you reach the gates of Ray Shahr prison, known as Qarchak, which houses women convicted of petty crimes but also political prisoners.
Women arrested in the cities of Tehran, Shahr Ray and Varamin during the current wave of protests are also being sent to Qarchak prison.
The current number of detainees at Qarchak is estimated to be between 1,500 and 2,000. More than 450 women who have been arrested over the past two months are being held there.
Upon entering the prison, women are subjected to body searches, which, according to the newly released inmate, amounts to rape: "The female jailers would put on plastic gloves and put their fingers wherever they could."
"Before, they did not give clothes to the prisoners, but you would get a pair of underwear, a pack of sanitary napkins, a toothbrush and toothpaste upon entering the prison,” says another ex-inmate.
"But now you have to pay for everything," she adds.
"Women imprisoned in Qarchak do not have access to water and healthy food. In this prison, everything, from water to medicine, can be purchased. And if you don't have money, you are deprived of everything. The situation has become worse after they arrested protesters en masse," says a recently released prisoner.
Sanitary napkins awarded for good behavior
Qarchak was built in 2009 with seven blocks, but their number has increased to 10 over the past few years.
Each block has a capacity of less than 100 people, but more than 200 inmates are usually being held there.
Beans, lentils, macaroni with soybeans, bread, cheese and boiled potatoes make up the main part of the food distributed to prisoners.
But the quantity of food they receive is so little that they remain hungry most of the time.
Prisoners have the possibility to buy food from prison stores, but only those who are supported by their families can do that. Right after the current wave of protests erupted, the stores did not even have enough stocks to respond to the increased demand.
The women interviewed by IranWire confirm that Qarchak has no air conditioning and the whole prison smells like sewage.
Inmates have always complained about the lack of hot water in the prison, and hot water is no longer available for cleaning the body.
According to IranWire sources, women do not have free access to sanitary napkins.
"Women who cannot afford to buy sanitary napkins will get only one in exchange for good behavior, information, etc," one of them says.
A disease has spread inside the prison over the past few days, and it remains unclear whether it is Covid or influenza due to lack of medical care.
Deprived of a lawyer
Since November 2020, lawyers must register in the "electronic lawyer" system, and any arrested Iranian willing to get a defense lawyer must also register. This requirement means that many of those who have been arrested during protests are being deprived of an attorney.
"If a person is not registered in the system before being arrested, they will be deprived of the right to access a lawyer," a lawyer tells IranWire.
This lawyer says some prisons cooperate to register prisoners in the system, but not Qarchak.
The women who have been arrested in the recent protests are generally not social or political activists. Some of them are not even supported financially by their families.
According to the lawyer, some women in Qarchak have been granted bail, but their families refuse to provide money for their release.
Children alongside professional criminals
According to Iranian regulation, prisons should not house under-18s. The women released from Qarchak, however, confirm that minors who were arrested during nationwide protests are imprisoned in this prison.
According to one of these women, teenage girls are held with criminals, thieves, smugglers and prostitutes, which she says is leading to physical and sexual abuse of children by older women.