All Prisoners Are Political Prisoners: Rethinking the Campaign to #FreeThemAll Beyond Borders and Beyond COVID-19

Golnar Nikpour

In late February, amid the catastrophic spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in the Islamic Republic of Iran, relatives of several of Iran’s prisoners of conscience wrote an open letter to Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi demanding the immediate release of both political and non-political prisoners in order to avoid the “enormous humanitarian disaster” of a coronavirus outbreak in Iran’s prisons. The letter articulated grave concerns regarding prisoner health and cited the spread of “extremely worrying news” about coronavirus in the country’s overcrowded prisons and detention centers. The United Nations also rang alarm bells about the potential spread of coronavirus across Iranian carceral sites, particularly noting the plight of political prisoners. In a February report, UN special rapporteur Javaid Rehman decried unhygienic and unhealthy prison conditions across Iran, claiming that these conditions had already led to the rapid spread of tuberculosis and hepatitis C among the country’s detainees. Rehman’s report revealed another disquieting fact for audiences newly sensitive to the realities of the coronavirus pandemic: the incarcerated in Iran are not given soap as a matter of course, and those who have soap have had to procure it on their own. Citing mounting prisoner anxiety over the potential spread of COVID-19 in Iran’s prisons, and the high number of political detainees in the Islamic Republic in the wake of this widescale protests this past fall, Rehman later demanded the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners in the country.

A few days after the circulation of the abovementioned open letter, amid the Islamic Republic’s bungled response to the nationwide emergency engendered by COVID-19—a situation badly exacerbated by US-led sanctions on the country—the head of Iran’s Department of Prisons Asghar Jahangir worked to assure people that his department was taking prisoner health suitably seriously. In a videoconference with top prison administrators across Iran, Jahangir claimed that Iran’s prisons were taking “extraordinary” preventative measures to ensure the health and safety of incarcerated persons and prison personnel alike. Jahangir noted expanded efforts to rigorously and continuously disinfect prisons and detention centers and to expand public health education among the incarcerated. He also outlined several further steps that the prison system would take in its efforts to block the spread of the disease. Going forward, Jahangir announced, visits would be severely limited, prison transfers would be halted, and prisoner health would be tightly monitored. Notwithstanding these lockdown measures, there is growing fear that COVID-19 might have already spread across Iran’s prison facilities. Family members of incarcerated foreign nationals have made public claims that their detained loved ones have contracted the disease.[1]This claim was subsequently withdrawn when incarcerated British-Iranian Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was released in good health on medical furlough. Some reports have stated that ward number four of Tehran’s notorious Evin prison has become a de facto corona ward. Other reports have emerged from prisons including Greater Tehran Central Penitentiary (also known as Fashuyeh) that the novel coronavirus has already ravaged that prison’s incarcerated population.[2]Some of this news has circulated either among opposition news sites or among news sites with foreign funding and has not yet been verified. As of this writing, these reports have not yet been independently verified.  

As evidence of the devastating effects of the pandemic in the Islamic Republic has mounted, with Iran suffering among the worst global COVID-19 infection and death rates to date, Iran’s government has taken far-reaching new steps in its efforts to curtail the spread of the virus across its prisons and detention centers. On 9 March, the Islamic Republic’s judiciary announced the temporary release of 70,000 of the country’s estimated 240,000 total prisoners.[3]This estimate of Iran’s total number of prisoners is from 2018 and taken from the World Prison Brief. The Islamic Republic estimates its prison population at 189,500, but it is not clear if this includes pre-trial detainees. Judiciary spokesperson Gholamhossein Esmaili later declared that the total number of incarcerated people on medical furlough in Iran has now reached 85,000, and that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei could soon grant full amnesty to 10,000 more prisoners in an effort to stem the growing tide of infection across the country. These measures, while welcome and unprecedented, are nonetheless limited in their scope. The government has announced that the medical furloughs will only last a few weeks—the initial decision granted prisoners release until early April, while a subsequent announcement by President Hassan Rouhani has extended the deadline two additional weeks—while those sentenced to terms of longer than five years will not be furloughed. There is real reason to worry that these steps will not be enough to protect Iran’s detainees or the wider public from a prison outbreak of the virus.


Yet despite the prevailing common sense that Iranian prisoners can be neatly divided into ‘political’ and ‘non-political’ categories… most of the ostensibly non-political charges for which people are detained in Iran, as elsewhere around the world, stem from self-evidently political issues linked to poverty and social difference.

As organizations and activists campaign on behalf of Iran’s political prisoners, what of the overwhelming majority of incarcerated people in Iran who are held on “non-political” charges? To consider their predicament, we must first take historical account of Iran’s carceral taxonomy before turning to detainee responses to the corona pandemic. From the founding and establishment of Iran’s modern prison system in the 1920s-1930s under Reza Shah Pahlavi, detainees have been grouped and housed in two distinct categories. Those who are referred to as “ordinary prisoners” [zendani ‘adi] comprise the vast majority of Iran’s incarcerated population, while those whom the state calls “security” prisoners [zendani amniyati] are the smaller but significant population of Iran’s political prisoners and prisoners of conscience.[4]In both groups, there are further divisions between pre- and post-trial populations, and between prisoners charged with certain classes of offense. This division perseveres not only in the institutions of the state, which has typically kept these detainees in separate quarters, but also in the political work and imagination of rights advocates, many of whom campaign principally on behalf of political prisoners. Yet despite the prevailing common sense that Iranian prisoners can be neatly divided into “political” and “non-political” categories—a logic that tacitly imagines the former as undeserving of carceral correction and the latter as criminals in need of social sequestering—most of the ostensibly non-political charges for which people are detained in Iran, as elsewhere around the world, stem from self-evidently political issues linked to poverty and social difference. In other words, the historical processes through which modern states have naturalized the notion that social issues from drug use to sex work to refugee border crossings all demand carceral solutions (as opposed to investment in mental health, public health, education, or a stronger social safety net) have themselves been the product of profoundly political processes. A brief historical comparison might help illustrate this point. In the 1980s, the nascent Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States both inaugurated policies that drove exponential increases in their respective rates of incarceration. In both countries, the majority of new detainees were arrested on drug charges. As the United States and Iran each undertook their own wars on drugs under radically different political circumstances—the former as a component of racialized Reaganite “tough on crime” policies and the latter as part of an Islamic revolutionary promise to eradicate sin and vice—increasing numbers of socially vulnerable people were captured in the dragnet.

Though the voices of Iran’s nearly quarter million “ordinary” prisoners are harder to reliably reach than that of their “security” counterparts, there is mounting evidence that detainees of all stripes in Iran are taking matters into their own hands in response to the spread of COVID-19. On Thursday 19 March, at least twenty-three detainees, most of whom were evidently being held on minor drug charges and in some cases have not yet stood trial, escaped Parsilon Prison in the city of Khorramabad in the Iranian province of Lorestan during a prisoner-led revolt. Amid a city-wide security blockade and rampant social media speculation claiming that tens of individuals had been killed in a full-scale prison uprising undertaken by hundreds of prisoners, the Lorestan Deputy of Political, Security, and Social Affairs, Mahmoud Samini, attempted to downplay the incident, claiming that only one prisoner had been killed and another injured while attempting to escape. Islamic Republic officials have revealed few details of the skirmish, maintaining only that the incident is under investigation, that no “dangerous prisoners” had escaped, that the cause of the unrest was unknown, and that authorities were confident that the escaped individuals would be captured quickly. Just one day after the Parsilon incident, governor Hamid Kashkoli of the provincial city of Aligudarz in Lorestan, whose crumbling and ill-maintained prison has been the subject of both prisoner protest and stalled government rebuilding efforts for years, announced that the city’s security forces had suppressed another major prison revolt in the province. Kashkoli, like Samini before him, claimed that the incident at Aligudarz prison was under investigation, and that the cause of the revolt was not known. In his initial statement, the governor urged people to avoid rumormongering about the causes or effects of the incident; in a later statement, Kashkoli revealed that a prisoner had in fact been killed over the course of events.

If these revolts are indeed corona-related, it would mean that Iranian detainees are among incarcerated people all over the world currently protesting dangerous prison conditions, lack of access to healthcare, and draconian new corona-inspired lockdown measures. In Bogota, Colombia, over twenty have been killed protesting poor prison conditions exacerbated by coronavirus worries. In Italy, prison uprisings in over twenty-five prisons protesting COVID-19 lockdowns have already left several dead; rather than addressing prisoner concerns, the right-wing Italian government has promised an “iron fist” response. The timing of the Iranian protests, which took place just after Jahangir’s mandate to curtail prisoner visitation and mobility rights, seems to indicate shared grievances with those of the Italian detainees.


Prison protests in Iran and beyond reveal a macabre truth about our heavily incarcerated contemporary world: inhabitants of the world’s modern prisons, detention centers, and refugee camps are uniquely vulnerable to infectious outbreaks. This grim reality has already had ruinous consequences for incarcerated populations due to infectious diseases and pandemics predating the rapid global spread of COVID-19. These concerns travel far beyond prison walls, as public health experts have long linked issues of detainee health to community health issues on the whole. Despite the outsized attention Islamic Republic prisons typically get in US media, the imminent threat of the massive public health catastrophe in global carceral sites is worryingly universal. While Iran is one of the most heavily carceral countries in the world—it incarcerates a larger number of people than all but eight countries—its per capita carceral rates are dwarfed by global powers including China, Russia, and especially the United States, who together account for about half of the world’s at least nine million incarcerated people.[5]This number does not account for the innumerable carceral sites holding refugees around the world. Yet in all of these countries, the carceral condition is both relatively new and completely man-made—before the eighteenth  and nineteenth centuries, mass-scale incarceration had not yet been established as a natural and necessary component of social life.   

African American prisoner rights activists, advocates, and scholars have been among the boldest global voices in pushing us to de-naturalize the prison and de-carceralize our world. In recent days, many of these advocates have called on the United States government to #FreeThemAll and release incarcerated people across the United States in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. To date, the United States lags exponentially and dangerously behind the Islamic Republic in releasing detainees in efforts to stem the coronavirus tide. Other nations crushed by outbreaks of COVID-19 have similarly dragged their feet in releasing large numbers of detainees. Regardless of scale, however, none of the governmental responses to COVID-19 to date have seriously addressed the underlying public health quandary of the prison as an institution: modern prisons, and other carceral sites like refugee or internment camps, are as a rule spaces conducive to infectious outbreaks with lethal consequences both for those incarcerated and for the public-at-large. In other words, when it comes to prisons and public health, COVID-19 isn’t the crisis; prisons are the crisis. Temporary releases for some, improved hygiene conditions, better access to healthcare, and efforts to release political prisoners are excellent starting points. Still, these half-measures are on their own incapable of fundamentally addressing the mammoth public health—to say nothing of the moral—calamity now facing us in an era in which more people are incarcerated around the world than ever before in human history. There is only one solution: free them all.   

Feature image: Evin Prison, Tehran

Posted on Jadalyya March 25, 2020


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